The collapse of Fernando Tatis Jr.

Special for Infobae of The New York Times.

SAN DIEGO — On an otherwise slow February morning at the start of spring training in 2021, the San Diego Padres shocked the baseball world by announcing that they had agreed to a 14-year, $340 million deal. with his young superstar shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr. At the time the player was 22 years old and that contract was, and still is, the longest in MLB history.

But when the Padres open the postseason against the New York Mets this Friday in Queens, New York, Tatis, the franchise player who should be leading them, will be nowhere to be seen. A series of bad ones ruined his summer, undermined his team and has thrown the future of a man who used to be one of the most magnetic players in the game into serious doubt.

“It’s a big blow, but we’ll get through it,” said Peter Seidler, the team’s majority owner. “Without a doubt it is a hard blow to lose one of the great players of his generation.”

On August 12, Tatis was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. At the time of the news, Tatis was on the San Antonio AA team, as part of his rehabilitation for a fracture of the scaphoid bone in his left wrist due to a motorcycle accident that occurred in his native Dominican Republic in December of last year, during the MLB lockout. Both he and his representatives downplayed the accident to the Padres, who were surprised when Tatis showed up to spring training in March with a sore wrist. A subsequent MRI examination revealed the fracture.

Tatis and the club once openly discussed erecting a monument in his honor in San Diego at the end of what they called a “statue contract.” But by the end of the regular season, the Padres had removed their huge mural from outside Petco Park, canceled their “bobblehead night” and removed their presence from the videos played on the bulletin board screen.

“It’s been a tough year for Fernando,” said relief pitcher Craig Stammen, one of the Padres’ longest-serving members. “Obviously he wants to be on the field. But he has made decisions that are not going to let him be on the field.”

an instant feeling

San Diego fell in love with Tatis after the player came to the team as a 20-year-old rookie fresh out of spring training in 2019. At the time, veterans Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer lobbied GM AJ Preller persuasively. Padres general, to take him to the majors. If we really want to winthey emphasized to Preller at the time, this boy has to be on our team.

From the start, Tatis injected energy into the clubhouse, excitement into the dugout and adrenaline into the field. When he hit .455 with two home runs in San Diego’s win over St. Louis in a 2020 postseason series, Tatis’s jersey was as ubiquitous in the city as hot days and blue skies.

Then—slowly at first—things began to fall apart.

Tatis’ defense was the only blemish on his game. Tatis made 18 errors in 2019, 14 of them on pitches. Statistically, he was one of the worst fielding shortstops in the majors. He ranked 33rd of 35 shortstops in Outs Above Average, according to Statcast.

San Diego hired Bobby Dickerson, known as one of the best infield instructors, to help. During what was dubbed “Camp COVID-19” in the summer of 2020 — teams’ private workouts to prepare for the pandemic-shortened season — Tatis expressed enormous frustration with himself during a defensive drill.

At the time, Dickerson told Tatis, “I’m going to be patient with you, but you have to be patient with yourself first.”

About a month after signing the big contract in February 2021, Tatis dislocated his left shoulder during a Cactus League game and was placed on the disabled list within days of the start of the season. It would be the first of four times he would dislocate his shoulder that season.

Tatis’s workouts with Dickerson were paying off: Tatis improved and climbed to 16th of 36 shortstops in Above Average Outs in 2021. But by September, the Padres, concerned about Tatis’s shoulder, began placing him in a less risky outfield position. Tatis clearly wasn’t too thrilled about that, and when that coincided with both a team and personal downturn — Tatis was batting .228 in August when the Padres began having an epic meltdown — things came to a head. .

One Saturday afternoon in St. Louis, after losing his cool after a strikeout at the plate, Tatis lashed out at Dickerson when the coach touched the then-22-year-old shortstop’s leg and essentially said, “Come on, I’ll give you a break.” need”.

The argument in the dugout escalated in full view of the public. “Go play baseball!” Machado yelled at Tatis, and, with rudeness, added: “This… it’s not about you!”

After Dickerson and Tatis were separated, starting pitcher Joe Musgrove told the coach he had done the right thing. Many players were already tired of Tatis’s bad mood, immaturity and irresponsibility. As much as his energy could lift the team, his attitude during the team’s collapse was demoralizing. About time someone said something about it, Musgrove told Dickerson.

“It occurred. It’s part of baseball. It’s a part that this game brings out, especially when good players are trying to win and things don’t go our way,” Tatis told reporters shortly after the incident. “At the end of the day, I’m glad it happened.”

