Tackett tale more fact than fiction

JOHN EISENBERG

July 02, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Jeff Tackett is not cute. Wait. His wife will not care for that. His 2-year-old daughter certainly will not. Let's be nice. Let's put it another way: Jeff Tackett's story is not cute. At least not as cute as you might think.

The story, of course, is a cliche straight from the pages of children's sports fiction. Star gets hurt. Backup gets a chance. Backup plays better than anyone envisioned. Backup becomes a star himself, if only for a while. Everyone says, "Aw, isn't that cute?"

No one is writing in Tackett's name on the All-Star ballot, but he is having quite a run while Chris Hoiles mends a broken wrist. He is hitting .305, and while the Orioles were easing their way out of a three-week funk with two wins in 17 hours against Milwaukee, he had six RBI, a home run and three doubles.

Cute? OK, maybe a little. Tuesday night's homer was his fifth of the season in just 50-plus at-bats, and this is a player who played five years in the minors -- more than a thousand at-bats -- before hitting his first professional home run. So suddenly he is "Deep" Tackett, as potent as Hoiles or Mickey Tettleton ever were, and, yes, it's kind of cute.

Only not quite as cute as you think. Think about it. Go back to spring training. The Orioles signed Rick Dempsey to be their backup catcher. The city rejoiced. But then, oops, Dempsey didn't make the club. Manager Johnny Oates picked Tackett instead and almost got run out of town. Why do you think he risked it? Because Tackett can play this game.

"All I remember is we had that [Opening Day] parade downtown on the day we made the move," Oates said, "and people who hadn't heard the news yet were yelling at me, 'You're a bum if you don't keep Dempsey.' That's all anyone cared about. But [Tackett] had earned the job. He's got some tools. He showed me a lot in the spring."

He showed a .400 average and seamless defense in the spring, and now he is showing more of the same when it matters, and to Oates, a backup catcher from way back, it is an utterly delicious turn.

"Jeff has done more in two weeks than I did in 10 years," Oates said. "I'm happy for him. But you know what I really like? His response is not, you know, 'Isn't this great?' He's dead serious. He says, 'Well, maybe now I'm gonna get more playing time.' "

Said Tackett: "Dead right. I want to play every day. Maybe it'll never happen, but if I don't believe it can, why am I here? I understand about people thinking this run is cute and all. I don't mind. I'm a pretty laid-back guy. It takes a lot to get me upset. But understand, I've been working up to this, and I'm here to play."

Maybe it's all cute if you consider the entire sweep of his career, going back to those first five years when he didn't hit a home run. But Tackett is a different player now.

"Everyone always wants to go back to those five years, but see, 1989 is the first time I had an idea about what I was doing," he said. "Before that, I had no plan. You bounce around the minors and you come across a lot of hitting coaches telling you different things. I was changing my stance all the time. I just got tired of it. And then in 1989 I kind of put things together. I've been climbing ever since."

In 1989, under the tutelage of current Orioles hitting coach Greg Biagini, Tackett settled on one stance. No more changes. One stance, one swing. It wasn't an easy adjustment. He hit only .181 that year at Rochester. But he did hit a home run. Two. And in the next two years at Rochester he had 10 homers, 26 doubles and 83 RBI, with the majority coming in 1991. So he was beginning to show some power before this season.

Not that there is necessarily an explanation for this sudden run. Sometimes you just don't ask questions. "See the ball, hit the ball: It's nothing more than that," Tackett said. "The pitchers don't know me. Maybe that helps. I don't know. I haven't felt this good in, well, I don't know when. And I couldn't tell you why. I just do."

His defense is, as always, superb. His arm is powerful, his attitude aggressive. He is flawless on pop-ups and balls in the dirt. His handling of pitchers is mature and wise. Mike Mussina all but credits Tackett with getting him to the majors so soon. "He's doing a lot of things behind the plate that I like," Oates said.

Now he is doing things at the plate as well as behind it, his contribution as thorough as it is surprising, and though the temptation is to stick a "cute" button on it, don't. There is a ballplayer at work here.

"I didn't just appear," he said. "I played every day at Rochester the last two years. People who saw me there won't be surprised by this. I can do some things."

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