Welcome to the Year of Tatis: Why San Diego’s $340 million face is exactly what MLB needs right now

MLB

Over the winter, when Fernando Tatis Jr. was not working on trying to fulfill his goal of becoming the best baseball player ever, he exhausted his free time working on his farms in the Dominican Republic. He rode horses and fed chickens and tended to the lemons and hunted duck. Tatis might be the burgeoning face of baseball — his 14-year, $340 million contract with the San Diego Padres set to be announced today — but he’s plenty happy to soil that mug every now and again. More than once this offseason, Tatis found himself squatting in the dirt, milking cows.

If the thought of Tatis playing farmhand is utterly perplexing, well, get ready for more. He is not all swag and dreadlocks. If 2019 was the introduction and 2020 the breakout, 2021 is primed to be The Year of Tatis — the full blossoming of a staggering talent whose appeal goes well beyond the game of baseball. No disrespect intended to Mike Trout, who still holds the title of Best Player on the Planet, or Juan Soto, who is quickly locking down Best Hitter on the Planet, or Mookie Betts, who showed the ability to make an entire month his own when he stole October.

It’s just one of those moments in which everything aligns perfectly — the player, the team, the time. There have been triumphs and there will be impediments and it’s all part of the hero’s journey, which, when foisted on a 22-year-old, can feel a bit premature. Might be. Probably is. But then, Tatis is here, with all of these things, because when given other challenges, other burdens, he has slayed them. And with each conquest comes something more — this time, winning the Padres’ first championship or his first MVP award or doing the sorts of things only historically great players can actualize.

Before that, he needed some time to return to the place that raised him, San Pedro de Macoris, to the beach where he trains and the muggy gym where he lifts, to the rivers around the country where he swims in search of waterfalls. To the most basic thing, like that inimitable feeling of digging your hands into the earth and knowing that even amid something dirty, you can find something beautiful.

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It is a truly enjoyable time to be a fan of baseball. It’s not just Tatis and Trout and Soto and Betts. Ronald Acuña Jr. shares qualities with all four. Luis Robert and Tim Anderson have their own sort of dynamism. Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole are waging an inter-borough battle for mound supremacy as the Mets and Yankees ascend. Wander Franco is coming. The Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers might be the best two teams in baseball and will play 19 times this season — and, hopefully, more in October. Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, Francisco Lindor and Christian Yelich suddenly are the old heads. Yelich is the most wizened of the bunch at 29.

It is also a truly scary time to be a fan of baseball. For the first time in a quarter-century, labor unrest feels imminent. This is not doom-and-gloom. The signs are everywhere. In conversations with officials from the players’ association and the league, with players and owners. In the words of Seattle Mariners president Kevin Mather, who, amid a shocker of a chat with a group of local Rotarians, said on the subject of labor relations: “I’m very worried about what’s coming in the future.” And in the shift of the free-agent market, the sides’ distrust of one another and divergent views on the future of the sport.

Watching baseball in 2021, adoring baseball in 2021, does not necessitate thinking about what happens beyond 2021, of course. There is something powerful about enjoying the moment — something to the idea that if the sky were falling, maybe those who weren’t panicking about it would be the most enlightened ones, because they’re relishing what’s in front of them.

It’s also not that easy for others. There is anger, rightful anger, righteous anger, that this great game, these great players, could be sidelined for valuable time in their careers, time in which they could do miraculous things and won’t be able to because of fights over money. That a new generation of owners who don’t understand the damage of a labor war are now running teams, and that this generation of players is so tired of losing in collective-bargaining agreements that a fight is the inevitable conclusion.

And if that is, in fact, the case — if the drums of labor discord thump beyond the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement’s Dec. 1 expiration — the accompanying music should be a clarion call to savor The Year of Tatis, to lap up his at-bats and treasure his daring plays in the field and appreciate how he runs the bases and adore the whole of him.

Tatis resonates with such a wide swath of people — and particularly with a generation of kids that baseball desperately needs — because that whole is equal to the sum of its parts, and each of those parts is exhilarating. As id-heavy as Tatis’ appeal might be — with every epic bat flip and 3-0 swing in a blowout, another small part of baseball’s archaic past dies — the substance matches, even exceeds, the style.

The best parts of Tatis brim not from some made-up emotional reservoir, but from a genuine passion for the game he’s playing, for the gifts he’s been given. He doesn’t flip his bat for the GIFs; he does it because he plays with emotion and passion, and the last thing the sport should be doing is regulating that. He doesn’t swing 3-0 because he wants to flame the other team; he does it because sometimes a monolith deserves to fall, and if he happens to be the one to help excise strictures of the past from the game, he’s not here to argue.

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Fernando Tatis Jr. hits an opposite-field home run and celebrates in style during the Padres’ playoff matchup with the Cardinals.

Knowing what Tatis can do, knowing that he might be prevented from doing it, might be the best reason of all for the union and the league to do everything in their power to avoid a labor stoppage. Baseball certainly has its faults, and those faults likewise deserve a reckoning. But if the collateral damage of that is to steal time from Tatis and Trout and Soto and Betts and Acuña and Robert and Anderson and deGrom and Cole and Franco and Harper and Judge and Lindor and Yelich and countless others, then it deserves every last bit of the deluge of rage and ire that will accompany it.

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Fourteen years, in sports, is an eternity. In the 2007 season, 611 position players logged at least one plate appearance. Today, 11 of them remain under contract with a major league organization. So to understand what the Padres did by committing to a player for nearly a decade and a half, and to fathom likewise why Tatis would wed himself to a team, necessitates an understanding of the player and how he thinks.

That — more than anything he does on the field, more than how he looks off it — might be the most beautiful thing about Tatis. He could have waited and chased all the money and gotten richer than incredibly rich. He didn’t. Though, that’s not the part that is laudable. If someone of Tatis’ ilk prioritizes money, that’s his right.

No, it’s that Tatis repaid San Diego’s faith in him, its support of him, with that of his own. It’s that all the Padres and their star illustrated that the relationship between player and team can be one of mutual respect and admiration and benefit. It’s that the Padres didn’t manipulate Tatis’ service time, like Mather copped to doing with the Mariners’ top prospect, Jarred Kelenic. It’s that San Diego never tried to change Tatis, to stamp out the most incendiary parts of his game. The Padres don’t scoff when he says he wants to be the best player ever; they surround him with championship-caliber players, because they understand part of the calculus is team success.

This is how baseball can work. This is how baseball should work. Young players, the lifeblood of the sport, getting paid proportionately and fairly. Teams that try to win getting rewarded by players who appreciate the effort. Tatis genuinely cares about baseball — about growing it. This offseason, following an MVP-caliber season, he played for Estrellas Orientales, his hometown team in the Dominican Winter League. Current stars do not play winter ball. Tatis felt like it was his duty. As much as he wants to be the greatest, his primary goal is for everyone to say Fernando Tatis Jr. loves baseball.

And look at where that’s gotten him. At 22, he is in the middle of the best current team rivalry in the sport with the Padres and Dodgers. He is in the middle of the fascinating conversation about with whom you’d choose to start a franchise: Tatis, Soto or Acuña. He has reignited the face-of-baseball talk, though the truth is, as much as he embraces it, he doesn’t necessarily want it to himself. Baseball, he says, doesn’t need just one face.

Though, if it’s going to have one, it could do plenty worse than Tatis. He is not running from the responsibility. At times, it’s cumbersome, and at times, it’s hard work, but he knows by now: Getting a little dirty is just part of the journey.

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