Fernando Tatis Jr. Is Stealing the Show

While Vlad Guerrero Jr.'s HR Derby wowed fans and players, his 'brother' in San Diego has emerged as MLB's next superstar thanks to his dad's wisdom and a swagger as infectious as it is deserved.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistIN SAN DIEGOAugust 12, 2019

The kid sees things you don't.

Standing on third base, Fernando Tatis Jr. sees daylight home on pop flies to second. Sprinting toward potential catastrophe, he sees a defensive crack he can bust open with a squiggly slide.

He sees dance parties in the San Diego dugout and sugar cane farmers laboring back home in San Pedro De Macoris, Dominican Republic, celebrating them with the wildly popular "sugar cane chop" he introduced to the Padres this spring. The love of his mother. He sees that, too, evident in the subtle pink accent coloring a piece of equipment he wears many games, be it the frame of his sunglasses, the tabs on the backs of his spikes, his wristbands, something. He's absorbed her love and dedication wholly, appreciates everything she's done to help place him in this crackling, electric moment, and if he's wearing his father's name across the back of his jersey, well, he figures the least he can do is give her a quiet nightly shout-out as well.

Tatis doesn't so much play baseball as celebrate it, from his flowing, bleach-blond dreadlocks right down to the tips of his five-tool toes.

"He's the most exciting young player I've seen since Ken Griffey Jr.," venerated baseball journalist Peter Gammons said a few Sundays ago during batting practice at the MLB Futures Game in Cleveland, nodding toward JuniorGriffey, not Tatisbehind the cage as he spoke.

Tatis has yet to even play 100 games in the bigs and already the chorus is nearing standing-room only.

"He's a top-10 player in the major leagues right now," says Skip Schumaker, an 11-year veteran who helped the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series and now serves as the Padres' first base coach. "He's all-world in defense, he's all-world in running the bases, he's all-world at the plate.

"He's a difference-maker when you put him in the lineup on both sides of the ball."

The kid is all of 20 years old. Already, he has joined Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Correa as the only three shortstops to have 18 or more homers in their age-20 seasons. Last month, he became the youngest player to belt leadoff home runs in consecutive games. He projects to finish the season batting .320/.383/.600 with 34 homers and 64 extra-base hits despite missing five weeks from late April to early June with a strained hamstring.

Despite standing 6'3", he plays shortstop with the agility of an Olympic gymnast, tumbling and somersaulting his way to sizzling worm-burners and one-hoppers clearly out of his reach and then finishing the plays with rockets to first that Statcast clocks as fast as 94 mph.

He is everything you've heard about Vladimir Guerrero Jr...times 10. That is no knock on Vladdy, whose arrival this spring was greeted with breathless anticipation and who just happens to be good buddies with Tatis. Their fathers were teammates in Montreal from 2001-03, and the sons were born two months apart in 1999Tatis on Jan. 2, Guerrero on March 16. They toddled around the Expos' Olympic Stadium clubhouse together when they were 3 and 4 and now, living in towns roughly 90 minutes apart in the Dominican Republic, they hang out some in the winters. In-season, they text frequently.

"We joke around saying we are brothers from different dads," says Guerrero, whose MLB debut this year came less than a month after Tatis'. "He's a good person, a good guy. He has a lot of fun, and I'm glad to see he's showing it."

Tatis smiles about Guerrero's "brothers from different dads" remark.

"Been that way since Montreal," he says. 

With his extreme agility, Fernando Tatis has made the left side of the Padres infield one of the flashiest in the game.
With his extreme agility, Fernando Tatis has made the left side of the Padres infield one of the flashiest in the game.Orlando Ramirez/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

This is where Tatis' vision started to focus, where the seeds of his baseball IQ began to sprout.

"Oh man, I'll tell you what," Fernando Tatis Sr. says. "My favorite story is looking at those two kids, hitting balls, catching ground balls, every day, no matter what. Vladdy Jr. just wanted to hit. Forget about fielding, playing catch. I just want to hit."

Nearly two decades later, the difference in the two boys' personalities and interests then still makes Tatis Sr. chuckle.

"Junior wanted to play catch, take ground balls, he wanted to do it all," he says of his own Junior. "Same guy you see right now as a player playing shortstop dancing a little bit, making jokes, having fun—that's him.

