Tabler keeps hitting despite lack of attention; trade rumors abound

Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, and Kirby Puckett all got a ton of publicity while finishing 1-2-3 in last year's American League batting race. Pat Tabler, the guy who finished fourth, got the kind of media treatment usually reserved for a piece of junk mail marked ``occupant.'' Oh, opposing teams know all about the Cleveland Indians' first baseman-designated hitter: his patience at the plate, his great hand-to-eye coordination, and his ability to hit to all fields. But to the general public, he's as anonymous as a newly announced Democratic presidential candidate.

Part of Pat's recognition problem is that although he has the size for it at 6 ft. 2 in. and 200 pounds, he has never been a home run hitter. Power buys headlines, and the right-handed hitting Tabler's trademark has always been the line drive that finds both alleys for extra bases. His specialties are doubles and getting on base, not balls that rattle around loose in the upper deck.

``I give Pat a lot of credit for deciding the right hitting style for him early and staying with it,'' Cleveland manager Pat Corrales told me. ``Even as a rookie, he never fell into that trap that says a guy his size has to pull everything. He's always been smart enough to make the pitcher come to him, to reach out and make contact without losing his sense of bat balance, and to still be a good hitter with two strikes on him.''

Tabler, in his fifth year at Cleveland after spending parts of two seasons in the National League at Chicago, had never reached the .300 mark until last year, when he raised his average 51 points, to .326. It wasn't any fluke, though, as can be seen by the fact that he again ranks among the league batting leaders this season.

One statistic that always turns heads is Pat's .533 lifetime average with the bases loaded going into this year.

``Whenever I'm in a position like that, I always think of all the good things that can happen for the hitter, so I guess probably my concentration goes up,'' Pat said. ``Obviously, when the bases are already full, the pitcher can't fool around too much, because he's got no place to put you. He's got to throw strikes. If you're patient in a situation like that, I think you might get at least a couple of pitches you can drive.''

Overall, Pat says, the big thing is is confidence. If you don't hit today, you have to know in your mind that you can come back and hit tomorrow. And he believes in the other standard formulas: Since the whole field is there, it's a mistake for a hitter not to use all of it. When you have a slump, go back to fundamentals. Learn what pitchers do in certain situations and adjust to that.

Asked to explain the reasons for his sudden improvement a year ago, including hitting .392 from July 20 to the end of the season, Tabler replied: ``I don't know. I wasn't conscious of doing anything different.''

Of course all the time he was talking, Pat was also smiling like a teen-ager who had just been lent the keys to his father's car.

One thing Tabler never understood is why the New York Yankees, who signed him originally, gave up on him so quickly. But the Yankees weren't alone. Both the Cubs and the Chicago White Sox (who once owned his contract between seasons) also traded him at times when they were trying to strengthen a particular position. Elsewhere in the majors

The New York Yankees are reportedly still trying to make deals in an effort to end their five-year drought in the American League East, the longest the team has gone without a division title since George Steinbrenner became the owner in 1973. After recently reacquiring designated hitter Mike Easler, whom they had traded to Philadelphia at the end of last season, the Yankees are said to be after San Diego shortstop Garry Templeton.

Outfielders Darryl Strawberry of the New York Mets (who could use an alarm clock) and Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers (the man with the mysterious back) are possible candidates for a uniform switch after the season. The Mets are reportedly through playing mind games with Strawberry, while the Dodgers are tired of waiting for the 100 RBI season that so far Marshall has approached only once.

By boldly relying on 10 rookies, Texas led the AL West for 46 days last season - incredible for a team that had lost 99 games the previous year. Why hasn't that progress continued? ``It will,'' said Ranger coach Joe Ferguson, ``as soon as our young pitchers stop making mental mistakes and start getting the ball over the plate. The second year is always a big adjustment for young players, who often take too much for granted ... But I guarantee you we'll recover.''

From Larry Bowa, rookie manager of the San Diego Padres, on his ability to run a team: ``I still don't know if I can manage or not. I really haven't had much of a chance to manage so far. When you're behind in the game by three runs all the time, there isn't much to manage.''

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