For 16 years, Taira Uematsu did about every task imaginable for the San Francisco Giants. He caught bullpens, pitched batting practice, served as a translator and a trainer and just about everything in between.
It was the ultimate grunt work — but also the ultimate dream come true.
Late last year, Uematsu walked into Gabe Kapler’s office and told the Giants manager that he was ready to assume a larger role. Not long after, Kapler informed Uematsu that he would be elevated to the major-league staff, replacing the spot vacated by Mark Hallberg, who was promoted to third-base coach when Ron Wotus retired.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around,” Kapler said. “He’s a very quiet worker, a very unassuming, not interested in the spotlight in any way, but a very effective coach. He’s great at picking up tips and tells for our side. I just felt like between Taira’s work ethic, his commitment to our process and his attention to detail that he was a good fit for our staff.”
Uematsu moved to the U.S. from his native Tateyama, Japan, after graduating high school. His mind (and his mom) told him to leave his baseball dreams in Japan; his heart (and his dad) helped put him on the path that he is realizing today, as the first full-time coach on a major-league staff who was born and raised in Japan.
On a recent road trip, Uematsu took a seat in the visitor’s dugout, placed his Fungo bat (made by the same company that supplies Shohei Ohtani with his wood) between his legs and spoke at length about his journey to the U.S., nearly two decades in the Giants organization and what might be next for the 38-year-old assistant coach, including the next barrier he wants to break.
The conversation, found below, was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Question: You’ve served many roles over your tenure here, but maybe experienced the largest shift this season, going from bullpen catcher to an assistant coach on Gabe Kapler’s staff. How has this season been different for you?
Answer: Being a coach, the responsibility is different now. I don’t know if I’m needed more or not but I feel like I have more responsibility. I’ve been learning a lot. Obviously (the salary) is better. But there’s not much difference lifestyle-wise. It was always physical tasks. I was the bullpen catcher, so catching the ball, throwing batting practice. I still did advanced scouting type of stuff starting about two years ago. But every time a pitcher threw, I had to go outside. Now I can concentrate on my work.
Q: Fans may see you on the field before the game (wearing No. 99, often with a Fungo bat in hand), but what are your responsibilities once the game starts?
A: You know how we use a lot of pinch-hitters? I throw BP like all day. All game. It’s like a batter’s bullpen. I’m actually in the batting cage during the game because there’s a limit on the number of coaches in the dugout. It’s kind of a similar circumstance (to being a bullpen catcher), but I love what I’m doing right now. When I was younger, I kind of cared about it so much, like I wanted to be seen. Now, if I can help out wherever, that’s my joy, that’s my pleasure.
Q: Both of the managers you have worked for lauded your work ethic. Bruce Bochy once dubbed you “Mr. Omnipresent.” Where does that stem from?
A: I used to work with the trainers, too. I was the first one in the ballpark and the last one to leave the field, especially in spring training. I just did whatever I could do. Growing up in Japan, It’s a totally different circumstance from here. We had to clean the classrooms and everything else in school. We had to maintain the baseball field by ourselves. If we had a game, we had to draw (foul) lines, the batter’s box, stuff like that. Basically, we had to do everything by ourselves … That’s just normal for me. I’m sure that was one of the reasons why (the nickname came about).
Q: How did you end up making the decision to come to the U.S. after high school?
A: I started thinking, basically, baseball’s not going to be my money maker. My dad was a decent player. He played all the way up to college, and he wanted me to play baseball. I wasn’t good enough to get drafted (into Nippon Professional Baseball), but I was thinking about playing in college and taking a chance to play pro ball in the future. But my mom was like, why don’t you just draw a line for now and just move on and try something else? When I was in high school, the only thing I liked to study was the English language. High school teachers told me to just go to one of the colleges and become an English major, but my mom was like, hey, why don’t you go study abroad?
Q: You wound up in Santa Barbara, then at Southern Illinois University. Is that where your journey to professional baseball started in the U.S.?
A: I didn’t think so for my first year. But I had a friend that … was the son of one of (my dad’s) clients. He went to (Southern Illinois) and invited me to come over there. I saw the college and met somebody, he used to be the lead trainer for the White Sox – a Japanese guy. He told me this was one of the oldest programs in the country to be an athletic trainer. So I was like, OK, maybe this is the way I should go. This might be the best way to get as close to being a player. I had to make a decision really fast, so I decided to come over here. We had lunch and I decided right there. I started taking the tests and started to go there the next year.
Q: Since joining the Giants as an unpaid intern in 2006, starting out as the bullpen catcher for then-Triple-A affiliate Fresno, what have been the best memories that stick out to you?
A: A few times, I felt like my dream came true. The first time was of course when I came to the big leagues in ‘08. The best memory, I think, was when I went to Japan with the All-Star team in ‘18. I had the best experience there. That was my dream, wearing a Giants jersey and working at the Tokyo Dome, that was so much fun. Tokyo Dome was the first baseball field I went to watch a game when I was a kid, when I was in like third grade. So being there, being on the field, wearing a professional baseball team’s uniform, that was awesome. That was full circle.
Q: Who did you look up to as a young player in Japan?
A: I watched (Ichiro) growing up. But my hero was Hideo Nomo. He was the one that came to the big leagues when I was in like fifth grade. I got up so early in the morning to watch his games. I saw his debut, his no-hitters. Nomo was the one, but Ichiro as well. In ‘07, when I was the bullpen catcher for the Triple-A team in Fresno. I was told to catch bullpens for the American League team for the All-Star Game. My locker was in the visiting clubhouse in San Francisco. That was the first time I met (Ichiro). I didn’t talk much, but I said hi and I took a picture with him. That was a good memory.
Q: Now that you are the first MLB coach born and raised in Japan, do you have any other goals in mind?
A: I want to make an impact on the future, being a base coach. I’m really interested in being one of the base coaches. I’ve been learning from (third base coach) Mark (Hallberg) and (first base coach) Antoan (Richardson). In spring training, I was in the base running drills. I asked questions of them. I think (coaching in the Arizona Fall League) is a great opportunity for me. That might not happen this year. Whenever there’s an opportunity – fall ball, winter leagues, whatever – I want to try it.
Q: In the meantime, I’m sure you’ll enjoy some good meals. After all, your Instagram handle is @taira99_likes_eating.
A: (laughs) I’m a good eater. I don’t eat as much as 10 years ago. I gained a little weight. I love eating. That’s one of my most favorite things. I like what my wife cooks. That’s the best thing. My buddy’s a cowboy in Oregon – he’s a Japanese guy – he owns a ranch and raises Japanese cows over there, Wagyus. Every time I see him, I get excited to eat a good steak.