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."

But somewhere between last season and last month, Tatis lost his rhythm; suddenly, he couldn't hit a watermelon with a log. He watched as his batting average dropped at the beginning of May to .187, the lowest on the team by more than 50 points. The very first day of the season, against the Chicago White Sox, he went 0-fer at the plate, four times up and four times down; by the end of April, against the Minnesota Twins, his average was 13 points below .200. After 81 at-bats, he had gotten a hit only 14 times and driven in a mere seven runs.

Having started the season as manager Johnny Oates' everyday third baseman, Tatis suddenly found himself sharing the position with newcomer Luis Alicea, who spent last season starting at second and third for the Anaheim Angels. Until last week, Tatis hadn't played in back-to-back games since April 23-24, against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Kansas City Royals. The prospect of the future had, suddenly, become part of a two-man platoon.

"I was surprised," Tatis says of Oates' decision to bench him during the slump. "I was surprised. I talked to [Oates] every day, and he told me every time, 'I believe in you, you're going to be the third baseman.' He told me to relax, enjoy it, and be happy every day."

Rangers batting coach Rudy Jaramillo says Tatis' problems are both mechanical and mental. He points to Tatis' age and inexperience at the major-league level and says that he began slumping when pitchers discovered they could get him out with fast balls in and breaking balls away. Jaramillo discovered that Tatis had begun shifting his weight when at the plate, which caused him to lunge for pitches long after they'd blown by him. So he moved Tatis' hands on the bat and told the young hitter to swing the bat quicker; Jaramillo also squared Tatis' left shoulder to the pitcher, trying to get him to hit the ball to right more often.

"The ball's been beating him, and he doesn't recognize it," Jaramillo says. "When he transfers his weight so fast, he's about 70 percent out front, versus being 60-40 and then reacting. That's where we're at, really. He's a tough kid and held his head up here. Most people would be a headcase, and that's why I really believe he can hit up here, because he's shown me so much mental toughness through this hard time. It's all mental. He believes in me, and we have a good relationship. We trust one another. I'm real positive with him. I give him input and show him the films, and we just go from there. I'm patient with him. If he keeps an even head, it's going to come, because early in BP he does great. Now he has to carry it into the game."

Which he did against the Yankees that very May 6 night, though his small accomplishment was lost in the 15-13 defeat that came at the end of a four-hour-six-minute marathon that, at one point, found the Rangers down nine to nothing. Gonzalez, not Tatis, was the star and scapegoat that night, smashing a three-run homer and pouting like a spoiled child when, at first, a two-run single off the glove of Yanks second baseman was ruled an error. He made his displeasure known whenever he reached base, glaring at the official scorer Kurt Iverson, who sat in the press box; later, in the locker room, Gonzalez exploded at Dallas Morning News writer Gerry Fraley, asking him where Iverson was during the Knoblauch play. "In the bathroom?" Gonzalez wondered. "Taking a shit?" Some of his teammates were not amused, and even Tatis would say after Gonzalez's outburst that this can be, at times, a tense first-place team.

But Tatis ignored the tantrum, and with good reason: In the third, he smacked a ball between the shortstop and the third baseman, breaking an 0-for-11 slump. When he reached first, he wore a smile of relief; he looked like a man who just found out the governor had granted him a stay. He struck out in the fourth, then got another single in the fifth before Johnny Oates pulled him for Alicea. Though the Rangers lost, marking the first time all season they had dropped three games in a row, Tatis was all easy grins in the locker room, one of the few Rangers with anything to smile about.

"I'm just making my adjustments and just trying to help the team," he said after the game, standing in front of his locker, ignoring the clenched teeth around him. "I've just been trying too hard. I've been in a slump the whole season. Everybody knows I can hit home runs, and I'm not doing it this year. I'm just trying too hard. It's a little bit of pressure from myself. I'm not doing my job."

The next night, against the Cleveland Indians, Tatis went one-for-three; on May 9, he had the first three-hit game of his big-league career while driving in a run; the next day, he went one-for-three. (Heading into Tuesday's game, Tatis was hitting .247.) He is also, once more, Oates' starting third baseman--until he proves he cannot handle the job. Until his hot bat becomes an icicle. Until he proves he is too young to hold the job. Until...

Jaramillo and Oates point out that other, older men, when placed in Tatis' situation, might have pouted as they sat on the bench. They express amazement that Tatis kept his mouth shut and his head in the game; to them, that's almost as important as his batting average, his willingness to get better, and his determination not to let a month's worth of setback ruin an entire career.

"I believe in myself," Tatis says, his cracked but not broken English full of optimism and not a little defiance. "Every time I go to the plate, I know I can do my job. And that's what I'm gonna do.

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