Image credit: (Photo by Andy Hayt/Getty Images)
When Fernando Tatis Sr. joined the Rangers’ Gulf Coast League team in 1994, he was a determined teenager. He was convinced he would become a big leaguer. But he wasn’t so sure he could order dinner.
Baseball was the easy part. Put Tatis at third base or in the batter’s box and he was right at home. Navigating everything else around the game was brutal. At that time, organizations did very little to help players from the Dominican Republic adjust to a new country with a new language and a new culture.
“I had to figure it out myself,” Tatis said. “That was very difficult for me, figuring out how to play this game, especially in the minor leagues. Coming through the minor leagues was very hard, especially in my day.
“The most difficult thing for me was learning the language. Coming to the United State without English, and not understanding anything in the field and what the coaches are teaching you . . . It was tough.”
Ordering food or deciphering a coach’s instructions were obstacles to be overcome. But Tatis had always dreamed of being a ballplayer. It was his path. And so he figured it out, step by step. He reached the big leagues by the time he was 22 on his way to an 11-year big league career spent primarily at third base.
“It was very difficult,” Tatis said, “but we didn’t even think about it because the passion we had for the game covered everything. The hard times we went through—we just wanted to play baseball.”
When Fernando Tatis Jr. arrived in Fort Wayne, Ind., to begin his first full season in the minors in 2017, it should have been difficult. The Padres shortstop prospect had never played in front of crowds of fans. His pro experience had been concentrated in sparsely-attended Rookie-level leagues in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.
But unlike his father, Tatis Jr. had been prepped in every way possible for the moment.
Ordering dinner? Easy. Catching up to a 95 mph fastball? Piece of cake. Handling interviews? Something fun.
“It’s something that when you talk to these young guys, what I used to tell him was be yourself,” Tatis said. “The big leagues will give you a lot of opportunities to make friends. So make a lot of friends, be humble, respect everybody and just be you and make a lot of friends. That way you won’t get into trouble.”
Tatis learned English as a second language at school and got to practice it in the States on his summer trips to follow his dad around the big leagues. He quickly became the favorite and best interview of anyone covering the Fort Wayne TinCaps last year. The youngest player on the team at age 18, Tatis quickly became the team leader.
“From the beginning, on his first day in town, he was unfazed by the idea of holding court,” Fort Wayne broadcaster and media relations manager John Nolan said. “Answering questions about himself, his dad, his team? He was never fazed by any of it.”
It didn’t hurt that Tatis quickly became one of the best players in the low Class A Midwest League. He held his own during the first two months, warming up as the frosts of April were replaced by the warmth of a late Indiana spring. From June on, Tatis was the MWL’s best hitter, in part because Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. graduated to the Florida State League.
Tatis hit .281/.390/.520 in 117 games at Fort Wayne, collecting 21 home runs, 26 doubles and 29 stolen bases. In the second half he hit .311 with 12 homers, 17 steals and 48 walks in 51 games. In Tatis’ final two weeks in the MWL, he hit .370 and drew 21 walks in 16 games as pitchers simply stopped giving him anything to hit.
“There were cases when 2-0 or 3-0 I was getting changeups and sliders,” Tatis said. “That was the point where I was a scary hitter. I learned I could turn on a fastball, and if you hang me a breaking ball, I can hit it, too. I trust my hands. I trust the work I’ve done in the cage and in BP. I knew what I was doing.”
The Padres promoted Tatis to Double-A San Antonio for the final few weeks of the season and the Texas League playoffs. He hit .350/.391/.550 with a team-best seven hits and five runs in the playoffs.
Everything that was difficult for the elder Tatis has been much easier for his son. That’s by design. It’s a story that has been told countless times on every continent. Parents strive to make sure their kids have an easier path than they had.
“I have the advantage of having a dad who has been through all that I’ve been through and has taught me everything I know today,” Tatis Jr. said. “He’s got me on the right path.”
As the son of a big leaguer, Tatis Jr. cruised through childhood enjoying a life that was effortless compared with that of his father. He got a top-notch education. He grew up wandering through big league clubhouses. His mother, Maria, and his father have been able to provide him everything he needed. And his neighbor, Robinson Cano, has helped as well, taking Tatis Jr. under his wing and training with him in the offseason.
“He’s grown up in a more stable environment—baseball-wise, academically, spiritually,” Maria said, as translated by Tatis’ agent, Roger Tomas of MVP Sports. “My husband didn’t. That’s helped (Junior) deal with a lot of this early success.”
But “Bebo,” as Tatis Jr. was called around the house, also was blessed with a gift handed down from father to son. From an early age, Tatis Jr. had apparent athleticism. “It was always about baseball for him,” Maria said. “Whenever I took him to a toy store, it was always about getting a bat or a glove. It was never about getting an actual toy.
“Baseball is in his blood,” Tatis Sr. said. “All my family played baseball from my father’s side—professionally, too. A lot of people expected him to be a very good baseball player. It’s in his blood.”
Tatis Sr. knows all about those expectations. His father was a baseball player who made it to Triple-A before becoming a coach and scout. Almost from birth, Tatis Sr. had been raised to play the game. His mother Yudelca told him the story of how his father put a miniature baseball bat in his crib and told him: “One day you’ll be a baseball player like me.”
