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Archive for the ‘Prospects’ Category

In his debut with the Cardinals, Stan Musial saw a knuckleball for the first time. Rather than become baffled or intimidated, Musial determined what he’d have to do to succeed, adjusted his approach at the plate and attacked the pitch with a purpose.

jim_tobinSeventy-five years ago, on Sept. 17, 1941, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Musial, 20, appeared in his first Cardinals game in the nightcap of a doubleheader versus the Braves. Batting third and playing right field, Musial was 2-for-4 with two RBI in the Cardinals’ 3-2 victory.

Facing knuckleball pitcher Jim Tobin, 28, who was in his fifth season in the big leagues, Musial had a double and a single, launching a Cardinals career that would lead to his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wakeup call

Converted from a pitcher to an outfielder, Musial had opened the 1941 season with the Cardinals’ Class C minor-league club at Springfield, Mo. In 141 games combined for Springfield and Class AA Rochester, Musial batted .359 with 204 hits.

When Rochester was eliminated from the International League playoffs, Musial returned home to Donora, Pa. After attending Sunday Mass, he was taking a nap when a telegram arrived from the Cardinals, instructing him to report to the big-league club in St. Louis.

Musial walked into the Cardinals’ clubhouse for the first time on the morning of Sept. 17 and was greeted by equipment manager Butch Yatkeman, who issued the newcomer uniform number 6.

After watching the Cardinals win the first game of the doubleheader, 6-1, behind rookie starter Howie Pollet, Musial was put in the lineup for Game 2 by manager Billy Southworth.

Unforgettable flutter

In the first inning, Musial stepped to the plate against Tobin.

Recalling the moment in his book, “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” Musial said, “I’ll never forget … the challenge of the first knuckleball I’d ever seen. It fluttered up to the plate, big as a grapefruit but dancing like a dust devil.”

Musial swung and popped up weakly to the third baseman.

The next time up, Musial took a different approach. “I learned to delay my stride, cut down my swing and just stroke the ball,” Musial said.

With two on and two outs in the third inning, Musial swung at the knuckler and lined a two-run double to right-center field.

The Cardinals won, 3-2, when Estel Crabtree snapped a 2-2 tie with a walkoff home run against Tobin in the ninth. Boxscore

Said Musial: “I was a happy kid all right and pretty lucky.”

Rave reviews

In its report on the game, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch cited “some welcome help from Stanley Musial, recruit outfielder from Rochester.”

Impressed, The Sporting News called Musial “a hard hitter” who “packs a lot of wallop in his 5 feet and 11 inches and 158 pounds of muscle.”

In summary, The Sporting News opined, “In addition to his hitting ability, Musial has shown exceptional speed and defensive skill. National League pitchers can expect to see a lot of him in 1942.”

In 12 games with the 1941 Cardinals, Musial batted .426 (20-for-47) and struck out just once.

He would go on to bat .429 (18-for-42) in his career versus Tobin, according to retrosheet.org.

Previously: Cards rookie Enos Slaughter set torrid extra-hit pace

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Working with Cardinals coaches Mark Riggins and Bob Gibson after his promotion from the minor leagues to St. Louis in September 1995, Alan Benes adjusted his approach, mixing off-speed pitches with his fastball, and delivered a double-digit strikeout performance in earning his first win.

alan_benes3On Sept. 30, 1995, Benes, in his third big-league appearance, struck out 10 Pirates in the Cardinals’ 5-1 victory at St. Louis.

Twenty-one years later, Luke Weaver joined Benes and Stu Miller as the only Cardinals pitchers to achieve double-digit strikeouts in one of their first four appearances for St. Louis, according to researcher Tom Orf.

Miller struck out 10 Dodgers in his fourth Cardinals appearance on Aug. 26, 1952. Boxscore Weaver struck out 10 Brewers in his fourth Cardinals appearance on Aug. 31, 2016. Boxscore

Valued prize

Like Weaver in 2014, Benes was a first-round draft choice of the Cardinals. Benes was selected in the 1993 June amateur draft with the 16th overall pick just after the Blue Jays took pitcher Chris Carpenter with the 15th pick.

