Following idol, Tabata has room to grow
Young right fielder feels at home in city Clemente owned
BRADENTON, Fla. -- As far as Jose Tabata can recall, he has cried only twice in his adult life. Two times that he will admit to, at least.The first tears came on July 26, 2008, when the New York Yankees dealt him to the Pittsburgh Pirates. "When I was 5 years old, my father told me, 'One day, you'll see, you will play for the Pittsburgh Pirates.' And I said, 'What's that?' So when I was traded," Tabata recalled, "I cried a little bit. My father thought it was unbelievable. My whole life changed." But not as much as it did on the evening of Aug. 17, 2011, when Tabata looked at the starting lineup posted on the wall of the Bucs' clubhouse and saw, "1. Tabata RF." After 174 Major League games, most of them in left field, Tabata was finally about to roam in front of the 21-foot-high Clemente Wall, playing in the footsteps and in the vibes of his childhood hero more than he had before.
Roberto Clemente had been another holy topic in the Tabata Venezuelan household, where his padre continually enthralled young Jose with tales of the outfielder and heroic humanitarian, predicting Tabata would follow in the Hall of Famer's footsteps. Literal fulfillment of that destiny was a little too much."When I saw that lineup with me in right field," Tabata said, "I again cried a bit." So there you have it, the only events that have been able to bring Tabata to tears (not counting the possible pain of getting that Clemente tattoo on his chest). Although he had often spoken of hoping to make an appearance in right field, that Aug. 17 realization of the dream wasn't a one-time ceremonial gesture. Right field became Tabata's permanent home, for two reasons: While Tabata had been disabled with a bruised right hand, Alex Presley had made himself productively at home in left, and Tabata within days signed a contract extension that could keep him in Pittsburgh through 2019. Naturally, that deal was consummated on Aug. 21. Tabata can thus regularly honor The Great One with his play -- which, barring one notable exception and at the risk of blasphemy, thus far has remarkably paralleled Clemente's career gateway. The exception is Tabata's gratitude for getting to play PNC Park's right field because "it is actually shorter [than left], so I'm more comfortable, since I don't throw the ball too hard," something that hardly was a problem for Clemente. In their first two seasons at comparable ages, Clemente hit .285 and scored 114 runs, hitting a home run every 85 at-bats, while Tabata enters his third season as a .284 hitter, having scored 114 runs and hit a home run every 92 at-bats. A little eerie, but the real story is where Tabata goes from here. "I'm getting to feel comfortable in right field," said Tabata, who has worked extensively with Luis Silverio, the Bucs' first-base coach who doubles as the team's outfield coach. "Now that it's my regular position, I've been practicing a lot. "I have also been working hard on my legs, both in Venezuela before Spring Training and then in Pirate City. The whole body is important, but for me, the legs are very important," added Tabata, who appears to have been replaced by Presley atop the lineup, too, but sees his role as the same. "The most important thing for me is to get on base," Tabata said, "and to score a lot of runs. I'm the guy who has to get on base. Power is not too much my game." It will have to become a bigger part if Tabata wants to take his place among the game's elite right fielders, a power position. The 11 who played 100-plus games there last season hit an average of 23.5 home runs. At 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Tabata has a potential power-hitter's build. All he needs is the confidence and quicker pitch recognition that comes with experience. And, maybe, a little bit of Harry Walker. Clemente was also regarded as a "soft" hitter even a decade into his career. His response to a request by Walker, who had succeeded Danny Murtaugh as the Pirates' manager, is part of his legend. In Walker's first season, 1965, Clemente had won his third batting title with an average of .329. But Walker was dismayed by how little he impacted the offense, with a mere 10 homers and 65 RBIs in 589 at-bats. So Walker flat-out called on Clemente to provide more firepower, and in Walker's last two seasons as manager, Clemente totaled 52 homers, 229 RBIs -- and still a .336 average. Tabata, for whom Clemente has clearly been a powerful influence, could develop that influential power, and this story would get even better.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.