Two years ago, 1 play heralded Tatis' arrival

March 22nd, 2021

PEORIA, Ariz. -- You've seen the highlight reels -- the monumental home runs, the authoritative bat flips, the daredevil baserunning, the gravity-defying athleticism.

But in late March 2019, was just a Minor League shortstop trying to break through.

He'd torn up Double-A. He'd been the catalyst for a Dominican Winter League title, too, playing shortstop for his hometown team, Estrellas Orientales.

But on March 22, 2019, the Padres were still asking themselves an important question: Was this 20-year-old kid truly ready to do it on the big league stage, against big league competition?

That night, one Tatis-ian moment -- his first in a Padres uniform -- answered their question with an emphatic yes.

Considering everything he has accomplished since, the play has largely been lost to history. On the scale of ridiculous things Tatis does, this play -- in which Tatis boldly scored all the way from first base on a single in a Spring Training game -- probably registers as a 7 out of 10.

At the time, however, it was decisive.

"From that moment, we were like, 'This guy needs to be in the big leagues,'" Manny Machado said. "He needs to be a part of this. He is ready."

Two years later, Tatis is fresh off a record-setting 14-year contract extension worth $340 million. He is the central figure in the Padres' renaissance and perhaps the face of baseball. One play from the sixth inning of a forgotten Cactus League game in Scottsdale, Ariz., sparked a chain of events that set Tatis directly on that course.

Shortstop of the future

Tatis' 2018 season ended in disappointment. He'd risen to the top of most prospect rankings with a brilliant season at Double-A San Antonio. But that season was cut short in late July when he broke a bone in his left hand sliding into second base.

In the offseason, Tatis starred in winter ball and arrived at Padres camp riding the high of Estrellas' first title in 51 years. But there weren't many people outside the organization who gave Tatis a chance to crack the Padres' Opening Day roster. He'd yet to play a full season above Class A, after all.

The Padres didn't see it that way. General manager A.J. Preller sat down with Tatis before Spring Training and laid out the situation as plainly as he could.

"We'd seen him do a lot of things in a Minor League setting, and we just wanted to see how it would translate," Preller said. "We left it open-ended. I talked to Tati personally: 'You've got a chance to make the team. Don't play GM. Just go out and do your thing and see what happens.’"

Tatis probably didn't need to be told. The best way to sum up the way Tatis plays baseball is that he "does his thing" -- regardless of what anyone else thinks or feels about it. He takes the extra base. He flips his bat. He swings on 3-0 when his team leads by seven.

Still, Tatis clearly appreciated Preller's message. He arrived in Padres camp convinced that if he performed, he would be at Petco Park later that month.

"If I prove I can do it here, they'll make the decision," Tatis said at the time. "It's a reality now. There's a chance it might happen. I'm just working hard for it."

Tatis entered the final weekend of camp squarely on the roster bubble. He'd posted an .850 OPS, while dazzling on the bases. The Padres played the Rockies that night, and Tatis was batting sixth and playing shortstop.

‘This guy’s arrived’

The Padres led, 3-0, when Tatis reached on an infield single with two outs in the sixth inning. Three pitches later, he was off and running when Austin Hedges lined a single up the middle.

As Tatis stepped on second base, he shot a quick glance at Rockies center fielder Ian Desmond, who approached the baseball a bit too casually. Tatis turned on the jets in that split-second, and you realize: That’s the moment he knew.

Tatis wasn’t merely going to third base. He planned to score. From first. On the routinest of routine singles to center field.

"I remember him looking back, and he made that decision that he was going," said then-third base coach Glenn Hoffman. "They just weren't ready for it."

Desmond lobbed a one-hopper to Garrett Hampson, who was standing flat-footed on the second-base bag. It wasn’t until Hampson received the throw that he realized Tatis had brazenly broken for home. Hampson crow-hopped and fired to the plate.

Too late. When you're defending against Tatis, you can't even give him a sniff of an extra base. He'll take it, and he’ll make you look bad in doing so. The Rockies learned it that night. The Pirates and Giants would learn it later that season when Tatis tagged and scored on popups in the infield. The Braves learned it when Tatis escaped an ordinary rundown with a mind-bending slide into first base. The Cardinals learned it that July when Tatis, again, scored from first on a routine single.

"He was on the bubble to make the team, and he just opened everybody's eyes," Hoffman recalled. "It was something to watch. You go: 'This guy's arrived.'"

It took Hoffman by surprise, too. The enduring image of the play is Tatis (wearing No. 84!) scampering with his head down toward home plate, while Hoffman holds up a stop sign. Even Hoffman acknowledges he was still learning the nuances of Tatis' audacious baserunning at the time.

Tatis slid safely around the tag of Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta, and the Padres dugout erupted. Mind you, this was a mid-March game with nothing on the line. But the Padres celebrated as if they knew precisely what the moment meant: a turning point in the career of one of baseball's budding superstars.