"In the past he was like that, too. So many things he likes to do. He loved to go fishing. He loved to go hunting. He loved to play basketball, volleyball, soccer. This is a kid sometimes I'd have to say, 'Hey, hey, hey, take it easy.' Because he wanted to do so many things at the same time. I'd say, 'Pick one.' Junior is something else. When it was raining, he loved to go outside and shower in the rain, walk, run, have fun."

If not baseball, Tatis Jr. says, he would probably be playing volleyball or basketball. Given his lanky frame, he'd likely excel in either. And if not sports?

"I'd probably be a traumatologist," he says. "I just like it. I'm good with science and with the body itself."

"Mm-hmm," his father says. "This kid, people don't know how smart he is, especially in math. This kid can count. He was always one of the greatest in his class. Always. He was always on the honor roll. This kid is very, very smart, and he loves to help people."

On the field, his smarts regularly induce trauma to opponents. Twice in an eight-day span earlier this summer he tagged and scored from third on pop-ups caught by the Pittsburgh and San Francisco second basemen. Against Giants rookie pitcher Shaun Anderson in late July, he was knocked down by an up-and-in 94 mph heater...and then sprang up and drilled the very next pitch, a hanging slider, over the center field fence. Veteran teammates, who recognized this wise-beyond-his-years demeanor in spring training, continue to be amazed.

"You don't teach that; it just comes," says Manny Machado, whose play at third base alongside Tatis' provides the Padres nightly highlight reels and as good a left-side infield defense as there is in the game. "It's incredible the things that he does, and we're like, 'Oh man, where did that come from?'"

Like an artist attempting to explain the genesis of a beautiful work, Tatis cannot completely relate how he sees some of the things he sees on the field. He surmises it comes from paying attention on a deep level during all those games he played as a kid back home. He simply wants to bring the same mentality with him every day, he says, always staying in touch with the game he played as a kid and "trying to take advantage of people who are asleep or not paying attention."

"I remember from the beginning with him, we would take him to the toy store and he would always pick out a bat or a glove or a baseball," says his mother, Maria, who sometimes tried—and usually failed—to steer him toward Legos or remote-controlled cars. "I would always tell him, 'You already have that one. You want something else? You want something different?' But he would always say he wanted another bat, or ball, or glove."

It is from those days and beyond that Fernando made sure to include something pinkMaria's favorite color—as part of his uniform.

"That's one of the ways I tell her that she's always on my mind and always in my heart, even when I'm on the field," Tatis says.

Certainly, though, there is a built-in advantage in having a father who played in the majors, not to mention having the sport run in his family's blood. Tatis Sr.'s father played, as did his uncles and cousins—one of whom, a left-hander named Ramon Tatis, pitched for the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay over 78 games in 1997 and 1998.

Now, it's Fernando Jr.'s time, and he and his father talk about the game nearly every day, as they have throughout his life.

Be smart, his father has always told him. There's running, hitting, defense. Every single day, you must carry all of it with you on the field. Pay attention. Don't play another game during the game you're playing.

Tatis has played as his father has counseled and emerged as one of the most complete offensive talents in the game, hitting .320 with 22 homers and 16 steals through his first 82 games.
Tatis has played as his father has counseled and emerged as one of the most complete offensive talents in the game, hitting .320 with 22 homers and 16 steals through his first 82 games.Abbie Parr/Getty Images

"When he's on base, if you blink your eyes and you don't see him, he's going to do something," Tatis Sr. says. "He's always watching what way to do some damage. This kid is built to win a baseball game."

There are the subtle, high-baseball IQ things he does. Then there are the sledgehammer blows he delivers in full view of everybody, with panache. Like the walk-off home run he blasted in the Dominican Winter League in January that helped spur his hometown Estrellas Orientales toward their first Dominican League title in 51 years, followed by a bat flip epic enough that various Padres razzed him all spring training about it: Are we going to see that in San Diego? How often?

Tatis smiles at these memories. He doesn't just absorb the zings, he revels in them. His unique mix of swag with humility at once makes him seem both older than 20 and still the youngest person in the room. The thing about him right now, Machado says, is that you can tell him anything, critical or positive, and he remains nonplussed, soaking in the advice, acting on it while moving on to what's next.

Even now, after surprising the baseball world by breaking camp on the Padres' Opening Day roster, and with everything he's done since, Tatis says Estrellas' title "is the best experience of my life. It was like a dream come true, bringing that to my home city, breaking that curse of 51 years, being a part of that."