Benes produced a 17-3 record and 2.28 ERA in 30 starts in the Cardinals’ minor-league system in 1994. Limited by an injury, he was 4-2 with a 2.41 ERA in 11 starts for Class AAA Louisville in 1995 before his call-up to the Cardinals.

In September 1995, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Benes as “the most valued prize in the Cardinals’ farm system.”

Learning curve

Benes, 23, made his Cardinals debut on Sept. 19, 1995, in a start against the Pirates at Pittsburgh. He displayed an impressive fastball, but wasn’t effective. His line: 4 innings, 8 hits, 7 runs, 1 walk and 5 strikeouts. The Pirates won, 12-1, and Benes was the losing pitcher.

“He threw a few too many strikes,” Riggins told writer Rick Hummel. “He didn’t make the hitters chase some pitches and he can. That comes with experience.”

Said Benes: “I didn’t really move the ball around as much as I could have. I didn’t throw inside enough. I basically had one pitch.”

Six days later, on Sept. 25, Benes made his second appearance, starting against the Cubs at Chicago, and the results were similar to his first. Benes’ line: 3.1 innings, 9 hits, 7 runs, 1 walk, 5 strikeouts. The Cubs won, 7-0, dropping Benes’ record to 0-2.

“He didn’t get his breaking ball over,” said Cardinals manager Mike Jorgensen. “… He’s throwing hard. It’s a matter of pitching rather than throwing.”

Said Benes: “I’m not happy, but I’m not going to put a lot of stock in it. The first three or four games you’ve got to learn.”

That’s a winner

Benes was a quick study. Riggins, the pitching coach, and Gibson, the bullpen coach and former ace, worked with Benes on pitch selection and command.

In his third Cardinals appearance, on Sept. 30 against the Pirates at St. Louis in the next-to-last game of the season, Benes was dominant.

The 6-foot-5 right-hander shut out the Pirates through eight innings. He entered the ninth with a 5-0 lead.

With two outs and runners on first and third, Midre Cummings hit a double to center off Benes, driving in a run.

Jorgensen was booed when he went to the mound and called for closer Tom Henke to replace Benes. Henke struck out Kevin Young, saving Benes’ first win. Benes’ line: 8.2 innings, 7 hits, 1 run, 2 walks and 10 strikeouts. Boxscore

In his analysis of Benes’ performance, Cardinals catcher Danny Sheaffer said, “He got ahead in the count. No doubt that made a big difference. That and he pitched a little different with the early lead.”

Entering the off-season on a positive, Benes admitted, “This was a real important game for me to win.”

Three months later, the Cardinals signed his older brother, starting pitcher Andy Benes, who had become a free agent after pitching for the Padres and Mariners. In 1996, Andy and Alan Benes combined for 31 regular-season wins, helping the Cardinals to a division championship.

Previously: The story of Stu Miller and his stellar start with Cards

Previously: Unlike Lance Lynn, Alan Benes unlucky in big K effort

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When Von McDaniel joined his brother, Lindy, on the 1957 Cardinals staff and began shutting down opponents, comparisons were made to another sibling pitching duo in St. Louis lore, Dizzy and Paul Dean.

von_mcdanielFor a while during that summer of 1957, Von McDaniel, 18, created as much excitement among Cardinals fans as the Dean brothers did in 1934 when they combined for 49 regular-season wins in pitching St. Louis to a National League pennant.

Von McDaniel opened his Cardinals career by pitching 19.2 consecutive scoreless innings over four appearances.

Fifty-nine years later, another rookie right-hander, Alex Reyes, opened his Cardinals career by pitching 14 consecutive scoreless innings over six appearances.

Von McDaniel in 1957 and Pat Perry (16.1 innings in 1985-86) are the only Cardinals rookies to begin their big-league careers with longer scoreless innings streaks than Reyes.

In 2016, Reyes pitched 9.1 scoreless innings over five relief appearances, then 4.2 scoreless innings in his first start.

In 1957, Von McDaniel pitched 8 scoreless innings over two relief appearances, then 11.2 scoreless innings over two starts.

