PHOENIX — Just three teams bothered to show any interest in him as an amateur.
The team that signed him dumped him before he even played a game.
He walked into the San Diego Padres’ spring-training camp two months ago all but destined to open the season in the minors.
And you wonder why Fernando Tatis Jr., who turned 20 in January, plays this game of baseball with such a beautiful passion, but a fiery desire to prove everyone wrong whoever doubted him?
It has taken all of two weeks for Tatis to make the greatest impact by a Padres rookie player in, well, perhaps ever.
Tatis, the youngest player to ever feature in the Padres’ opening-day lineup – and the youngest by anyone since future Hall of Fame third baseman Adrian Beltre made his debut 20 years ago with the Los Angeles Dodgers – is the latest young star to burst onto the scene.
Through Monday, he had already produced five home runs and 11 RBI with a .936 OPS. He became just the fifth player his age to homer five times in the first 16 games in baseball history, two more than any shortstop. He already has a highlight reel with dazzling defensive plays –saving the most runs by any shortstop in baseball this season – along with baserunning skills rated 40% above the league average.
Oh, and he has the Padres sitting in first place for their longest stretch of games since 2010, enjoying their biggest lead this early in a season since 1998.
He’s not solely responsible for the Padres’ vault out of obscurity, of course, but that sleepy and lovely city of San Diego has finally found a young star who may become their most beloved player since the days of Tony Gwynn.
“I’ve never seen a player that young with the talent he has,” said Manny Machado, the Padres’ $300 million third baseman. “Nobody. He’s got the power. The speed. The glove. The arm. The baseball smarts. I really haven’t seen a talent like that by such a young guy.
“He has that little pep to his step that he knows he’s good, and deserves to be up here.
“And he has that little chip on his shoulder, which is awesome. He wants to prove a lot of people wrong.’’
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Oh, yeah, about that chip.
The Chicago White Sox broke his heart when he was 17 years old – shattered it really.
Tatis says he understands now, realizing the game is a business, but while there may be no bitterness or animosity, he’ll never forget it, either.
Tatis, son of 11-year-veteran infielder Fernando Tatis, signed as a skinny, gangly kid with raw and almost crude ability for $700,000 as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic by the White Sox. He wasn’t nearly as coveted as Vladimir Guerrero Jr or Juan Soto and certainly not Cuban Yoan Moncada, ranking only 30th among international players. Still, he believed in his heart that he could be the best of all of them.
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He grew two inches in his first year to 6-foot-2, got stronger, was playing in the White Sox’s instructional camp at 17, and was just a few weeks ago before making his professional debut in the Arizona Rookie League.
“I was so happy,’’ said Tatis, now 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. “I had so many friends. I couldn’t wait to play for the White Sox.
He instead found himself sobbing, in utter disbelief. The White Sox called him on June 4, 2016, and told him he was traded. He was going to San Diego. The White Sox, refusing to give up any of their top prospects in the organization, traded an unknown commodity for veteran pitcher James Shields, hoping to make a playoff run.
“I couldn’t believe it,’’ Tatis tells USA TODAY Sports. “I was heartbroken. I was so surprised. I’m like, ‘What’s going on here? How is this happening?’ ’’
Tatis, with his dyed-blond dreads, breaks into a huge grin, spreads out his palms, and laughs.
It’s not a vicious laugh. Or malicious. More of a snicker, mixed in with a cackle, and just a tinge of reprisal.
Really, the more he thinks of it, the White Sox shouldn’t solely blamed. If they were willing to move him in a salary dump for Shields, it means any other team in baseball could have acquire him for little in return.
“It doesn’t matter now, does it?’’ Tatis says. “I’m past that. It’s a business. I understand how it works.
“Things happen for a reason.This is where I’m supposed to be.’’
