SAN DIEGO — On an otherwise sleepy February morning early in spring training 2021, the San Diego Padres jolted the baseball world by announcing that they had struck a 14-year, $340 million deal with their young superstar shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr. He was just 22 at the time, and the contract was — and remains — the longest in Major League Baseball history.
But when the Padres open the postseason against the Mets on Friday in Queens, Tatis, the franchise player who should be leading them, will be nowhere in sight. A series of bad decisions has wrecked his summer, hampered his team and thrown the future of a man who once was among the game’s most magnetic players into serious question.
“It’s a blow but we’ll overcome it,” Peter Seidler, the club’s majority owner, said. “You lose one of the great players of his generation, it’s a blow.”
Tatis was suspended for 80 games on Aug. 12 after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. When the news came, Tatis was at Class AA San Antonio on an injury-rehabilitation assignment for a broken scaphoid bone in his left wrist from a motorcycle accident in his native Dominican Republic last December during the M.L.B. lockout. Both he and his representatives downplayed the accident to the Padres, who were stunned when he reported to spring training in March with the wrist still sore. A subsequent magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed the fracture.
Tatis and the club once talked openly about erecting a monument to him in San Diego at the end of what they called a “statue contract.” But by the regular season’s end, the Padres had scrubbed his giant mural from the exterior of Petco Park, canceled his bobblehead night and erased him from scoreboard videos.
“It’s been a tough year for Fernando,” said relief pitcher Craig Stammen, one of the longest-tenured Padres. “Obviously, he wants to be on the field. And he’s made decisions that are not going to let him be on the field.”
An Instant Sensation
San Diego fell in love with Tatis after he made the team as a 20-year-old rookie out of spring training in 2019. At the time, the veterans Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer persuasively lobbied A.J. Preller, the Padres’ general manager, to bring him to the majors. If we’re serious about winning, they emphasized to Preller then, this kid needs to be on our team.
From the start, Tatis brought energy to the clubhouse, excitement to the dugout and thrills to the field. As he hit .455 with two homers in San Diego’s victory over St. Louis in a 2020 playoff series, Tatis gear was as ubiquitous around town as warm days and blue skies.
Then, slowly at first, things started to unravel.
Tatis’s defense was the one blemish in his game. Tatis committed 18 errors in 2019, 14 of them throwing errors. Statistically, he stood among the worst fielding shortstops in the majors, placing 33rd out of 35 ranking shortstops in Outs Above Average, according to Statcast.
San Diego hired Bobby Dickerson, known as one of the game’s best infield instructors, to help. During what was referred to as “Covid Camp” in the summer of 2020 — private team workouts to prepare for the pandemic-shortened season — Tatis became frustrated with himself during a defensive drill.
In the moment, Dickerson told Tatis: “I’m going to be patient with you, but you’ve got 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 injured list a few days into the season. It was the first of four times the shoulder would dislocate that season.
Tatis’s work with Dickerson was paying off, with Tatis improving to 16th among 36 shortstops in Outs Above Average in 2021. But by that September, the Padres, concerned about Tatis’s shoulder, started playing him at a less risky outfield position. He clearly was not thrilled, and when it coincided both with a team and personal slump — Tatis had hit .228 in August as the Padres started an epic collapse — things came to a head.
On a Saturday afternoon in St. Louis, Tatis, after losing his cool following a called third strike, snapped at Dickerson when the coach tapped the then-22-year-old shortstop on the leg and essentially told him “let’s go, we need you.”
The argument escalated in public view in the dugout. “You go play baseball!” Machado shouted at Tatis, adding with an expletive: “It’s not … about you!”
After Dickerson and Tatis had been separated, starting pitcher Joe Musgrove told the coach he had done the right thing. Many players had grown tired of Tatis’s moodiness, immaturity and lack of accountability. Just as his energy could lift the team, his behavior during the team’s collapse was deflating. It’s about time somebody said something, Musgrove told Dickerson.
“It happened, it’s part of baseball, it’s a part what this game brings out, especially when good players are trying to win and stuff is not going our way,” Tatis told reporters shortly after the incident. “At the end of the day I’m glad it happened.”
But in a video interview with a journalist at home in the Dominican Republic afterward, Tatis’s father, the former major leaguer Fernando Tatis Sr., made excuses for his son, saying that Dickerson didn’t know how to deal with “superstar players.”
“I think I’m a well-known, and well-respected enough infield coach that after 30 years of dealing with the J.J. Hardys, Manny Machados, Jim Thomes, I’d like to think I know how to deal with star people,” Dickerson, now coaching in Philadelphia, said in an interview last month. “I’m just a blue-collar coach trying to make sure people have a better life than I had in the game.”
Skip Schumaker, who was the Padres’ bench coach last year and now serves in that capacity for St. Louis, said: “I think the world of Bobby. I think he’s one of the best, if not the best, infield coaches around. I’ll also say this on Tatis’s side: He was a 21-year-old kid, injured, playing outfield, trying to get his team back into contention when we were in a funk, putting the world and the team on his shoulders. There was pressure.”
He added: “He’s still learning at this level.”
