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Pirates OF Tabata emulating Roberto Clemente

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PITTSBURGH (AP)

The shadow of Roberto Clemente is unavoidable at PNC Park.

There's the statue of the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder just behind the centerfield entrance, not that far from the Roberto Clemente Bridge. There's the Clemente Wall, the nickname for the 21-foot tall edifice that serves as the only real protection for the short porch in right.

The wall is affixed with four No. 21 symbols, a constant reminder to whomever is playing in under them of the greatness that came before.

Playing under that kind of history isn't for everybody. Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata, however, hopes to be the exception.

The 23-year-old made his first career start in right on Wednesday and celebrated by smacking a two-run homer - just over the No. 21 decals in right-center - that proved to be the lone highlight in a 7-2 loss to St. Louis.

The significance of Clemente's legacy isn't lost on Tabata, who grew up listening to his father tell stories of Clemente's fearless play on the field and selflessness off it, qualities Tabata hopes to emulate.

The day before he trotted out to right, Tabata told first base coach Luis Silverio that he understood what he was getting into.

''He told me, `I'm going to play where Roberto Clemente played,''' said Silverio, who also serves as Tabata's translator. ''He just wishes that one day he would ask his family if he could wear that number (21) one day. That's a dream that he's had.''

Tabata, who is hitting .264 with four homers and 17 RBI in an injury-plagued season, stressed he's in no way trying to compare himself to Clemente.

''There's only one Roberto, I realize that but because he's an inspiration,'' Tabata said. ''(I'm) going to keep working hard and at the end of (my) career, (my) numbers aren't going to be the same (as Clemente's). But at least (maybe I'll) be able to do something for the Pittsburgh Pirates.''

A few more swings like the one he put on a Kyle Lohse fastball in the fifth inning on Wednesday would help. The line drive into the seats was Tabata's first homer since April 17.

''To drive the ball out of the ballpark in right field gets your attention,'' manager Clint Hurdle said.

It's something the Pirates need as they try to end a streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons. They're 58-64 heading into a three-game series against Cincinnati starting on Friday.

When the two teams met in the Steel City a month ago, the Pirates were in first place. They're a whopping 13 1/2 games behind Milwaukee now. Talk of the postseason has quieted, though the goal of finishing about .500 for the first time since 1992 remains very much in play.

Tabata hopes to be a part of the run at ending the streak. He spent more than six weeks of play this summer while dealing with a lingering quad strain. Pittsburgh got by for awhile behind the play of Alex Presley, who is now on the disabled list with a hand injury. The team's nosedive quickly followed, though they are coming off a series win against the Cardinals.

Hurdle has no plans of making Tabata a fixture in right field but hasn't ruled out putting him there occasionally. Whether he starts in left or right is immaterial. He's going to be on the field as part of a cornerstone Pittsburgh hopes will make the long-suffering franchise finally turn the corner.

A baseball historian of sorts, Hurdle appreciates Tabata's respect for Clemente. The days of kids collecting baseball cards and putting them between the spokes in their bike - as Hurdle did as a child - are long gone. He mentioned former major league pitcher and good friend Dave Dravecky in the clubhouse recently and didn't get much of a response.

While Clemente is an icon, Hurdle doesn't take his players' knowledge of the game's luminaries for granted. It's what makes Tabata's respect for Clemente surprising to his manager.

''It's very refreshing to see a kid like Jose that's tied to it, the heritage, the history of the position,'' Hurdle said. ''He really wants to play right field. He wants to play in front of the Clemente Wall. He wants a chance to do that.''

Tagged: Pirates, Jose Tabata

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