TOLEDO—Jose Tabata was born almost 16 years after Roberto Clemente died.
But the 21-year-old Tabata, who plays for Indianapolis and is considered by many one of the top prospects in the Pirates organization, doesn't need a history lesson to learn about the Hall of Fame right fielder. In fact, Tabata is working to get the opportunity to wear the same uniform and patrol the same position as his boyhood hero once did.
"When I was a child, my dad talked about Roberto Clemente a lot," Tabata said in his native Spanish, with Indianapolis teammate Hector Gimenez translating. "I saw the videos, so I saw him play. Any time I read something in the newspaper about Clemente, I cut it out and saved it.
"And I also heard about the type of human being (Clemente) was. Now that I'm with the Pirates, I think about him even more."
It would be a lot to ask for Tabata to match the performance of Clemente. But he has shown enough flashes of ability to give long-suffering Pirates fans something to dream about.
Tabata opened the year with Double-A Altoona, but after batting .303/.370/.404 in 61 games through the end of July, the righthanded batter advanced to Triple-A for the first time.
With Indianapolis, he hit .283/.342/.415 in his first 106 at-bats, clubbing five doubles and three homers. Impressively, he maintained a strong walk-to-strikeout ratio after the promotion. The figure stood at 28-to-37 through 86 games.
Tabata has been dealing with enormous expectations ever since signing with the Yankees for $550,000 as a 16-year-old in August 2004.
The native of Venezuela impressed quickly the very next season, stealing 22 bases and hitting .314/.382/.417 despite being one of the youngest players in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League that year. He quickly became one of the Yankees' brightest prospects.
In 2006 Tabata earned a berth in the Futures Game—which, coincidentally, was played in Pittsburgh's PNC Park—but he was limited to just 86 games because of a thumb injury. He still managed to bat .298/.377/.420 for low Class A Charleston in the South Atlantic League.
Tabata continued to be productive in 2007, batting .307/.371/.392 with high Class A Tampa, but Tabata lost his favorable status with the Yankees in 2008.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Tabata struggled early with Double-A Trenton. At one point he left the dugout in the middle of a game, earning a three-game suspension. He hit just .248/.320/.310 and was traded to Pittsburgh in July in the deal that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to New York.
"As we did our research on him, we felt like the young man made a mistake, was disciplined, was remorseful and is ready to move forward," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said of Tabata at the time of the trade. "We are excited about the talent. Scouts feel that the tools are still there. Of the players we had on the board, Jose by far has the highest upside."
Tabata declined to discuss the circumstances in Trenton, but he admitted to mixed feelings when he heard about the trade.
"Nobody will believe it, but the first thing I thought about when I heard about the trade was Roberto Clemente," he said. "I was going to Pittsburgh, so I felt happy. But I was nervous to be in a new organization.
"The people here treat me pretty well, and they made me feel comfortable right away."
First, But Not Final, Impressions
Indians manager Frank Kremblas said he first saw Tabata in winter ball last year in Venezuela, and the skipper admits that he wasn't impressed with what he saw.
"I've seen a lot of cases where a player who is performing in his native land puts a lot of pressure on himself, and that was obviously the case with Jose," Kremblas said. "He's a completely different player here than he was there.
"His at-bats are different here—he doesn't go up and swing at the first pitch, like he did a lot there. He's patient, shows good plate discipline. He shows good power. And he has an idea of how pitchers are trying to get him out.
"He has an above-average throwing arm. He can play any of the outfield spots, but I think he's most comfortable in right. And his speed is above average—he's a lot faster than people think."
More importantly, Kremblas said he hasn't seen any of the negatives that cropped up for Tabata at the end of his time with the Yankees.
"He always plays hard—there's never a time when he doesn't play hard," Kremblas said. "In fact, when you play as many games as he's going to be playing, there are times when you have to 'pull back' a little so he can stay on the field every day. That's something he's still trying to learn.
The one thing Kremblas said Tabata needs to continue to improve is more opportunities to play.
"Defensively, he needs more repetitions in the outfield," Kremblas said. "He needs to learn positioning against certain players and situations, and you can't get those things any other way except by repetitions. And he needs as many at-bats as he can get.
"But I think he's capable of being an everyday big league player. I think his power will come with time, and he'll become a 25-30 home run guy if he remains healthy and plays every day."
Tabata doesn't worry about meeting those expectations, using the same method he has employed to deal with expectations throughout his professional career.
"Every day I try to take things step-by-step," Tabata said. "I try not to think about being a prospect. I just try to deserve what I get. That's why I come to the ballpark and work hard every day. I don't want to get things because of my name. I want to earn them."
John Wagner covers the International League for The Toledo Blade