At season’s end, Tatis led the National League in homers and finished third in voting for the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award, then spurned the Padres’ recommendation for shoulder surgery. Top club officials say they were OK with his decision. They were comfortable that Tatis did his due diligence, speaking with Cody Bellinger, Hanley Ramirez and Gregory Polanco, all players who underwent similar surgeries with varying degrees of success. Also, the surgery is difficult and there was a chance that he would not get his full range of motion back in the arm.
“But there’s a bigger chance he’ll be fixed and can go back to things he wants to do,” Preller said.
Then came December, and reports that Tatis had been in a motorcycle accident.
The Padres first learned of the accident on Twitter. Because the M.L.B. owners had locked out the players during a labor dispute, clubs were prohibited from direct contact with their players. Tatis’s father downplayed the accident as “not a big deal.” He said his son “scraped his knee and hands a little.”
Preller said he thinks the accident occurred near the Tatis home in San Pedro de Macorís, but reports from the Dominican Republic suggested it may have happened in Punta Cana, the popular resort area on the island’s east coast, or Higuey, 40 miles west. Emergency medical workers and transit police in each place said they had no records of the accident, possibly, some of them said, because it was a solo accident and Tatis went to a private clinic and didn’t call 911.
Though Tatis mentioned “accidents” this spring when he met with the news media, the Padres believe there was just one, and that things became confused in translation. Tatis told the Padres that, in addition to the accident, he later tripped over a hurdle while training for the season and the landing may have exacerbated the injury.
Regardless, the Padres attempted no punitive move, such as trying to recover some of the money paid to him by way of a contract clause that forbids the riding of motorcycles. Because it is early in the 14-year deal, the club felt it better to keep a harmonious relationship. And because Tatis is earning only $4.2 million this year (eventually, it will escalate to $36 million annually), his absence wasn’t nearly the financial hit it could have been. Plus they figured he would return in time for the postseason.
Then, the other shoe dropped.
On Aug. 11, Preller was in Frisco, Texas, to check on Tatis, who was on his injury-rehabilitation assignment. From there, Preller traveled to meet the big-league club in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 12. That afternoon, he was blindsided in a call from Dan Lozano, Tatis’s agent, informing him of the immediate suspension.
Tatis, who never mentioned the suspension when he saw Preller in Texas, had flown back to San Diego in haste earlier that morning. “I freaked out,” Tatis said at an Aug. 23 news conference, his only public appearance since the suspension.
“Unfortunately, there was a lot of setbacks in his wrist thing and, obviously, I’m sure that’s why he was trying 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 let a lot of those guys down.”
Initially, the Tatis camp blamed the positive test on confusion over a medication he needed to treat ringworm. His mother posted a picture of his neck on Instagram supporting the ringworm claim then deleted it. Tatis’s father blasted the league for the suspension, saying, “There are millions of fans who are going to stop watching baseball now. It’s a total disappointment for Dominican fans, fans throughout the world, for something so insignificant it wasn’t worth it.”
Support for Tatis at home remains evident. Ricardo Lopez, who owns a bar near the waterfront in San Pedro de Macorís that Tatis and Robinson Canó have patronized, noted Tatis’s charitable actions and said, “He’s the best, for me. He’s humble. I don’t think he did it intentionally like people say.”
When he apologized to teammates, the organization and the public in August, Tatis called his P.E.D. violation “a stupid mistake” and admitted to being “reckless.” To fans who have lost faith, Tatis vowed, “I’m going to give them a story to believe in me again.”
Tatis has not spoken publicly since August and is not expected to give interviews before spring training in 2023.
The off-field damage for Tatis could linger. A year ago, his jersey was the second-most popular in the game behind the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, according to M.L.B. sales figures. Today, the shoe company Adidas publicly has cut ties with him. Spokespeople for Gatorade and Dairy Queen did not return emails for this story, but Tatis’s national spots with them appear to have been dropped as well.
“It’s not only that Tatis has harmed his marketing prospects, it’s how he compromised them,” said David Carter, a professor of sports business at the University of Southern California. “Many fans and consumers are willing to give an athlete the benefit of the doubt, but when a high-profile case deals with the integrity of the sport, it can be much harder to overcome.”
Seidler, the team owner, said he still believes in Tatis and would do the same 14-year contract again today even after the suspension.
“Absolutely. No regrets,” he said.
The Tatis family has moved to the upscale Dominican beachside community of Juan Dolio, but after the suspension they returned to a church in their home area of San Pedro de Macorís, known as the cradle of Dominican baseball because of ties to Sammy Sosa, Tony Fernández and Canó, among others. At that church, Jerusalén Primera, the congregation prayed over its fallen star.
“You have conceived him with favor and grace in sports,” Alberto Joseph, the church’s pastor, said in Spanish as his hand rested on Tatis’s head during a prayer. “God, we don’t ignore and we know the competition there is and the evil there is. God, every work of witchcraft against him, every one of the Devil’s plans against him is now inoperative and without effect.”
With nothing now but time, Tatis announced in August that he would have the shoulder surgery that he had previously avoided. Then it was delayed a week when he came down with strep throat.
Now, arm in a sling and image in shambles, he is rehabilitating middays at Petco Park. And by the time the team shows up every day, he is gone.