Little brother

Von McDaniel received a $50,000 bonus when he signed with the Cardinals on May 27, 1957, after graduating from Hollis High School in Oklahoma. He was placed on the Cardinals’ active roster, joining Lindy, who had received the same bonus amount when he signed with the Cardinals in September 1955 at age 19.

Lindy McDaniel made his Cardinals debut on Sept. 2, 1955. He was used primarily in relief by them in 1956, posting a 7-6 record, and joined their starting rotation in 1957.

When Von McDaniel joined the Cardinals in May 1957, scout Fred Hawn, who had signed both McDaniel brothers, told The Sporting News, “Von throws harder than Lindy.”

Fred Hutchinson, the Cardinals manager, was in no hurry to use Von. “I’ll let him get acquainted, get the feel of things and then let him mop up (in a game),” Hutchinson said.

Von was the definition of a greenhorn. Four days after he signed with the Cardinals, Von took his first train ride when the club traveled from St. Louis to Milwaukee.

Dominant debut

Von was inactive during his first two weeks with the Cardinals. Then, on June 13, at Philadephia, the Phillies led, 8-1, through four innings when Hutchinson decided the time was right for Von to make his debut.

Hal Smith, the Cardinals’ catcher, met Von at the mound and, attempting to keep things simple, told the rookie he would signal 1 for a fastball, 2 for a curve and 3 for a changeup. As Smith turned to go back behind the plate, Von said, “And No. 4 for my slider.”

Von pitched four scoreless innings, yielding only a single to Granny Hamner and striking out four. He retired the last 10 consecutive batters. Boxscore

Dodgers dazzled

Three days later, on June 16, the Cardinals were in Brooklyn to face the defending NL champion Dodgers in a doubleheader. In Game 1, the Dodgers led, 6-2, through five when Hutchinson put in Von.

Again, the rookie pitched four scoreless innings, allowing two baserunners _ Elmer Valo doubled and Charlie Neal was hit by a pitch _ and striking out five. When the Cardinals rallied for a 7-6 victory, McDaniel had his first big-league win. Boxscore

Said Dodgers slugger Duke Snider, who struck out and grounded out versus Von: “He’s real good. Got a fine curveball and exceptional control.”

Sensational start

Five days later, on June 21, Hutchinson pulled a surprise, announcing Von would start that night in St. Louis against the Dodgers. Earlier, Hutchinson had said Willard Schmidt would get the start. The manager later admitted he used Schmidt as a decoy so that Von wouldn’t lose sleep in anticipation of his first start.

Pitching before a Friday night crowd of 27,972, Von held the Dodgers hitless through the first five innings.

In the sixth, with the score at 0-0, the Dodgers loaded the bases with none out on two singles and an error. The catcher, Smith, went to the mound and told Von, “If the ball is hit to you, don’t forget to throw it to me.”

Nonplussed, Von patted the veteran on the shoulder and said, “OK, Smitty, and don’t worry.”

The batter, Valo, hit a comebacker to Von. He threw to Smith, whose relay to first baseman Stan Musial completed the double play. When Gino Cimoli followed by grounding out to Von, the rookie left the mound to a standing ovation from the energized crowd.

The Cardinals triumphed, 2-0, and Von got a complete-game shutout. He limited the Dodgers to two hits and three walks, striking out four. Boxscore

“He’s either the greatest in the league, or we’re the worst hitters,” Dodgers manager Walter Alston said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In The Sporting News, Bob Broeg wrote, “The sensational arrival of Von McDaniel to give the Cardinals a red-hot brother pitching act has created the most excitement in St. Louis since Paul Dean joined brother Dizzy to help pitch the Gashouse Gang to the 1934 pennant.”

Fast fade

The next day, June 22, Dizzy Dean met the McDaniel brothers at the Cardinals’ ballpark. “You fellows are going to go a long way,” Dean told them. “Some day you’ll win 49 games (in a season) like me and Paul.”

Von got his second start on June 27 against the Phillies at St. Louis. He didn’t allow a run in the first two innings, extending his scoreless streak to 19.

In the third, after retiring the first two batters, Von gave up a single to Hamner and a run-scoring double to Ed Bouchee.