Tatis, a devout student of the Bible who grew up riding horses, cows and even bulls on the family ranch in the Dominican Republic, is supremely confident in his abilities, but not brash. He knew he deserved to break camp with the Padres as their starting shortstop, but stayed quiet, letting his play do the talking, leaving it up to the front office and ownership to decide whether they wanted to keep him in the minors for two weeks to delay his free agency by a year.
“We all knew he deserved it,’’ said Machado, who along with Eric Hosmer and others, openly lobbied for Tatis. “He did everything they asked of him. He wasn’t going to learn anything in the minors, anyways. The biggest thing is accelerating his learning process, and the only way of doing that is by doing it in the big leagues and learning it here first-hand.’’
Who would have imagined Tatis would be accelerating the Padres’ early success even more? He has been the deciding factor in at least three of their victories by either scoring or driving in the go-ahead run, while scoring at least one run in five of their victories decided by two or fewer runs.
“It was their decision, and I would have understood if they sent me down,’’ Tatis said, “but it made me so happy. I worked so hard to be here. I thanked them for giving me the opportunity while most teams would have waited.
“I just want to show them they made the right decision.’’
Really, the way Tatis sees it, why should the Padres even worry about free agency six years from now? Who says he’s leaving? He sees the outbreak of contract extensions flying around baseball, and if you want to know the truth, he’s ready to listen, too.
If the Padres want to talk, and the numbers make sense, he’ll listen.
“For sure, it would take a lot of weight off me,’’ said Tatis, who says he has yet to be approached by the Padres. “These extensions are great for the players, and great for the teams too. You get young guys more comfortable, they don’t have to worry about that much. You can just do what comes natural, forget about the money, and just play baseball.’’
If Tatis keeps performing like this, the Padres will be pulling up in a Brinks truck to talk money. He has lived up to all of the hype, and much, much more. It’s hard to believe he’s still nine months away from legal drinking age.
There are plenty of establishments in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter that gladly would provide him a freebie, but you try explaining that to the local authorities when he may be the most recognizable face in town
“I really can’t walk to the ballpark now,’’ Tatis says. “Everyone knows me. I get stopped at lot.’’
It’s really no different once he’s inside the ballpark, with the young Padres already gravitating towards him, veterans talking to him, and everyone always asking about the bat flip heard all around winter ball.
“We definitely all saw it,’’ Padres veteran first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “How could you miss it? It was all over the Internet. It was epic.’’
Tatis, instructed by the Padres to play winter ball after breaking his thumb and missing the second half of last season with Class AA San Antonio, played for his father’s team, Estrellas Orientales. It was almost ordained that it was Tatis who stepped to the plate in the ninth inning during the Dominican League playoffs. The game tied, two runners on base, and Tatis swung on an 0-and-2 pitch.
He watched the ball carry over the left-field fence, flung his bat as hard as he could, towards the heavens, helping Etrellas eventually win their first title in 51 years, setting off a celebration that could be heard throughout the Caribbean.
“It was so emotional, I remember standing there, just crying,’’ Tatis said. “I couldn’t help it. It was just unbelievable, breaking the 51-year-old curse, and having everybody so happy, everybody forgetting about their problems.
“Having something like that happen, I’m not going to lie, it makes it a lot less hard now. There was much pressure playing this winter. I don’t feel that pressure now.’’
Could he see himself replicating that same bat flip again one day, this time for all of San Diego to witness?
“That was an amazing moment, the best time of my life,’’ Tatis says, “but to do it here?’’
Tatis softly laughs, shakes his head, and says, “No. I don’t think so. I don’t want people to hate me.’’
Sorry, but all his teammates have already watched it dozens of times themselves on the internet, at the appropriate time, they’re almost demanding to see the sequel.
“He plays with so much emotion, and has so much talent, we’d love to see another sick bat flip like that,’’ Machado said. “But he’s not the type of player to do it here. He would never do that during the season.
“Now, if we’re in the World Series, and he has a walk-off like that, man, we better see it.’’
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