Fernando Tatis Jr. Finds His Way Back

Fernando Tatis Jr. Finds His Way Back

Fernando Tatis Jr. has favored pink accessories to highlight his uniform since he made his major league debut in 2019. Be it shoelaces, sweatbands, a belt, a headband or cleats, something pink is often on display. It is a signal to his mother, as he plays the game, that she is always on his mind.

On Saturday night in San Diego, it was a pink glove that stood out in the fourth inning when he galloped across the right-field turf and, his leaping body fully extended, reached up at the last second to stab a rocket out of the evening air. With two on and two out, Boston’s Triston Casas had drilled a screaming drive toward the outfield wall with an exit velocity of 108 miles per hour. It was sailing over Tatis’s head … until it wasn’t.

In so many ways, with his bat, his glove and his celebrations, it is back to business as usual for Tatis, a 24-year-old superstar whose career had spiraled out of control in more ways than one.

“It’s every day now,” Manager Bob Melvin said, marveling at Tatis and his tendency toward breathtaking plays. “Give him some reps, and he can play any position in any sport.”

Upon his re-entry to the sport on April 20, following two surgeries and one 80-game suspension for a positive test for steroids, Tatis had not played a Major League Baseball game for more than a year. Expectations for his return were immense, but so, too, were the questions.

How diluted might his game be after more than a year away? Would his surgically repaired left shoulder, which had dislocated several times in 2021, diminish his ability at the plate? Did a second operation on the right wrist he fractured in a motorcycle accident in the Dominican Republic finally get things right?

Then, there were the extra-baggage questions: After the public shaming that came with a positive test for clostebol, an anabolic steroid, and his subsequent punishment, how would Tatis handle the spotlight during his return? And had he sufficiently repaired the breeched trust with his teammates?

“It was not going to be easy,” Tatis said during a conversation in the Padres’ clubhouse last weekend. “This is probably the hardest game in the world. I prepared myself. There is a mental grind, a physical grind. But, you know, I’m just trying to be ready all the way around.”

As the Padres travel to Yankee Stadium this weekend and Tatis faces perhaps his most stern test yet in terms of public blowback, the biggest gamble in Padres history — a 14-year, $340 million contract awarded to Tatis after only 143 major league games — appears to be back on track to pay dividends. The young star is once again rising to the occasion and people around the Padres are talking of his grace and newfound humility.

“Accountability definitely has been there for him,” said Joe Musgrove, San Diego’s ace starting pitcher. “And it started about 80 games ago. After the suspension, he went through a low period for a few weeks and it was understandable. But he’s done a good job of putting it behind him. He’s mending fences with the players, coaching staff and fans. He’s forgiven himself, and moved past his mistakes.

“Some mistakes you can’t fix. Some you can. This one, he can.”

The tone from Musgrove, as he talked about Tatis’s behavior since the suspension, was sharply different than it had been over the last two seasons as tensions routinely boiled over between Tatis, his teammates and the Padres coaching staff. The dugout fights and questions about Tatis’s maturity have, at least for now, fallen away as he has stayed out of trouble and worked to get ready for his return.

A large part of that preparation, Tatis said, involved the mental side of his game. He knew the noise would be roaring, from opponents and rival fans who would be looking for any weakness they could find. He spent significant time over the winter “having good conversations about baseball with good baseball guys,” he said. “I feel like I put it all together.”

The conversations started, according to Tatis, with his father, Fernando Tatis Sr., who played in the majors from 1997 to 2010. At home in the Dominican Republic, Tatis Jr. also conversed with mentors like Wilton Veras, who played briefly for the Red Sox, and with his friend Robinson Canó, the former major league star who was suspended twice for performance-enhancing drugs.

“It’s always good to talk about baseball with that guy,” Tatis said of Canó. “And more guys are on the list, but if I started mentioning them all, it probably wouldn’t end today.”

