BRADENTON, Fla. -- About 11, mostly turbulent months ago, Jose Tabata's back was against the wall of the Pirate City clubhouse and he was reading in Spanish a statement about his jailed wife.
He is 8 pounds lighter, at least one year wiser according to the calendar -- he'll get to that momentarily -- and prepared to put the past in the dank recesses of his mind and PNC Park in his bright, near future.
"It's a new year," this Pirates top prospect from Venezuela said from inside that same clubhouse, conversing this time in English. "I feel strong in everything, about baseball and my personal [life].
"I don't want to remember last year. It was the past, you know. I'm here right now, today. I'm feeling strong mentally. I want to play in the big leagues this year."
A public defender representing Amalia Tabata Pereira, 44, last week was in court attempting to suppress her confession in March after police arrested her for abducting a baby in Plant City, Fla. She is the woman, Tabata told police, who pretended to be pregnant for months while her then-20-year-old husband was home in South America, later produced a birth certificate and then, at the condominium they rented here, introduced him to a baby she called Nicole. Authorities said the baby, Sandra, was taken from Rosa Sirilo-Francisco and Andres Cruz in Plant City while Pereira posed as an immigration official.
Police reports quoted Tabata as telling them: "Do you understand? I held her all night long as if she was mine. ... I can't believe [Pereira] did this to me."
"I don't talk to her," Tabata was saying the other day. "Everything is good. I don't want to talk about that because it's in the past."
In Class AA Altoona, he received letters from her weekly, if not daily, and missed seven weeks with a hamstring injury. He embarked on a tear that raised his Curve average from .265 to .303. After a July 30 promotion, he batted .276 with 3 home runs and 10 RBIs in 32 games with Class AAA Indianapolis. From there, he transformed into a .392 average and the All-Prospect team in the Arizona Fall League. He is, by all accounts, still transforming.
Manager John Russell noticed a change physically and behaviorally.
"He looks good. The way he did it was very good, he added some lean mass but lost some of the weight that he didn't need," Russell said of the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Tabata's weight training and improved diet. "To take that kind of commitment, I think that was a big step for him.
"He handled [a trying] spring training with us last year very well. He's a good kid. He loves to play the game. He's really grown a lot in the last year, and he's going to continue to grow."
While Pirates management points him down the Andrew McCutchen path, with conceivably a few months in Indianapolis readying him for a summertime call-up, Tabata offered that he simply aims to reach the major league club in 2010.
"You know, every baseball player here wants to start on the [major league] team," he said. "My situation, you never know. Maybe I'm going to Triple-A. But I think this is my year for playing in the big leagues. Maybe not at [the] start. But anytime."
Once he arrives, he will be expected to play more than the right field and Clemente Wall that seems to be manifest destiny of an outfielder with a tattoo on his chest of Roberto Clemente -- whom he mentioned as his idol in the first paragraph of that statement 11 months ago.
And concerning recent media speculation relative to his age, Tabata bitterly defends that he is 21. He told PiratesReport.com that people who dispute it are invited to Venezuela to check his documentation for themselves. He said the Yankees, who signed him on his 16th birthday Aug. 12, 2004, never performed any DNA or bone-density tests to try to verify age as happens with some international prospects of late.
"Yeah, man, I want to know who talked bad. I'm really 21. God [knows]," Tabata said, pointing heavenward. "It's me. That's it. But if you want to see [the papers]. ..."
Maybe the fellas mistook a midnight deadline for 9 a.m., because every Pirates position player reported for work Monday morning, far in advance of the official, last-minute time to check in at Pirate City.
In some semblance of order, Argenis Diaz, Lastings Milledge, Andrew McCutchen, Gorkys Hernandez and Ronny Cedeno ambled into the clubhouse by 9 a.m. That brought the number to all 66 players in camp.
"I'm just really psyched to see that a lot of people are already here," said McCutchen, a Fort Meade, Fla., resident who worked out there. Teammates likewise seemed a bit psyched to see him and Milledge walk in together, what with an energy suddenly filling the clubhouse. "I come in and just joke around about a lot of stuff. We have fun with it. Why not? It's just amazing to come out and see all your buddies again and be able to get real excited.
"First official day is [Tuesday], and we'll go from there."
• For the record, Steelers officials also have notified the NHL that they are interested in playing host to a Winter Classic at Heinz Field the same as the Pirates at PNC Park.
• Russell on the early arrivals: "A lot of the cold weather up north this winter probably helped push some guys down [south] a little earlier. It has been a good turnout. Coming down that early, they wanted to get going and get out on the field with the rest of us. They don't want to wait for the first full day. It's a good showing. It shows they're ready to go."
• Bobby Crosby took grounders at third base, Delwyn Young at second.
• Aki Iwamura and Brandon Moss missed the workout but reported for physicals.
Chuck Finder: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 23, 2010 5:00 AM