Though Von gave up four runs in 7.1 innings, he got the win as the Cardinals prevailed, 6-4. Hoyt Wilhelm, the future Hall of Famer, earned the save with 1.2 innings of scoreless relief. Boxscore

Through his first five appearances for the Cardinals, Von posted a 4-0 record and 1.71 ERA. He finished the 1957 season at 7-5 with a 3.22 ERA in 17 games, including 13 starts.

After the season, Von got out of shape. When he reported to spring training in 1958, he had lost command of his pitches.

Von appeared in two games for the 1958 Cardinals and was sent back to the minor leagues. He soon gave up on pitching and became a third baseman, playing in the minors until 1966 but never returning to the major leagues.

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On his 25th birthday, Tom Hughes made his major-league debut as the starting pitcher for the Cardinals. His catcher that day was a 17-year-old, Tim McCarver, who was appearing in his fourth big-league game.

tom_hughesFrom there, the major-league careers of Hughes and McCarver took dramatically different paths. Hughes would appear in one more game for the Cardinals and never again would play in the big leagues. McCarver went on to play 21 years in the majors over parts of four decades (1959-80).

In 2016, McCarver remains in the game as a Cardinals television broadcaster. Hughes has a connection to the 2016 Cardinals, too.

Ruben Tejada, signed by the Cardinals during 2016 spring training to fill a need at shortstop, will become the third native of Panama to appear in a regular-season game for the Cardinals.

The first was Tom Hughes.

Panamanians in majors

Entering the 2016 season, 55 natives of Panama have played for major-league teams, according to baseball-reference.com. Two of the best were Hall of Famer Rod Carew and relief ace Mariano Rivera. Another Panamanian, Einar Diaz, was a backup catcher for the 2005 Cardinals.

Until Tejada in 2016, Hughes and Diaz were the only Cardinals players born in Panama.

For a time, it appeared Hughes would be one of the best.

Top prospect

Born Sept. 13, 1934, in Ancon, Canal Zone, Panama, Tom Hughes was the son of a Canal Zone police official, according to The Sporting News.

A right-handed pitcher, Hughes signed with the Cardinals in 1954 as an amateur free agent and was sent to the minor leagues.

Hughes had a breakthrough season in 1955, posting a 20-6 record and striking out 273 in 222 innings for Fresno of the Class C California League.

After that season, Hughes signed to play winter ball with the Chesterfield Smokers of the Panama Professional League.

The Cardinals invited Hughes to attend their early training camp for prospects at St. Petersburg, Fla., in February 1956, and assigned him to Houston of the Class AA Texas League.

Hot in Houston

After Hughes pitched a one-hit shutout against San Antonio on June 13, 1956, Houston general manager Art Routzong compared him with Cardinals left-hander Vinegar Bend Mizell.

“Tom right now is as good a major-league prospect as Vinegar Bend when Mizell was here in 1951,” Routzong said. “I don’t think Hughes is as fast as Vinegar, but he has a much better curve.”

Houston manager Harry Walker, the former Cardinals outfielder, also told The Sporting News he considered Hughes a major-league prospect.

In August 1956, with his record at 14-6, Hughes left Houston for St. Louis “to undergo a week’s therapy on his sore right elbow,” The Sporting News reported. The injury “baffled four Texas doctors.”

After being treated for what was diagnosed as an inflamed right elbow, Hughes returned to Houston and won his last four decisions, yielding one run in his final 39 innings.

His season totals for the 1956 Houston team: 18-6 record, 2.70 ERA, 223 innings and 16 complete games.

The Cardinals gave Hughes a look at spring training in 1957 and sent him back to Houston. He was 14-4 with a 2.87 ERA for the 1957 Houston team.

At your service

In October 1957, Hughes, 23, was inducted into the Army. He sat out the entire 1958 baseball season and most of 1959 while performing his military duty.

After his discharge from the Army, Hughes joined the Cardinals on Aug. 25, 1959. He hadn’t pitched in a professional game since September 1957.

The 1959 Cardinals entered September with a 61-72 record. Manager Solly Hemus decided to give the Cardinals’ prospects a look in the final month of the season.