But that was one of the few stories Tatis Sr. knew about his father. His parents divorced soon after he was born. His father walked out of his son’s life around Fernando’s fifth birthday. They weren’t reunited until after Tatis Sr. made it to the big leagues.
The White Sox signed Tatis Jr. as an international free agent in 2015 but traded him before he ever appeared in a game for the organization. Chicago sent him to the Padres in June 2016 for big leaguer James Shields, in a deal in which San Diego also sent nearly $30 million to cover part of Shields’ salary.
As impressive as Tatis’ hitting has been, he’s just as proud of his glove work. When Tatis signed with the White Sox as a 16-year-old, most scouts believed he would soon outgrow the position, moving to third base where his father and grandfather both played.
But while Tatis has grown taller—he now stands 6-foot-4—he has worked hard to stay slim and agile. He could still outgrow shortstop, but scouts generally see that as something that could happen in the distant future.
“I’ve been working a lot to stay at short. I want to be a shortstop,” Tatis said. “I’ve been working for that, and I feel like I’ve proved I can stay there for a long time.”
Nolan’s most vivid memories of Tatis in Fort Wayne revolve more around the defensive gems that he turned in night after night.
“During the course of a game, a broadcaster keeps to himself in the booth,” Nolan said. “But if there’s a remarkable play, you might, between innings, pop over to the other (broadcaster’s) booth to share in the moment.
“That became a fairly regular occurrence with Fernando. Sometimes the opposing broadcaster would come in and say, ‘Wow I can’t believe that.’ And I’d have to ask, ‘Which one are you talking about?’ Because he had two highlight defensive plays in the same half-inning.”
Tatis has the plus to plus-plus arm that scouts (and the Padres) love to see in their shortstops. His length, agility and vertical reach are reminders that volleyball was one of his other passions as a kid. Now he goes high to snag line drives. And his running speed is surprising for someone his size. He’s an above-average runner with a quick first step.
The next step will be one of Tatis’ biggest. He returns to Double-A San Antonio to begin the 2018 season, but he showed during spring training that he’s not that far from San Diego. Tatis was the youngest player invited to any team’s big league camp. He quickly became the story of Padres camp by hitting .348/.423/.609 with four extra-base hits and three steals in 23 at-bats before being sent down to minor league camp.
Tatis will play the entire 2019 season as a 19-year-old, and it’s possible he could reach San Diego by September. No shortstop has had even 10 plate appearances in the big leagues as a teenager this century. Just 10 shortstops have reached the majors as a teenager since 1970. Those 10 include Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Alan Trammell as well as Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Edgar Renteria.
Those who have seen Tatis handle every challenge with ease wouldn’t be surprised to see him speed up his timetable.
From full-season ball as an 18-year-old to the youngest player at Double-A to the youngest player in big league camp, Tatis keeps making it look easy. Every challenge has been handled with few issues. Every next step seems to look natural for the teenager. But the next step counts for the most. Being a top prospect is ephemeral. Being a top big leaguer has a lasting legacy.
“I know my name is already out there, so I have to (produce) at the same level or put it even higher,” Tatis said. “I’ve got to work harder and keep pushing and bring the same or higher honor to my family.”
Tatis is aiming for higher honors. Ask him about his goals and he makes it clear. He wants to be an all-time great.
“I’m really hard on myself,” Tatis said. “When I turn 27, I want to be a World Series champion. All-Star Games? Five or six of them with a Home Run Derby. Not one World Series championship, but a couple of them on my way to a Hall of Fame career. I was blessed with a lot of talent. I don’t want to give it away and trash it.”
When Tatis Sr. made the major leagues, he didn’t have many people he wanted to call. It was a special moment that was shared with a very select few. He had largely driven his way to the big leagues through his own determination. Few were along for the ride.
“It was not many people,” Tatis said. “I remember I called my mother and I called Maria and maybe a couple of more people. But I was very happy.”
When the call comes for Bebo, it will take much longer to connect with everyone he needs to celebrate with. As Maria Tatis explains, their family goes everywhere together, in large numbers. Tatis Jr. grew up with four brothers and sisters. Multiple cousins and aunts and uncles were always around. They are known around their neighborhood as “Los Muchos” (The Many).
“When we get together, it’s up to 30 people and those are close relatives. There’s a lot of barbecues,” Maria said.
Tatis Jr. will have plenty of people to celebrate with. His dreams will only be beginning, but for his parents, it will be the culmination of a life-long desire. Their son has fulfilled his dreams, and they’ve helped clear the path.
“It is very special for me. To be close to him, it’s a very special moment,” Tatis Sr. said. “Watching him play and seeing everything he can do in baseball is amazing. Every day I just want to be there for him, teaching him the right way to get there.
“I wish I had someone to teach me to do the things the right way. I never had somebody like that in my career. As a young guy, you’re famous, you have a lot of money, you have everything. You can get in a lot of trouble easily. I believe if you have someone to show you how to do things the right way at the right moment . . . I believe I would have had more success.”
Tatis Jr. should have no such problems. He’s had plenty of help.