But later, in a video interview with a reporter at his home in the Dominican Republic, Tatis’s father, former MLB player Fernando Tatis Senior, defended his son, saying Dickerson didn’t know how to deal with “superstar players.”

“I think I’m a well-known and respected enough infield coach, and after 30 years of dealing with the likes of JJ Hardy, Manny Machado and Jim Thome, I think I know how to deal with stars,” said Dickerson, now a coach in Philadelphia. in an interview last month. “I’m just a working class coach trying to make sure people have a better life than I did in this sport.”

At the end of the season, Tatis led the National League in home runs and finished third in voting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Later, he rejected the Padres’ recommendation that he have shoulder surgery. Senior team officials say they have no objection to his decision. They took comfort in the fact that Tatis had inquired about the process, as he had spoken with Cody Bellinger, Hanley Ramirez and Gregory Polanco, all players who had similar surgeries with varying degrees of success. Also, the surgery is complicated, so there was a chance that he might not regain full range of motion in his arm.

“However, there is a greater chance that it will be successfully fixed and you can get back to doing the things you want to do,” Preller said.

The accident

Then came December and reports that Tatis had been in an accident on his motorcycle.

The Padres found out about the accident on Twitter. Because MLB owners had locked out players during a labor dispute, teams were prohibited from direct contact with their players. Tatis’s father downplayed the accident, saying “it wasn’t a big deal.” He assured that his son had only “scratched his knee and hands a little.”

Preller said he believed the accident occurred near Tatis’ home in San Pedro de Macorís, but reports from the Dominican Republic suggested it may have occurred in Punta Cana, the popular tourist area on the island’s east coast. or in Higüey, 64 kilometers to the west. Emergency medical workers and traffic police at each of the locations said they had no records of the accident, possibly, some said, because it was a solo accident and because Tatis had gone to a private clinic and had not called 911. .

Although Tatis mentioned that there had been a few “accidents” this spring when he testified to the media, the Padres believe there was only one and things got mixed up during translation. Tatis told the Padres that, in addition to the accident, he had hit a bump while he was training for the season, and that fall could have exacerbated the injury.

In any case, the Padres did not try to apply any punitive measures, such as trying to recover some of the money that had been paid with a contractual clause that prohibits the use of motorcycles. Because the 14-year contract is just beginning, the team felt it was best to maintain a harmonious relationship. And since Tatis is only making $4.2 million this year (it will eventually grow to $36 million a year), his absence was hardly the financial blow it might have been. Plus, they thought he’d be back just in time for the postseason.

It was there that everything finally fell into place.

The suspension

On Aug. 11, Preller was in Frisco, Texas, to visit Tatis, who was rehabbing from his injury. From there, Preller traveled to meet with the major league team in Washington, DC, on August 12. That afternoon, he was surprised by a call from Dan Lozano, Tatis’s agent, who informed him of the immediate suspension.

Tatis, who never mentioned the suspension when he saw Preller in Texas, had rushed back to San Diego that morning. “I freaked out,” Tatis said at a news conference on Aug. 23, his only public appearance since the suspension.

“Unfortunately there were a lot of setbacks with his wrist, and obviously, I’m sure that’s why he tried to speed up the process,” said Washington’s Luke Voit, who started the season with the Padres. “It’s hard to feel sorry for him. He disappointed a lot of his peers.”

At first, Tatis’ camp attributed the positive result to a mix-up with a drug he needed to treat ringworm. Her mother posted a photo of her neck on Instagram to support the ringworm claim, then deleted it. Tatis’s father criticized the league for the suspension, stating that: “There are millions of fans who are now going to stop watching baseball. It is a total disappointment for Dominican fans and fans around the world, for something so insignificant that it was not even worth it.”

When he apologized to teammates, the organization and the public in August, Tatis called his performance-enhancing drug policy violation “a stupid mistake” and admitted to being “irresponsible.” Tatis promised fans who have lost faith: “I will give you a story to make you believe in me again.”

Tatis hasn’t spoken publicly since August and isn’t expected to give interviews before spring training in 2023.

With time to spare, Tatis announced in August that he would undergo the shoulder surgery he had previously avoided. It was delayed a week when she contracted strep throat.

Now, with his arm in a sling and his image in tatters, Tatis spends his afternoons rehabbing at Petco Park. And by the time the team arrives at the stadium each day, Tatis is gone.

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