“I saw a little of Hughes … at Houston (in 1957) and what I saw I liked,” Hemus said. “He showed a good assortment of stuff.”

Cuffed by Cubs

On Sept. 13, 1959, his 25th birthday, Hughes got the start for St. Louis against the Cubs at Chicago.

In the first inning, Hughes yielded a two-run single to Ernie Banks.

In the third, Banks hit a two-run home run and Irv Noren hit a solo home run, giving the Cubs a 5-0 lead. Hughes was relieved by Bob Duliba with two outs in the third. The Cubs won, 8-0, and Hughes took the loss.

Hughes’ line: 2.2 innings, 5 hits, 5 runs, 2 walks and 1 strikeout.

McCarver, batting leadoff, got his first big-league hit in that game. Boxscore

A week later, on Sept. 21, Hughes started against the Cubs at St. Louis. This time, veteran Hal Smith was his catcher. The results, though, were about the same.

Hughes retired the Cubs in order in the first and the Cardinals scored a run off Glen Hobbie in the bottom half of the inning.

In the second, Banks led off with a triple and scored on Walt Moryn’s groundout. Bobby Thomson singled and scored on Sammy Taylor’s double, putting the Cubs ahead, 2-1. After Al Dark singled, moving Taylor to third, Hemus replaced Hughes with Ernie Broglio.

Broglio fanned Hobbie for the second out, then yielded a RBI-single to Tony Taylor and a three-run home run to George Altman, giving the Cubs a 6-1 lead. Four of the runs were charged to Hughes.

The Cubs won, 12-3, and Hughes again took the loss. Boxscore

In two games for the Cardinals, Hughes was 0-2 with a 15.75 ERA.

After playing in the minor leagues in 1960 and 1961, Hughes’ pitching career was finished two years after his major-league debut.

Previously: How Tim McCarver became a Cardinal at 17

Previously: Ernie Banks and his greatest hits against Cardinals

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Brock Pemberton played in one of the most bizarre games involving the Cardinals. He also played for one of the most bizarre Cardinals affiliates. Yet Pemberton never played for the Cardinals.

brock_pembertonPemberton, a switch-hitting first baseman, got his first big-league hit against the Cardinals while pinch-hitting for the Mets in the bottom of the 25th inning in a 1974 game that started on the evening of Sept. 11 and ended on the morning of Sept. 12 at Shea Stadium in New York.

Two years later, Pemberton was traded by the Mets to the Cardinals and was assigned to their Class AAA affiliate, which had relocated from Tulsa to New Orleans.

As the everyday first baseman for the New Orleans Pelicans, Pemberton and teammates such as future big-league managers Tony La Russa and Jim Riggleman played for the worst team in the American Association before sparse gatherings in the cavernous Superdome.

That 1977 season with New Orleans represented Pemberton’s only year in the Cardinals’ organization.

Pemberton died Feb. 17, 2016, at 62. His Cardinals connections are recalled here in tribute.

Mets prospect

After Pemberton graduated from Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., he signed with the Mets, who had selected him in the sixth round of the 1972 amateur draft.

Pemberton established himself as a premier prospect. He had 31 doubles for Class A Pompano Beach in 1973 and 37 doubles for Class AA Victoria in 1974.

In September 1974, the Mets called up Pemberton, 20, to the big leagues. On Sept. 10, in his first big-league at-bat, he struck out while pinch-hitting against Expos reliever Dale Murray.

Early morning magic

The next night, the Cardinals faced the Mets and staged an epic endurance test.

With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, the Cardinals’ Ken Reitz hit a two-run home run off Jerry Koosman, tying the score at 3-3. Neither team scored again until the 25th when the Cardinals’ Bake McBride scampered home from first after an errant pickoff throw from pitcher Hank Webb.

Sonny Siebert retired the first two Mets batters in the bottom half of the 25th before Pemberton, pinch-hitting for Webb, singled for his first big-league hit.

When the ball was removed from the game so that Pemberton would have a keepsake, Mets pitcher Tom Seaver quipped from the dugout, “Don’t give it to him. It’s the last ball we’ve got left.”

