Baseball 2011: Pirates' young face first grind
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker throws to first after fielding an RBI grounder by the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins, who was out at first, in the sixth inning of an exhibition game Tuesday in Philadelphia.
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jose Tabata woke up sleepy-eyed one morning in the second half of last season in a West Coast hotel room.
Or was it still the middle of the night?
Or was this New York and not San Diego?
"I woke up and looked at my watch and it was 4 in the morning. I thought it was at least 10 or something," said Tabata, the Pirates left fielder. "Then I had to think: Where are we? What city is this? It's hard to stay consistent in this baseball life."
It is this Major League Baseball life that three of the most important pieces of the Pirates' future got a taste of last season. When the Pirates open the 2011 season Friday against the Chicago Cubs, these three, for the first time, will attempt to withstand the grind of a 162-game regular season.
Tabata played 102 games last season with the Pirates, second baseman Neil Walker played 110 and third baseman Pedro Alvarez played 95. None of the three made the team out of spring training, as they have this season.
Walker recalls a moment from last season akin to Tabata's middle-of-the night confusion.
"I remember playing a night game in San Diego and it felt like one in the morning and it was the sixth inning," Walker said. "That is something I'm better prepared for now this season. When it is time to rest, I have to rest."
That understanding is part of the maturation process for Walker, 25, who is one year older than Alvarez and two years older than Tabata. There are many such signs for these three, including this: Alvarez and Tabata each were married in the offseason; Walker was engaged and plans to wed in December.
Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister understands the tedium of a major league season. He will begin his first full season as the major league bench coach, but has previously been a minor league manager and the organization's minor league field coordinator. In that role, part of his job was to weigh if prospects were ready to withstand the monotonous major league routine.
Sure, there are plenty of games in the minors -- Class AAA Indianapolis played 144 last season; Class AA Altoona 142 -- but the stakes are heightened with the Pirates, and the minors don't feature the multiple time zone travel the big leagues do.
"That, right there, is the big thing," Banister said of crisscrossing the country. "The main thing I tell guys is, don't get caught up into too much outside the world of baseball because there's too much to worry about inside the game. To prioritize each minute is something you learn to do, and it really isn't something you get accustomed to until you have a few years in the game at the big league level."
Take for example a 19-day stretch in May, when the Pirates will play games in Denver (3 games), San Diego (3 games), Pittsburgh (7-game homestand), Milwaukee (3 games), Washington (2 games) and Cincinnati (2 games) -- with just one day off.
There is, however, one component these three didn't have to face this year: not knowing where they would start the season.
"To be able to start off in Pittsburgh and not really worry about where I am going to be sent to, it is a lot more peaceful to my mind," Alvarez said. "Not just for me, but for myself and my family.
"We were calculating, my wife and I ... the last two years, we've moved every three months. From Lynchburg to Altoona to the offseason. Then to spring training to Triple-A [in Indianapolis] to Pittsburgh and then to the offseason. And to have some kind of stability, I think it does a lot for a player, it gets them in the right mindset."
Of the three, Alvarez played in the most games last season, 66 in Indianapolis and 95 in Pittsburgh, a combined 161. He hit .256 with 16 home runs with the Pirates, aided by a September surge when he hit .311 with five home runs and 26 RBIs in 29 games.
Tabata played in 53 games in Indianapolis before his 102 with the Pirates and hit .308 in Class AAA, an average that dipped just nine points once he reached the big leagues.
Walker appeared in 153 games last season -- 43 in Indianapolis -- and hit .296 with the big club after hitting .321 in Class AAA.
The time Walker spent with the Pirates last year (and the brief call-up he got at the end of the 2009 season when he played 17 games) has forced him to take a new approach this year.
He took pains to explain it in the McKechnie Field clubhouse while still at spring training: Walker wants the people of Pittsburgh to know there are times when this hometown product is just going to have to say "no."
What does that mean?
In the past, and especially last season, Walker went to great lengths to fulfill every appearance request he could squeeze into a crammed schedule, to be sure to connect with the community and the fans.
An autograph signing session in the morning and then a night game? No problem, Walker was there.
A visit to a business or something to spread goodwill for the Pirates? He just needed to be told when and where.
"Gosh, I don't want this to come out the wrong way, because I can't tell you how good everyone has been to me," Walker said, choosing his words meticulously. "But the most important thing for me this year is the play on the field. I am going to give back to the community, I always have and I always will, you can count on me to do that. I don't want people to think I am selfish, but I want to use my time off the field wisely.
"Really, I want to use that little time we have off the field to become the best player I can be so that we can have success, and I know that's something -- the success we could have -- that the people of Pittsburgh would really appreciate as much as any autograph."
First Published March 31, 2011 12:00 am