In the fifth inning of a Cardinals-Reds game at Cincinnati on June 20th, the home teams Rich Aurilia drove a ball to the deepest part of Great American Ballpark, only to have the St. Louis centerfielder leap above the fence and snag the would-be homer two feet over the yellow stripe. Having been vexed by six years of Gold Glove play from the Cards Jim Edmonds, Cincinnati fans may have been less than staggered by the gem. Alas, Edmonds was on the bench this night. The catch was made by So Taguchi.
Playing his fourth season on American soil, and his first full year in the major leagues, Taguchi has come to represent a unique prototype for the value Memphis Triple-A franchise delivers its parent club up the river in Missouri. When he arrived in 2002 as a 32-year-old veteran of Japans Pacific League, Taguchi was overmatched, not only by the big-league arms he faced in his first spring training, but by Triple-A pitching as well (he was demoted to Double-A New Haven for 26 games that summer). Having been a solid, if unspectacular, player for 10 seasons in his native country -- he won five Gold Gloves for the Orix Blue Wave and was a teammate of Ichiro Suzuki -- Taguchi had signed a three-year, $3 million deal with the Cardinals, making him considerably wealthier than most of the Memphis teammates who were outplaying him on a daily basis. But his training had just begun, and he proved every bit as patient as the organization giving him his chance in baseballs homeland.
The highlight of Taguchis first season as a Memphis Redbird actually happened before the season officially began, when he drilled a home run to tie (yes, tie) an exhibition game with the Cardinals at AutoZone Park. He went on to hit .247 in 91 games, all the while playing a solid centerfield for a mediocre (71-71) ball club. The 2003 campaign wasnt much more productive, Taguchi hitting .256 but only driving in 24 runs in 90 games. He got his first significant playing time in St. Louis, and the bright lights did him well. He hit .310 with 13 RBIs in only 54 at bats.
Last year, the final season on his big contract, Taguchi was a Cardinal first, with merely 17 games played for Memphis. Backing up Edmonds and Reggie Sanders in the St. Louis outfield, Taguchi hit .291 over 109 games. He defined role player off Tony LaRussas bench, executing sacrifice bunts and entering games as a late-inning defensive replacement for a club that won 105 games and the National League pennant. Having hit .258 over 198 games as a Triple-A player, Taguchi has turned himself into a .285 hitter in 241 games as a big-leaguer.
Triple-A baseball is a short way station for ballplayers like J.D. Drew, Albert Pujols, and Yadier Molina. By the time blue chips like these cut their teeth with a year or two of the lower minor leagues, their skills are sharpened enough to take on the challenge of major league opposition. Its the veteran bush-leaguer who will ply his trade at AutoZone Park, patiently hoping for a roster fluke (or injury) with the big-league club that will allow him the long-awaited chance to play in The Show. (See 30-year-old Scott Seabol for this years shining example in the Cardinals organization.)
What makes Taguchis rise so impressive is that it took place ten years after such progress should be seen. A 22-year-old ballplayer starts checking his baseball clock for just how much time he has left before seeking nine-to-five employment. The 32-year-old Taguchi? The only luxury he had was the big contract (and riches already earned in Japan). He wasnt going to catch any breaks in figuring out a Greg Maddux slider just because he was a member of Gen X.
Sitting in the terrace level at Busch Stadium June 24th as Taguchi came to bat for the first time, I overheard a nearby fan tell his buddy, He aint no Matsui. (The reference was to the New York Yankees Japanese slugger, first name Hideki.) Two innings later, Taguchi homered over the leftfield wall to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead over Pittsburgh they wouldnt relinquish. He then hit a two-run shot in the eighth inning. Each time, 48,000 fans in red demanded -- and received -- a curtain call. Welcome to The Show, So. And at least for a night, have a seat, Hideki.