Since he was a child, Fernando Tatis Jr. has lived to play. This year, the game needs him just as much as he needs it.
Fernando Tatis Jr. does not move as much as he bebops, from person to person, place to place or, when he was 8, roof to pavement. He tried to backflip off his house and into his pool, missed and shattered his right femur. At the hospital, upon glancing at his hip-to-ankle cast, all Tatis wanted to know was when he could play baseball again.
Thirteen years later, it’s still not easy to constrain him. The scion of a dynasty, the favorite son of a nation, the fulcrum of one of the only franchises never to win a World Series — this is not someone who slows down, not even for a second. Whether he’s manning shortstop for the San Diego Padres or he’s away from the field, Tatis is dancing and gabbing and dapping and gesticulating, so perpetually in motion that he’s a thermodynamic anomaly. Even Tatis’ laugh is a full-body undertaking. His neck snaps back, his dyed-blond dreadlocks follow suit, his shoulders shrug, his torso heaves. He radiates joy.
Tatis calibrated himself for the life of a restless soul with boundless energy, and that life was good — perfect, really — until he walked off the field after a spring training game March 11 and into a new reality.
During the five months since the coronavirus rendered Tatis’ world inert — while it sucked the joy out of so much — he spent time by himself in his San Diego apartment, thinking about all the things he missed. The pollo guisado y arroz con habichuelas made by his aunt Rosie when she lived with him last season. The hugs from his mom, Maria, who always reminds her Bebo that family comes first. The workouts with his dad, Fernando, who offers welcome advice to his oldest son. The parties with his friends, the conversations with his siblings, the intimacy of face-to-face interaction he took for granted.
“Also, baseball,” Tatis says, as the last few months constituted his longest stretch without the game since the broken leg. “Baseball is just part of my life.”
Since the Padres’ opener on July 24, all Tatis has done is play better than everyone else in the sport. Through the first quarter of Major League Baseball’s truncated 60-game season, nobody had more wins above replacement than the 21-year-old. His excellence isn’t purely statistical either. His home runs are majestic, his bat flips righteous, his drip undeniable.
What Tatis does not yet realize is how symbiotic his relationship with baseball is. As much as it fulfills him, the game needs him even more. MLB spent much of the first three months of the pandemic fighting players over money. As baseball tries to endure amid coronavirus outbreaks, the best antidote to its predilection for self-immolation is a player like Tatis, whose only dalliance with fire comes in emoji form.
Watching Tatis play baseball is a trip in a time machine, only not to professional baseball’s past. It is a direct line to childhood, to countless hours spent with friends doing all the things coaches warned you never to do, like slide to field a ground ball or score from first on a ground ball single up the middle or tag up from third base on a popup to second. They told you never to do that because you weren’t Fernando Tatis Jr.
“He does [everything] with energy and passion,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller says. “I think all of those things are reasons that you want to turn on the TV at 7 and watch a Padres game.”
Tatis is the closest thing in baseball to appointment viewing, well worth the late-night caffeine hit for East Coasters. He is a video game create-a-player with the settings cranked to 99: 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, power to all fields, fast like a Funny Car, silly arm strength, Astaire feet. It’s a harmonious set of tools, and he hit .317/.379/.590 with 22 home runs and 16 stolen bases over 84 games of a 2019 rookie season abbreviated by hamstring and back injuries. Tatis’ .969 OPS was the highest ever for a rookie shortstop with at least 300 plate appearances. This year, the numbers are even more outlandish: .333/.417/.810 with a major league-leading eight home runs and 18 RBIs in San Diego’s first 16 games.
“I have a batting cage in my house,” says Eric Hosmer, Tatis’ teammate with the Padres. “A couple younger kids came to hit with my brother there in the offseason, and one of the kids is wearing a headband. I just commented, ‘What a cool headband.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I wear it because of Fernando Tatis Jr.’ I mean, you’re talking about a young kid from Miami, Florida, that’s following a guy on the San Diego Padres and every single one of his moves.
“He’s 21 years old. And there’s no question, he’s the face of this franchise. And I think he’s gonna be the face of this game very, very soon.”
TEN DAYS BEFORE Christmas, back in our old reality, the Tatis household teems with holiday spirit: copious elves and a reindeer with glasses, a well-appointed tree, excessive amounts of tinsel and stockings galore. Maria Tatis loves Christmas, and after raising five children, often by herself for months at a time, she gets what she wants now.
The Tatis family lives near the beach in Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic, a resort town on the country’s southern coast, and Maria’s firstborn lives in a condo complex a few minutes away. Tatis swings by the family home most days to spend time with his brothers, Josh, Elijah and Daniel, and his sister, Maria Fernanda, or to check in with his mom, or to pick up his father for a workout. Fernando Tatis Sr. spent 11 seasons in the major leagues and today runs a baseball academy for Dominican teenagers who want to be like his son.
