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Last Saturday, when Kansas city's designated hitter Danny Tartabull stepped up to the plate in the seventh inning at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium, it would have been fair to assume that Royals manager John Wathan was thinking hit. After all, the score was 5-5 with two outs and men on first and second, and Tartabull was batting .400, with a 10-game hitting streak. But as Toronto's Todd Stottlemyre bore down, Wathan turned to nobody in particular and said, "You know, it wouldn't be bad to get a walk in this situation."
A walk? Exactly. For what Wathan knew, and Stottlemyre didn't, was that the man on deck, Pat Tabler, is the best hitter in baseball with the bases loaded. Going into that game, Tabler, who is a career .290 hitter, had an astonishing .569 average with the bags full. In his nine-year career he had gone 37 for 65 in that situation, collecting 89 RBIs and two grand slams along the way.
Wathan got his wish. Stottlemyre walked Tartabull, and true to form, Tabler stroked a single to right, driving in what would become the game-winning run. "It's phenomenal," said Wathan after the 10-5 win. "It's one of the most amazing statistics in baseball."
Tabler's prowess is truly remarkable. Former outfielder Rudy Law, No. 2 on Elias's career list of players with at least 15 bases-loaded hits, has a comparatively puny average of .469. And the averages of such great hitters as Rod Carew (.388) and Wade Boggs (.380) pale beside Tabler's.
Even when Mr. Bases Loaded doesn't get a hit, he can often work his magic. On April 9, Tabler came up with the bases full in the first inning of a game against Boston and hit a grounder to short that should have started a double play. But shortstop Jody Reed bobbled the ball, and the first run of the game scored. Unfortunately, Kansas City lost to the Red Sox 8-6.
Tabler's teammates are at a loss to explain how he does it. "Nothing changes that's obvious to the naked eye," says Wathan. "His wife asks him why he can't do it with no men on, and he tells her he doesn't know."
"I don't know what you could compare it to," says first baseman George Brett. "It doesn't even surprise you anymore when he gets the hit; it surprises you when he doesn't." Second baseman Frank White says, "He's basically a guy who doesn't strike out much, and he doesn't try to hit a home run. And he uses the middle part of the field—if you do that, you're going to get a lot of key base hits."
The 31-year-old Tabler shrugs at such conjecture. "I don't have any theories," he says. "I might concentrate a little harder, and maybe the pitcher comes in a little bit, but I just try to put the ball in play."
His bases-loaded feats are Tabler's only claim to fame. He has been traded four times since being drafted No. 1 by the Yankees in 1976, and he came to Kansas City from Cleveland last June in a deal for pitcher Bud Black. A journeyman's journeyman, he has played every position except pitcher, catcher and shortstop, and now is primarily a DH and pinch hitter.
Some of the Royals avoid talking about his unusual skill, hoping not to jinx him. But for Tabler, it isn't that special. "The media make a big deal of it," he says with a sigh. "You have to be renowned for something, I guess."