Machado, who had signed a then-franchise record 10-year contract one month earlier, leaped over the railing in the third-base dugout. Beaming, he embraced Tatis as he arrived at the top step.

"They were still debating whether to bring him up or not, and he scored on that base hit to center field, sliding into home, headfirst," Machado said. "We're like: 'What are you doing? Are you crazy?' But that's just the type of player he is. From that moment, we were like, 'This guy needs to be in the big leagues.'"

A meeting with ‘special assistants’

Machado was convinced. The rest of the Padres' veteran infield was, too. They needed to make sure Preller was on the same page.

Two days later, on the morning the Padres were set to break camp in Peoria, Eric Hosmer approached the Padres GM. He wanted a meeting. Machado and Ian Kinsler would be attending, too. Preller had an inkling of what was coming.

"I bet these guys want to talk about Tati," he said.

Preller wasn't wrong. Later that morning, Machado, Hosmer and Kinsler gathered around Preller's desk in his second-floor office at the Peoria Sports Complex.

"We just wanted to let A.J. know: I know you've seen talent -- maybe not talent like his, but you've seen guys close to that -- but the mental part is right up there with the talent," Hosmer said. "There's no reason this kid shouldn't be in the big leagues."

The four of them spoke for about an hour. Preller recalled being late for that day's game. (Preller is never late. This was that important.)

If Hosmer's goal was to convince Preller that Tatis' mental acumen was on par with his physical ability, that certainly wasn't Preller's takeaway from the meeting. Preller already knew that.

Instead, Preller heard something more earnest coming from his three "special assistants" -- the term he used to refer to that trio on the morning Tatis signed his extension.

"The biggest thing they said that day is: 'We'll take care of him,'" Preller recalled. " ‘We'll protect him. In terms of maturity and in terms of whatever's thrown his way -- we got him. If you're factoring that in, we'll make sure that we'll be there to take care of him.’ Which was cool to hear."

The truth was: Preller was already leaning in that direction. He'd seen Tatis scamper first-to-home. He'd also seen Tatis reach on an infield single and swipe two bases earlier in that game. He'd seen Tatis change the nature of games with his wheels all spring.

At the time, the Padres still had questions about Tatis' bat. He struck out a lot, and he hadn't faced much top-caliber pitching. They knew it would translate eventually, but they weren't sure it would translate instantly. The baserunning and baseball instincts -- those would.

"Wherever the bat was going to be early on in his rookie season, he had a chance to impact the game in other ways," Preller said. "He was such a good baserunner, and seeing him do that -- consistently throughout Spring Training, but with that play really standing out -- it just told us he was going to be able to impact our team in all kinds of ways."

The aftermath

While the rest of the baseball world penciled Tatis in for a midseason callup, the Padres had a decision on their hands. Their top prospect and the cornerstone of their rebuild had proved he was ready for the big leagues.

Sure, they'd lose a year of service time if they promoted Tatis for Opening Day instead of a few weeks later, but, as one team official put it, "If he was legit, we'd extend him."

He was legit. The Padres informed Tatis that he'd made the team during their two-game exhibition series in Seattle. Two days later, he was in the starting lineup on Opening Day, facing Madison Bumgarner and the Giants.

Batting third, Machado -- a perennial All-Star and arguably the most impactful free-agent signing in franchise history -- received a thunderous ovation during introductions. A few moments later -- Tatis, just a 20-year-old rookie batting sixth -- got an ovation that matched. Tatis delivered from the start, with hits in each of his first two at-bats against Bumgarner.

Twenty-three months later, Tatis sat at a podium clad in a smart brown checkered vest over a white dress shirt. Having put pen to paper on a 14-year extension, Tatis fondly recalled that day as the day he fell in love with San Diego -- the city, the fans, the baseball vibe.

"I'll never forget that Opening Day, my first at-bat, how the fans received me that moment," Tatis said. "It just clicked that moment. I felt the love. It was mutual right away. I said: 'This is home.'"

Had Tatis been stashed in the Minors, that moment doesn't happen with nearly the same gusto. Perhaps the mutual love between Tatis and the Padres doesn't blossom the way it has.

"It played out well," Machado said. "He's one of the top players in the game right now, and he's going to continue to be."

"That," Machado added, "was a great decision by the organization."

Hardly a decision at all, Preller says. Tatis made it for him. That February, the Padres told Tatis he could earn his way onto the roster. By late March, he was doing exactly that.

Then, on a warm spring Arizona night, before fewer than 9,000 fans at Salt River Fields, Tatis -- for the first time in a big league uniform -- upended our notions of what is supposed to happen on a baseball field.

“You just can’t take your eye off him,” Hoffman said. “You don’t know what he’s going to do.”

As of that moment, there was no longer any doubt: Tatis was headed to San Diego -- and he was there to stay.

And you still can’t take your eye off him.