The Tatis home is a depot for their extended family, with people constantly coming and going, making sure to step around the two golden retrievers customarily lazing in the middle of the floor. Senior once bought a 15-person van to shepherd people to and from family events and soon realized it wasn’t big enough. The Tatis clan requires a bus.
The chaos centers Tatis Jr. Surrounded by his family, this is the one place where he doesn’t have to be on — where he’s Bebo and not El Niño, the nickname baseball bestowed on him. The league recognizes Tatis as an anachronism: the marketable baseball player. Young, talented, handsome, bilingual, bursting with personality — a unicorn. One of Tatis’ agents, Dan Lozano of MVP Sports Group, has booked well over $1 billion in contracts representing Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Jimmy Rollins. Never, he says, has he seen someone so ready-made for stardom, so simultaneously relatable and magnetic.
Tatis’ talent belies his age, which is the same as that of most of the players taken in the MLB draft this year. During his rookie season, he lived through pangs of melancholy for everything Dominican baseball players leave behind.
“I get homesick,” he says. “Missing my culture, missing being out here, missing being around my family and just missing being home. … It’s a blessing to be Dominican. That’s how people see it and say it out here. I love my country, especially our culture — how we dance, how we enjoy music, how we enjoy being outside, having a good time. For us, it’s different.”
Not that Tatis had a typical Dominican childhood. The year he was born, his father hit 34 home runs as the St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman and set a major league record with two grand slams in one inning. Most promising young players on the island drop out of school and guarantee a usurious portion of future earnings to the trainers who prepare them to sign contracts with teams at age 16. Not Tatis. His father insisted he stay in school, learn English, make use of his privilege.
At 14, Tatis started drawing interest from teams, more because of his family name than his ability. Back then, prospect watchers ranked Tatis well below his international classmates Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto. When Marco Paddy, the international scouting director for the Chicago White Sox, watched Tatis work out in 2013 and asked him, “What do you want to be?” he offered a top-of-the-class response: “The Dominican Derek Jeter.”
“I saw all the respect that people have for him, and my dad always preached that to me: respect,” Tatis says. “When I see Derek Jeter, I see respect, and that’s what I want to be. Just a guy who plays for his team. A guy that embrace what he have. A guy that is going to carry the team, is going to help others and is going to establish himself and be a franchise player.”
It’s more than respect. Like Jeter, Tatis is effortlessly cool in a sport that screams suburban dad. Dominican baseball is fun and alluring and hubristic — the homer-and-hop of Sammy Sosa, the velvety swing of Robinson Cano, the pre-pitch shimmy of Johnny Cueto. The improvisation of Tatis is Dominican baseball 2.0. His spontaneity seems to rewrite baseball’s unwritten rules. For instance: the idea that no one should tag up and score on a popup to second base. Tatis did that last year as a 20-year-old rookie. He stood on third base. His then-teammate Hunter Renfroe hit a lazy fly ball about 165 feet, two steps past the cut of the grass. Pittsburgh second baseman Kevin Newman caught the ball. As Tatis dashed home, Newman hesitated, figuring he wouldn’t dare. What he failed to realize is that Tatis habitually dares. He launched himself toward home plate from 10 feet away, snaked his left arm just out of reach of catcher Elias Diaz and swiped the plate. Umpire Mike Winters called Tatis out. A replay review showed that he was safe.
Sosa, Cano and Cueto, giants in the game, all grew up in San Pedro de Macoris, the small province of 420,000 that has produced more baseball players per capita than anywhere else in the world — including Fernando Tatis Sr. San Pedro is also the destination of the Tatis family caravan back on that pre-Christmas day in December, back when they could still all be together. They’re headed to San Pedro’s Rompeola Food Park, an open-air market filled with food trucks, including Papy Burguer, owned by a family friend. As Bebo waits for his burger — he ordered one called El Big Papy, an homage to the most beloved Dominican player of all, David Ortiz — nobody at the dozens of surrounding tables so much as asks him for a selfie. It’s not as if they don’t notice him. Between his hair and his size, he’s eminently recognizable. The only person to approach Tatis is a little boy, who asks if he can clean Tatis’ shoes. Tatis demurs, instead reaching into his pocket and handing the boy 500 Dominican pesos. As the child smiles and gallops away, Tatis looks toward the table where his family sits.
“My dad,” Tatis says, “was that kid.”
AT 8 YEARS OLD, when he dropped out of school, Fernando Tatis Sr. cleaned shoes on the streets of San Pedro. He sold bread. Anything to make money. His father, a well-regarded baseball player, had stalled at Triple-A in the Houston Astros organization, then abandoned his family when his son was kindergarten-aged. Tatis Sr. went to live with an aunt a few years later.
“My dad came from nothing,” Tatis Jr. says. “And he became Fernando Tatis.”