The Padres brought Tatis to their FanFest in early February specifically to check one early box: His re-entry into public life. It was a friendly, local crowd at Petco Park, but it served its purpose. Even if the suspension wasn’t complete, it allowed him a foot out of the penalty box and let him focus entirely on baseball going forward.

Melvin, who was without Tatis for his first 182 games as manager of the Padres, was thrilled to pencil the young star into a lineup.

“It was a celebratory day for both of us, really,” Melvin said. “He had been watching on the side for so long. And really, he was one of the reasons I came here.”

Tatis, who said hitting would be the most difficult thing about his comeback, went 0 for 5 at the plate in his first game back, but he collected at least one hit in each of his next nine games. Overall he has hit .267 with seven home runs, through Tuesday, falling short of his peak standards but showing regular flashes of his old self.

The same night as his sensational catch against Boston, Tatis drilled a Chris Sale slider 440 feet into the night, giving him home runs in consecutive games for the first time in nearly two years. Four nights earlier, showing his newfound comfort in the outfield, he uncorked a perfect strike from right field clocked at 96.8 m.p.h. — on the fly — to nail Kansas City’s Vinnie Pasquantino, who was attempting to go from first to third on a single.

Tatis, who came up to the majors as an error-prone but exciting shortstop, is the only outfielder in the league this season with two assists that have traveled 96 m.p.h. or faster. In Minnesota on May 10, he threw out Carlos Correa at home plate on a 100-m.p.h. laser.

“It’s coming out hot,” said Alex Cora, Boston’s manager, who noted that his Red Sox “have seen three of the most complete players in the game in the last three weeks” in Tatis, Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. and Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez.

Tatis’s inclusion in such a group was expected after he finished fourth in the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award voting in 2020 and third in 2021. But Cora delivering that praise to a player who sat out for more than a year amid numerous questions about his future demonstrated how many fences Tatis has mended.

“Overall, I don’t know how anybody could handle it as quickly, and do a better job, than he has,” Melvin said of Tatis’s return to prominence.

Public reaction, while abrasive at times, hasn’t ruffled Tatis.

When he homered during a Class AAA rehabilitation assignment in early April, the pitcher he torched, Giants minor leaguer Kade McClure, responded by tweeting, “cheater hits a homerun on a rehab assignment during a steroid suspension.” Tatis shrugged off the since-deleted message. He said he expected reactions like that and he’s going to keep playing the game and enjoying himself.

True to his word, when fans in Wrigley Field serenaded him with chants of “He’s on steroids!” Tatis disarmed them with a playful shimmy.

“I wouldn’t say that’s how I would have went about it,” said center fielder Trent Grisham. “But smiles usually do diffuse hostility.”

Added Melvin: “He’s kind of the ultimate entertainer, right? As far as baseball goes.”

Another of Tatis’s counselors has been his teammate Nelson Cruz, who has the perspective of returning from his own 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs back in 2013. Be yourself, Cruz advised Tatis, and just go play.

That is what Tatis did early in his career, when his flair helped vault him to celebrity status so quickly that he trailed only Mookie Betts of the Dodgers in jersey sales during the 2021 season. Whether Tatis can regain that level of popularity remains to be seen, but in barely more than a month, he seems headed in the right direction.

“I don’t want to be selfish,” he said when asked for an early self-assessment of his game. “Obviously, it’s coming good. But I know I’ve got way more room to go. I feel like I’m not still at my best.”

The reactions to his first trip to Dodger Stadium this month were noticeably muted — hostility there remains directed mostly at Padres infielder Manny Machado — but Tatis smiled when asked to look ahead to this weekend’s visit to Yankee Stadium.

“That’s going to be a good one,” he said. “We’ll see. New York. The good thing is, there’s going to be a lot of Dominicans out there. So that’s on the positive side. But it’s still New York.”

He chuckled as he spoke, the various pink accouterments practically glowing behind him from his locker. A 24-year-old kid who once again has his career in front of him and is eager to experience whatever Yankee Stadium has to offer.

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