Indeed, it was personal: His hometown team, his people, his father managing. It's why, after his 2018 season ended in July at Double-A San Antonio when he had surgery for a fractured left thumb, he didn't so much ask the Padres if he could play winter ball instead of in the Arizona Fall League, he told them.

With Tatis' father as manager, the Padres were able to check in frequently as they worked to balance Tatis' ongoing development—"Every day was like Game 7 of the World Series for me," Tatis Jr. saysagainst making sure he was rested for spring camp.

Tatis Sr. assured them that while the winter ball team wanted to win and put the best team forward for San Pedro, he is also a father and wanted to make sure Fernando Jr. would be in the best position to make the big league club and have a long career.

Best-known for smashing two grand slams in one inning when he was playing for St. Louis in 1999, Tatis Sr. long has been kidded by a son who has watched the video of that so many times he's lost count. Fernando Jr. tells him, "OK, I'll give you that. But I'm going to hit more homers than you."

Fernando Tatis Sr. spent 11 years in the majors, highlighted by a 1999 season with the Cardinals in which he hit .298 with 34 home runs and 21 steals.
Fernando Tatis Sr. spent 11 years in the majors, highlighted by a 1999 season with the Cardinals in which he hit .298 with 34 home runs and 21 steals.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Tatis Sr., who finished with 113 homers (Junior already has 22 in just 82 games) laughs and goes along with it, telling his son: "There's no doubt you're going to hit more home runs than I did in the majors because you have the best hitting coach you can ever have: Me. So, of course, you're going to do it. I never had a hitting coach like me."

Tatis Jr. is a walking carnival on the field, the type of kid who can make people fall in love with baseball all over again. In today's all-or-nothing, home run-or-strikeout game, Tatis Jr. plays with verve.

Watch next time a routine infield pop-up skies to the left side of the Padres infield: There's an ongoing playfulness between Tatis and Machado, one sometimes stealing the catch from the other, the smiles and grins between them the stuff of innocent playground fun. So, too, are some of his acrobatic, tag-avoiding slides.

"It's good to be 20 years old again, to be able to do that and wake up the next morning [not sore]," Machado says. "It's incredible what he does. Every single day, he impresses you."

The sugar cane chop was imported from Estrellasformer big leaguer Junior Lake started it this past winter, according to Tatis Sr., and Tatis Jr. brought it with him. The sugar cane industry is "big time" important in the San Pedro region, Tatis Sr. says, and it's all about remembering where you came from. It has become the Padres' signature celebration.

"A couple of bus rides with him this spring, then I got a good hang of it," Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer says.

"Hey, we're athletes in here. We catch up to that pretty quick," Machado says, chuckling. "It's keeping you engaged in the game. Everyone's bought into it, and when you do that, it's 25 of us having fun and being a part of something special. And that's what we're trying to create in here."

Back home in San Pedro, Tatis Sr. says, they're glued to their native son and his team as the Padres sugar cane chop their way through the season, pushing through a rebuild that they expect to begin paying dividends soon—especially after they acquired Tatis Jr. from the White Sox in a trade for pitcher James Shields in June 2016, when he was just 17 and had yet to play a professional game.

"You don't even know," Tatis Sr. says. "I wish you could be here. Every person here, they love it. Every game, the whole town, everywhere ... in houses, restaurants, supermarkets, we all see it.

Three years later, and he's become one of the faces of a franchise that hopes to reverse a recent history that hasn't seen it finish above .500 since 2010.

Manny Machado says that Tatis' enthusiasm has spread throughout the Padres clubhouse this season.
Manny Machado says that Tatis' enthusiasm has spread throughout the Padres clubhouse this season.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

"He's an even better dude off the field, which has you rooting for him even more," Hosmer says. "The stuff he does, man, it's contagious. You're going to see all the kids in San Diego doing all the stuff he does.

"They're really lucky to have a guy like him to watch play for the next [many] years."

Says Guerrero, who's trying to revive a moribund Toronto franchise himself: "We talk about how we can get better. About how our dads already did that, and now we want to figure it out on our own."

Close your eyes, and you can see it now: The dancing, the sugar cane chopping, the spectacular plays, all of it occupying MLB's main stage soon, for good. Probably, Tatis has already seen this. Probably has for years.

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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