Tatis Jr.’s reverence for his last name — his birthright — comes from the stories his father tells. It’s an inheritance not of privilege but of the simple idea that a person without parents, without means, without anything but respect for all that he doesn’t have, still can have everything.
“Dream to be able to get out of the place where you growing up,” Tatis Sr. says. “Have a dream to play baseball and make you hope, go harder every day. Try to get a job to buy the things that you need to play. Make it go farther every day, no matter what. It don’t matter what it takes to find your dreams.”
Tatis Sr. always found time to nurture that dream, to play baseball, and at 17 years old, with no fanfare, he signed with the Texas Rangers for an $8,000 bonus out of a tryout camp. Twenty-three years later, on July 2, 2015, Fernando Tatis Jr. received $825,000 to sign with the White Sox — to be their Dominican Derek Jeter. Back then, nobody could’ve projected that he would grow into a physical specimen. Tatis Jr. was 6 feet. His father was only 5-11. His aunt Rosie, Maria’s sister, still calls him mi flaco — my skinny boy. He was, in many ways, a classic Dominican prospect, more projection than present skills.
“Every time he’s hitting the field, he only have one [thought] in his mind: winning the game. And he’s going to win the game. You cannot blink your eye on him, because he’s going to get you.”
– FERNANDO TATIS SR.
In no way did that lessen the family’s signing-day celebration. There was a two-layer cake — one with black pinstripes, the other with red piping to resemble a baseball — topped by a White Sox hat. Tatis traded his white sport coat for a White Sox jersey and posed for pictures, including one with his father and his grandfather, who had reconciled when Tatis Sr. broke through in the major leagues.
Tatis Sr. wore a T-shirt that day with two words in all capital letters: TATIS DYNASTY. Their name is their legacy, and Tatis Sr. wanted his children to recognize that.
“In the old times, when they still have castles and stuff like that,” Tatis Jr. says, “they used to have a big shield in front of the castle with the king or the family name. That’s how I see my family. From that old time. All the power that they have.”
The Tatis dynasty’s sigil, he says, would be a bat, a ball and a Bible. Or maybe four balls: one for his grandfather, one for his father, one for him and one for Elijah, Fernando’s brother and an 18-year-old shortstop who signed last year for $500,000 with the White Sox.
Before Tatis went stateside for his first season, his father sat him down. They talked about what it means to be a Tatis, about the fragility of the game, about what being Dominican in MLB entails.
“Only God can stop him,” Tatis Sr. says. “Yes. He can be whatever kind of player he wants to be right now. He got all the skill. He got the determination in the game. Every time he’s hitting the field, he only have one [thought] in his mind: winning the game. And he’s going to win the game at every level. You cannot blink your eye on him, because he’s going to challenge you. He’s going to get you.”
FERNANDO AND MARIA blinked once and Tatis wound up in a full-leg cast. Kevin Newman blinked once and Tatis scored on a popup to second base. The Chicago White Sox blinked once and it might change the course of baseball for the next decade.
The White Sox traded Tatis to the Padres in 2016 in an effort to bolster their playoff hopes with aging starter James Shields. Today it’s easy to call the deal this generation’s Brock for Broglio, a trade so lopsided history excised its principals’ first names. Just because Tatis said he wanted to be the Dominican Derek Jeter doesn’t mean that anybody, even the greatest soothsayers in the player-development community, would have conceived he actually could be.
Tatis had grown to 6-2 by the time he left Juan Dolio for the White Sox’s complex in Arizona. He was still flaco, but scouts trawling the back fields during extended spring training noticed the development. All of the instincts and actions on which his backers dreamed were turning tangible. Padres pro scouts swinging through the White Sox’s complex in Glendale were asked to give Tatis a look. The reports agreed: If a trade scenario with Chicago ever materialized, he was the perfect target.
“We didn’t make the trade for Fernando saying [we’re] ultimately gonna guarantee that he’s gonna be this level of player at the major league level,” Preller says. “But our scouts did a good job, led by [pro scouting director] Pete DeYoung, telling me that, Hey, we think we have a guy that could be a very important player for our franchise.”
AT THE END of March 2019, the Padres were expected to send Tatis to Triple-A for a few weeks. It’s standard operating procedure for the best prospects, a spirit-of-the-law manipulation that delays free agency by a year. Before 2019, the last top-five prospect to debut Opening Day was Jason Heyward with Atlanta. That was in 2010.
When the Padres told Tatis he had made the team out of spring training, his first call was to Maria. “Get ready,” he said through tears of joy. “We’re going to San Diego.” When the Tatis clan arrived at the hotel in San Diego, there was such a festive commotion that someone called security.
In his debut, he stroked two hits. On April Fools’ Day, he homered for the first time. By the end of April, he was ranked in the top 10 in position-player WAR and had a 12-game hitting streak under his belt before he stretched on defense for an out — rare is the man Tatis’ size who can do the splits — and wound up on the injured list.