Siebert ended the drama by striking out John Milner. Boxscore

Time for change

After the 1974 season, the Mets acquired Joe Torre from the Cardinals and projected him to be their first baseman.

“Now we don’t have to rush the kids,” Mets manager Yogi Berra said.

Wrote The Sporting News: “One of the kids Berra had in mind is Brock Pemberton … Pemberton is regarded as one of the finest hitting prospects in the New York organization.”

Pemberton batted .297 for Class AAA Tidewater in 1975 and got another September promotion to the Mets. In 1976, Pemberton batted .290 for Tidewater.

The Mets, though, appeared set at first base with Milner.

On Dec. 9, 1976, the Mets sent Pemberton, 23, and minor-league outfielder Leon Brown to the Cardinals for minor-league first baseman Ed Kurpiel.

All that jazz

A. Ray Smith, owner of the Cardinals’ Class AAA affiliate at Tulsa, had moved the franchise to New Orleans after the 1976 season. Smith expected a big-league franchise would relocate to New Orleans and he wanted to be in a position to get in on that action.

New Orleans had been without a minor-league franchise since the 1958 Pelicans were the Class AA affiliate of the Yankees.

Smith leased the Superdome, which seated 53,000 for baseball, for $1,000 a game and tried to market New Orleans as a baseball town.

On April 30, 1977, the day of the Pelicans’ first home game, “horse-drawn carriages, jazz bands and baseball old-timers paraded through downtown New Orleans to the Louisiana Superdome,” The Sporting News reported.

Among the former players on hand to sign autographs and take part in the parade were Stan Musial, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Paul Dean.

La Russa (an infielder in his final season as a player), Ken Oberkfell and Pat Scanlon hit home runs for New Orleans in the home opener, but Omaha beat the Pelicans, 13-8.

Manager prep

In June, Pelicans manager Lance Nichols took a leave of absence to receive treatment for lymphoma. La Russa was named interim manager and led the Pelicans to three wins in five games.

In the book “Tony La Russa: Man on a Mission,” Oberkfell said of La Russa’s first attempt at managing: “He was totally prepared. He managed those games as if he were the fulltime manager and it was his team.”

The 1977 Pelicans’ claim to fame is grooming two big-league managers.

Riggleman, who played third base and hit 17 home runs for New Orleans, became a Cardinals coach (1989-90) for Whitey Herzog and manager of the Padres, Cubs, Mariners and Nationals.

La Russa became a Hall of Fame manager of the White Sox, Athletics and Cardinals. He ranks third all-time in wins.

One and done

Pemberton hit .241 with 41 RBI in 113 games for the 1977 Pelicans. He hit the same number of home runs as La Russa: three.

The Pelicans finished with the worst record in the American Association at 57-79. Their total home attendance was 208,908.

With the Cardinals pressuring to have their Class AAA club closer to St. Louis, Smith relocated the franchise from New Orleans to Springfield, Ill., after the 1977 season.

Smith also joined a group of investors who sought to entice the Athletics of the American League to move from Oakland to New Orleans. The effort, however, failed and New Orleans was without a baseball team in 1978.

The Cardinals, committed to Keith Hernandez as their first baseman, cut their ties with Pemberton and went with Dane Iorg as their Class AAA first baseman at Springfield in 1978.

Previously: How Bake McBride and his mad dash led to a 25-inning win

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In 2002, when the Cardinals signed their first Asian-born player, outfielder So Taguchi of Japan, the results weren’t immediately favorable. Taguchi experienced demotions and failure before he adjusted to American professional baseball. To his credit, Taguchi persevered and developed into a productive major leaguer who contributed to championship teams.

so_taguchi2Fourteen years later, in 2016, the Cardinals signed their first Asian-born player since Taguchi, relief pitcher Seung Hwan Oh of South Korea. Like Taguchi in 2002, Oh is 33. Nicknamed “Final Boss” and “Stone Buddah,” Oh is the all-time saves leader in Korea.

If Oh is as determined as Taguchi was to become a dependable major leaguer, the Cardinals will benefit from the signing.

