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Fernando Tatis Jr. Is The Star The Padres Couldn't Afford To Let Get Away

In the hours after the Padres eliminated the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card Series last fall, the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 1998, Fernando Tatis Jr. emerged from the bowels of Petco Park and made his way toward the team buses parked along the street.

When Tatis appeared, he was greeted by a throng of screaming fans, music thumping so loudly it could be heard for blocks and an outpouring of unbridled joy from a fanbase, and a city, that had sustained heartbreak after heartbreak as a sports town for the better part of a decade.

Tatis engaged with the fans from a safe distance. Like a maestro, he instructed them to raise the volume, bobbed his head and body in unison with their chants, let them know that he felt the love and that he appreciated the fans as much as they appreciated him.

It was a moment, on a night downtown San Diego shook with excitement, that made it clear the Padres could not afford to lose Tatis.

Keeping him would be expensive. Losing him would cost much, much more.

Tatis’ 14-year, $340 million contact with the Padres became official Monday. The dynamic young shortstop could have gone year-to-year and hit free agency at 25, when he potentially would have received a record-breaking contract. He could have signed a contract that guaranteed him nine figures and still allowed him to reach free agency in his late 20s, where another massive contract likely would have awaited him.

Instead, he chose to commit to San Diego. When the Padres initially began discussing a long-term deal, they started at 12 years. Tatis countered: “Why not my whole career?”

“We're here to stay,” Tatis said Monday at a press conference to formally announce the signing. “I love this city. I love the fans. I love the culture. I love the vibe. And I'm all about winning, and I'm all about winning in San Diego.”

Tatis’ deal is the longest contract in major league history and the third-largest in total value, behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. The Padres have not historically been among baseball’s biggest spenders, leading to natural questions about whether they could really afford the deal.

As owner Peter Seidler made clear in his press conference following Tatis’, the answer is unequivocally yes.

Despite a reputation as a small market, San Diego is the eighth-most populous city in the U.S. The Padres' current television deal makes their modest media market size a non-issue. Concerns about a lack of exposure for Tatis in San Diego are quickly allayed by the fact he’s already received endorsements from Gatorade, Adidas and BMW, finished top five in MLB in jersey sales last season and is on the cover of the latest edition of MLB The Show.

The necessity of being in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles to become a recognizable star is a vestige of a bygone era. LeBron James became the face of the NBA in Cleveland. Patrick Mahomes became the newest face of the NFL in Kansas City. San Diego is significantly larger than both places, by both city size and greater metro area.

“We’re the eighth-largest city in America,” Seidler said. “There’s nothing we can’t do.”

In many ways, Tatis is a star made for San Diego. He is bilingual in a county where more than one-third of residents are Hispanic or Latino. He is a mesmerizing player on the field and an engaging, charismatic individual off it, the type of marquee talent who can command San Diegans' attention—and considerable disposable income—ahead of the multitude of other entertainment options available.

But more than that, Tatis embodies joy and enthusiasm and hope, something San Diego sports fans have craved after a decade of devastation.

In 2012, Junior Seau, the Chargers legend and fan favorite, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest at age 43.

In 2014, Tony Gwynn, the most famous and beloved player in Padres history, died from salivary gland cancer at age 54.

And in 2017, the Chargers, after years of a targeted effort by ownership to alienate fans so they would no longer support the team (it worked) and then use that lack of support to justify relocating, moved to Los Angeles.

The city suffered loss after loss after loss. The players and teams it loved most were all gone in a span of five years. The losses were felt deeply, and remain so to this day.

The Padres resurgence, with Tatis at the helm, has given San Diego sports fans something to feel positive about for the first time in years.

“We've seen some teams leave our city and I think it's been hard for our fan base, or the sports fan San Diego, to bite down on consistency," general manager A.J. Preller said. "And I think that's what makes today's such a special day for the fans of San Diego.”

That perceptive understanding by Padres ownership and management, not just of Tatis’ talent but what he represents to the franchise and its paying customers, is critical.

If the Padres had let Tatis leave as a free agent in his prime, it would have taken years for the club to recover the city’s trust and, equally as important, its business. Losing him would have been another blow to San Diego’s sports landscape, and one fans would not have easily forgiven the franchise for.

“People talk about risk,” Seidler said. “What people don't so much talk about is the risk of doing nothing. And in this case I've heard the arguments on both sides, like, ‘Why now? Why not wait? Why doesn't he wait?’ He wanted to do it. We wanted to do it. We were both clear minded about it and it made great sense. And personally, I didn't want to take the risk of doing nothing.”

Out beyond center field at Petco Park are statues of Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman, two Hall of Famers who spent at least 16 seasons with San Diego and wear Padres hats on their plaques in Cooperstown. They are the two most famous Padres players, known for their Hall of Fame talent but also their work in the community that made them icons well beyond just what they accomplished on the field.

Tatis spoke openly about his desire to join them with a statue of his own one day, going so far as to join Preller in referring to his new deal as a “statue contract.”

The Padres took the chance that Tatis will do just that. The cost to do so was great.

The cost of not doing so, and potentially letting him get away in his prime, would have been even greater.

“It's been my mindset since I started playing this game,” Tatis said. “I said I feel like the team that gives me the chance, I will embrace it 100% and why not? Why not go to a statue contract? People are saying ‘Oh too many years' but I just love what I'm seeing, what we're going to do.

“I want the statue on one team. I want to be able to stay on one team and build my legacy here in San Diego.”

Starling Marte Ezrashawgetty

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