After he returned in June, seemingly every day offered something new and amazing, the oeuvre of Tatis revealing itself in the moment. Against Atlanta in July, Tatis got caught leaning toward second base by Braves starter Mike Soroka. Rather than dive back to first, Tatis started to run. “If anybody can get out of a pickle,” Padres announcer Jesse Agler said on the broadcast, “it’s Fernando Tatis Jr.” Just then, Tatis seemed to momentarily liquefy the bones in his torso. As he slid, his top half contorted in such a way to avoid Soroka’s tag. He was safe. “What doesn’t he do?” Agler asked. “What isn’t exciting?”
By then, supercuts of Tatis highlights already were dotting YouTube. The parabolic home runs to left, the tee shots to center, the pokes to right. Tatis’ spray chart, with half of his home runs up the middle, is like a Rorschach inkblot where the proper answer is “great hitter.” On Aug. 13, all of those inches Tatis had grown came in handy when Tampa Bay first baseman Jose Aguilar lined a ball to shortstop. Tatis leapt, snagged the ball at its peak, spun 180 degrees and returned to earth with it.
“There’s no question, he’s the face of this franchise. And I think he’s gonna be the face of this game very, very soon.”
One day later, after a swing, Tatis’ back locked up with a stress reaction. He missed the rest of the regular season but still finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. Back home, he didn’t play for Estrellas — and his father didn’t spend nearly as much time with the team either. In November, after Estrellas started the 2019-20 season 5-15, Tatis Sr. was fired. Junior was livid. He tapped a fiery Instagram post saying Estrellas could trade him. Fans in San Pedro offered their feelings in a subtler, more biting fashion. They returned to the streets — this time in protest with lit candles. For the Tatis dynasty, they held a vigil. It was real, all this power they had. Bebo used it for his family, for his city, for his country, for the Padres.
Now comes the natural evolution, albeit amid the sort of circumstances he never could have envisioned. The 2020 season is for his entire sport too.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Tatis says. “I just see it that way. You know, this game has been here for so long and now we’re a part of it. We’ve got to be responsible to keep it at the same level or bring it to a higher level. I think that’s going to be the key for us, for this game.”
The hours alone in his apartment this spring gave Tatis time to think — about his game and so much else. People are dying. The coronavirus isn’t going anywhere. He missed his family. He FaceTimes with his mom every day and his dad nearly as often. When Elijah and Maria Fernanda flew to San Diego to visit in mid-July, it was the first time he’d seen any Tatis in person in months.
It also gave Tatis time to think about his place in baseball. Dynastic aspirations tend to do that. Lately, he has said he would love to stay in San Diego and get a statue like Tony Gwynn. When the Padres shut down spring training, a number of Tatis’ teammates waited to see whether he was going back to the Dominican Republic before booking tickets home. When Tatis decamped to San Diego instead, they joined.
All the time Tatis spent fixing his foibles paid off. His swings and misses on pitches outside the zone are down by nearly 40% from his rookie season. After committing 18 errors last year, most of them on routine plays, Tatis came around to the idea that every play need not be flashy. He could take the proper angles. Use more feet, less arm. He has zero errors through 16 games this season. As his agent Roger Tomas tells Tatis, sometimes it’s OK to be boring.
Perhaps that says as much about who Fernando Tatis Jr. is as anything: He has to actively work at being boring. It took a pandemic and an increasingly monitored set of protocols to keep him from unleashing new sets of choreographed handshakes to celebrate his and the Padres’ triumphs. And even constrained — or as constrained as he can get — Tatis still manages to make antiseptic, fake-noise-infused, empty-stadium baseball feel urgent.
Two weeks into this strange season, Tatis is at the plate. He’s down 0-2, that same count as with Estrellas, this time against Ross Stripling, the starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom the Padres and everyone else are chasing in the National League. Stripling throws a high fastball. Tatis is hunting it. He loads his body so you can see TATIS JR. and the No. 23 on his back, then looses his bat on the unsuspecting ball. As the ball flies off the barrel at 112 mph, Tatis doesn’t even bother flipping his bat. He just lets it go, and it twirls in august fashion before touching the ground.
By then, Tatis is walking out of the batter’s box. Not running. Not jogging. He walks, because he can and because a home run like this — 430 feet, seemingly still climbing when it clangs in the empty stadium, accompanied by a perfect TV play-by-play call: “To the moon!” — warrants appreciation.
Except Tatis isn’t even looking at the ball. He’s staring into the Padres’ dugout that hot mics catch yelling, “Ohhhhhhh!” The scion of a dynasty, the favorite son of a nation, the fulcrum of the Padres, the next face of baseball is eyeing his teammates. They already know what everyone else is about to learn: This is only the beginning.