New day

An award-winning fielder, Taguchi was a 10-year veteran of the Japan Pacific League when he rejected two multi-year offers to remain in Japan, deciding instead he wanted to test his skills in the United States.

An agent, Alan Nero, arranged through an international scouting service for Taguchi to work out for big-league clubs in Arizona in November 2001. Two Cardinals scouts, Joe Sparks and Marty Keough, attended the workout and filed glowing reports, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The Yankees, Rangers and Diamondbacks made offers to Taguchi, but the Cardinals’ proposal was the best: a $600,000 signing bonus and a three-year contract with a base salary of $1 million per year.

When the Cardinals announced the deal in January 2002, Taguchi became the third Japanese position player to sign with a big-league club in the United States, joining outfielders Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners and Tsuyoshi Shinjo of the Giants.

Bill DeWitt, owner of the Cardinals, hailed the signing of their first Asian-born player as “a new day for the organization.”

Leap of faith

Entering spring training, the Cardinals had decided to move Albert Pujols from left field to third base. Taguchi was seen as a candidate for the open outfield spot.

Though neither general manager Walt Jocketty nor manager Tony La Russa had seen Taguchi play, La Russa said, “We trust our scouts.”

Jocketty said it was “very possible” Taguchi would be the starting left fielder for the 2002 Cardinals. A more cautious La Russa said, “We’ll see where he fits in the mix.”

Taguchi, who asked for uniform No. 6., the same he had worn in Japan, settled on No. 99 after being told No. 6 had been retired in honor of franchise icon Stan Musial.

Placido Polanco, Kerry Robinson, Al Martin, Eli Marrero and Eduardo Perez were Taguchi’s competition for the starting left field job.

“I absolutely feel at this stage of my career I can develop more and be an even better player,” Taguchi said.

He told Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch he accepted less money to play in the United States than he would have gotten to stay in Japan because “there are some things that matter more than money. I wanted to measure myself.”

Overmatched

After observing Taguchi in spring workouts and intrasquad games, La Russa said, “He’s a solid defensive player who knows how to run the bases. The question about him is how well he hits.”

Said Jocketty: “We’re not expecting him to hit home runs. We think So truly does the little things to help win a game.”

Once exhibition games began, Taguchi struggled. He went hitless in his first 14 exhibition game at-bats and never recovered.

Taguchi was batting .125 (4-for-32) in the exhibition season when Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch wrote, “The Taguchi experiment has been a huge mistake … He has seemed like a high schooler in being overmatched by ordinary pitchers.”

Strauss noted that Taguchi “never drove a pitch as far as the warning track in batting practice.”

Before an exhibition game with the Orioles, La Russa had a long conversation with Taguchi in the dugout and informed him the Cardinals wanted to send him to Class AAA Memphis. Taguchi had an escape clause in his contract that allowed him to become a free agent rather than accept an assignment to the minors. He impressed the Cardinals by agreeing to report to Memphis.

“I am going to stay to see this through,” said Taguchi, whose spring training batting average was .146 (6-for-41) at the time of his reassignment. “I want to play in St. Louis. I want to play for this organization. I want to play for Tony La Russa.”

Said La Russa: “He believes he can play in this league and is prepared to show it.”

Champion Cardinal

After demoting Taguchi, the Cardinals decided to open the season with Pujols in left field and Polanco at third base.

In June 2002, Taguchi was called up to the Cardinals and made his big-league debut against the Mariners and his former Japan teammate, Suzuki, in Seattle. Taguchi appeared in four games for the Cardinals before he was sent back to Memphis.

In August, Taguchi was dropped a level to Class AA New Haven.

Taguchi fought his way back, hitting .308 in 26 games with New Haven. He was called up to the Cardinals in September. In 19 games with the 2002 Cardinals, Taguchi hit .400 (6-for-15).

Showing steady improvement, Taguchi played six years with the Cardinals, batting .283. He helped the Cardinals win two National League pennants (2004 and 2006) and a World Series championship (2006).

In eight seasons in the big leagues (Cardinals, Phillies and Cubs), Taguchi hit .279. He had a .331 career batting average (101-for-305) with runners in scoring position.

Previously: Is Daniel Descalso as good in clutch as So Taguchi?

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