Safe at third

When Fernando Tatis' game struggled, he kept his head down and his mouth shut

Fernando Tatis didn't say a word as he stripped out of his civvies and put on his batting-practice blues. The normally talkative young man was unusually glum and silent, lost in a funk and in a hurry to get to the field to take some practice swings in the hours before the Texas Rangers were due to face the New York Yankees in the final game of a short, two-game series.

Out on the Ballpark in Arlington grass, out in the 100-degree temperatures that turned a beautiful early May day into an omen, Tatis hoped perhaps he would find what he had been missing all season: the perfect swing, the home run...hell, the base hit. He hustled to the field alongside Juan Gonzalez, the league leader in runs batted in; perhaps Tatis hoped, as he and Gonzalez brushed shoulders exiting the clubhouse, that some of that luck and power would rub off.

Outside, Tatis and Gonzalez trotted together toward the outfield; they played catch, not saying a word to one another, while their teammates avoided the oppressive heat by seeking shelter in the dugout. A few minutes later, Tatis was in the batting cage, skying soft pitches to right, lining hard hits between the gaps, working on his once-perfect swing. His eyes were hidden behind reflective shades, and when future owner Tom Hicks and Roger Staubach came over to the cage to watch a little BP, Tatis did not pay them any mind. Over to the side, manager Johnny Oates answered a question about his young, struggling third baseman and his inability to put lumber to leather.

"Hitting is about comfort," Oates said, his arms crossed. "So we make minor modifications. We'll give him every chance."

On a team of young-man superstars (namely, Puerto Rican countrymen Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez), anonymous heroes (Rusty Greer and Kevin Elster), and weary veterans hoping to catch a second wind in the steamy Arlington breeze (Will Clark and Bobby Witt), Fernando Tatis is a mere child. When Tatis was 10 years old in 1985, Will Clark was drafted by the San Francisco Giants. Now, if one is to believe the cynics prematurely nailing the lid shut on Clark's coffin, they are at opposite ends of their careers: Clark, an oft-injured vet on his way down; Tatis, a 23-year-old star in the making.

On March 31, Tatis was the only rookie on the starting-day lineup, this being his first full season in the big leagues. Yet, until last week, Tatis didn't even know if he had the job. It was his to lose at the beginning of the season, and suddenly, inexplicably, it looked as though Tatis might have misplaced it somewhere. The rising star was falling quickly, right beside his batting average.

"I feel so happy, because we are in first place," he said last week. "Those guys are unbelievable, and it makes me feel great playing with those guys. I feel great when we are in the field. It's like, I don't know, great. But it's tough when you see all these guys hitting over .300. It's tough. You gotta follow those guys, and it's hard. But everybody has talked to me. Everybody is worried about me, because they know I can hit, that I can make it. They told me to relax, not to worry about it, just to swing the bat, and that made me feel unbelievable."

Tatis was in a no-win situation when called up last year to play the final 60 games of the 1997 season. He was a nobody kid from Double-A Tulsa, expected to take the place of a longtime Rangers favorite, Dean Palmer, whom general manager Doug Melvin traded away rather than grant him a big-money contract extension. Palmer, who was drafted by Texas in 1986, was frustratingly inconsistent, an error-prone power hitter who could hit a grand slam and then give back the runs by bobbling a routine grounder to third.

In 1996, Palmer came back from a freak injury (in June '95, he ruptured a tendon in his left bicep during a swing) to belt a career-high 38 home runs and help turn the laughingstock Rangers into American League West champs. Yet Melvin considered Palmer high-priced and expendable, and in August of last year, with Palmer batting only .278, 55 RBIs and just 12 homers, the GM traded him to Kansas City for Tom Goodwin, a speedy center fielder and, at the time, an iffy leadoff man.

Tatis came here with nothing to lose and everything to prove. He made his mark quickly enough, sending one deep in his second game; the kid could hit, smashing eight home runs in 223 at-bats--which amounted to a dinger every 29th at-bat. But that was to be expected: In Tulsa, where he played 102 games, his average was a stellar .314, and he had power in those thin young arms, knocking in 24 homers and 61 RBIs. After being called up to Arlington, Tatis drove in 29 more runs, an average of almost one every other game. He had promise; he was a threat.

"Last year, it was pretty easy for me," Tatis says now. "I would get a base hit almost every game, and I could play relaxed. It was wonderful."

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