Professional baseball in Japan dates back to the 1930s, and the current major league - Nippon Professional Baseball - has been around since 1950. But until the mid '90s, the Japanese players in the league were considered to be below major league quality, much like the washed-up former sluggers who also populated the league.
That all changed in 1995 when 26-year-old Hideo Nomo exploited a loophole in NPB rules by "retiring" from the Kinetsu Buffaloes and signing a contract with the Dodgers. He was an instant phenomenon, striking out more than eleven batters per nine, starting the All-Star game and winning Rookie of the Year.
At that point, the narrative shifted to allow that the very best of Japanese pitchers might be major league quality, and a half-dozen or so more crossed over as MLB and the NPB ironed out a posting system to compensate Japanese teams for lost players. Then, before the 2001 season, the Seattle Mariners utilized the new posting system to pay $13 million for the right to negotiate with Orix Blue Wave Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. When Ichiro found the same immediate success as Nomo had, the race was on to sign Japanese position players as well.
And so it was that in January of 2002 - the offseason after Ichiro won both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors - the Cardinals signed his former outfield teammate on the Orix Blue Wave, 32-year-old So Taguchi. GM Walt Jocketty admitted at the time that he had never seen Taguchi play, and told the Post-Dispatch he was "flying blind" when he signed the 3-year, $3 million deal. But a Cardinals scout who had seen Taguchi play likened him to "Jason Kendall with less power", and suggested his bat control could make him a viable #2 hitter.
Taguchi made his first trip to St. Louis that January to appear at the Winter Warmup. When fans recognized him in the lobby of the Millennium Hotel and asked for his autograph, his wife Emiko - a former television reporter who spoke fluent English - asked them to please also come to the Winter Warmup, because he was worried that nobody would show up in his line.
After a couple months in the minors, Taguchi made his MLB debut on June 10. He appeared in four games, one as a starter and three as a defensive replacement, did not get a hit, and then was sent back down. He returned when rosters expanded and in his first at-bat back in the majors, pinch-hitting against the Cubs in the 2nd inning after a Chuck Finley implosion, Taguchi singled for his first major league hit.
Taguchi spent much of 2003 in the minors as well, and when he was in the majors he mostly appeared as a defensive replacement - making just 59 plate appearances in 43 games. He played all three outfield positions regularly, and even made a few appearances at second base, because Tony La Russa would play literally anybody at second base.
From 2004 to 2007, Taguchi was the primary outfielder on the Cardinals bench, averaging 330 plate appearances per season. His personality - which was universally considered to be incredibly gracious - matched his role on the team. Need a defensive sub? A pinch hitter or runner? A fill-in for an injured starter? So Taguchi was your man.
While he would have always been notable as the first Japanese-born Cardinal, So Taguchi's career would have been fairly forgettable and workmanlike... were it not for a few big moments. And strangely enough for a guy who only hit 21 career home runs, at least three of those long balls were very memorable.
July 20, 2004
In what is sometimes called "the Pujols game", as an allusion to "the Sandberg game," the Cardinals came back from an 8-2 deficit to defeat the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Pujols three homers were the headline, but in the 8th inning, with the score tied at eight, it was So Taguchi's blast onto Waveland Avenue which gave the Cardinals the go-ahead and ultimately winning run.
In the Division Series vs. the Padres, Taguchi had just one plate appearance - as a pinch-hitter in Game 3. Down 0-2, Taguchi fouled-off the next two pitches. Then, on the 5th pitch of the at-bat, he homered off Scott Linebrink, the only run in a Cardinal loss.
Of course, The Big One came in Game 2 of the NLCS vs. the Mets. Taguchi entered the game as a defensive replacement for Chris Duncan in the 8th inning. Leading off the 9th in a tie-game, Taguchi faced Billy Wagner, as everyone waited for the real battle, with Albert Pujols on-deck. It was only Taguchi's 2nd at-bat of the postseason. Just as in his previous at-bat, he went down 0-2, then stayed alive by fouling off pitches, eventually working a full count.
On the 9th pitch of the at-bat, Taguchi yanked a 98-mph fastball over the left-field wall of Shea Stadium. The Cardinals would tack-on two more and win, 9-6.
After the 2007 season, Taguchi would sign with the Phillies and then the Cubs, making his last major league appearance in 2009. But he then returned to Japan for two more seasons with Orix Blue Wave, retiring after the 2011 season at the age of 41.
Taguchi is currently living in Japan, where he is poised to become a manager next season. But he says his dream is to become the first Japanese manager in Major League Baseball, and Tony La Russa thinks it could happen:
". . . he was so impressive and made such a reputation when he was in the States, that when the timing is right a number of organizations that knew him personally like the Cardinals and some of us with the Diamondbacks, we would be very interested in him."