PHOENIX -- It’d been a while. But all those gameday emotions -- the butterflies, the excitement, the nervous energy -- came flooding back to Fernando Tatis Jr. on Thursday afternoon.
“The feeling that I’m going to play baseball tonight,” said Tatis, moments before he floated up the dugout steps to join his teammates for batting practice, “it’s just at the top of the world.”
More than 18 months since he last suited up for the Padres -- a 564-day stretch that included a positive PED test, a resulting 80-game suspension and a trio of surgeries on his left shoulder and wrist -- Tatis made his long-awaited return to the San Diego lineup in a 7-5 victory over the D-backs.
He finished 0-for-5 -- though he hit a couple of balls hard and made an impressive running catch in right field to end the eighth inning. Really though, the numbers were beside the point. For the first time in 564 days, Tatis was back where he’s happiest. A kid -- El Niño -- on a baseball field, playing baseball again.
“I embraced every single moment,” Tatis said.
Because for a year and a half, he didn’t get a chance to. Tatis’ suspension came on the heels of a left wrist fracture that he sustained in a motorcycle accident in December 2021. The ensuing surgery would keep Tatis out for the first four months of the ‘22 season. His suspension meant that he’d miss the rest.
So, yes, Tatis’ extended absence was of his own making. But, speaking with reporters for the first time since he rejoined the team on Monday, Tatis made clear his desire to use his past mistakes to better himself -- as a player, as a person, as a teammate.
“Every situation you learn,” Tatis said. “You see what you can take the best out of in it. I feel like in this, we definitely did that. … I'm just more mature. I've learned different stuff, come from a really bad situation, and I feel like I've overcome it with the right stuff.”
Tatis didn’t have to wait long to find out what kind of reception he’d get. He batted leadoff and was introduced prior to first pitch to a few boos that were overwhelmingly drowned out by cheers.
Of course, this was the first time since Oct. 3, 2021, that Padres fans had a chance to see Tatis in action. They showed up in droves -- particularly packing the seats in right field so the very ballpark itself looked askew.
“Amazing how they showed up,” Tatis said. “They were loud.”
Tatis was evidently eager to please. In all five of his at-bats, he was first-pitch swinging. He struck out in the first and seventh innings. But the three balls he put in play were each well-struck -- including a 110.2 mph groundout in the third.
“I hit the ball hard,” said Tatis (who batted a patently ridiculous .515/.590/1.212 during a rehab stint with Triple-A El Paso). “I hit the ball to every single part of the field. At the end of the day, this is baseball. I feel really good with my at-bats.”
Tatis’ biggest contribution came in right -- his position since the arrival of shortstop Xander Bogaerts. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Josh Rojas shot a liner toward the corner that seemed ticketed for extra bases.
Manager Bob Melvin admitted to putting his head down and briefly gameplanning for a runner on second when he heard the roar. Tatis had made a running catch at the track before playfully jumping into the right-field fence. Melvin later informed Tatis that he thought it was a double.
“I was like, ‘No, you got me out there, Papi,” Tatis said. “Let’s go.”
It wasn’t entirely smooth for Tatis in right. Eager to show off his rocket arm, he missed a cutoff man in the fourth, allowing a runner to advance (though Melvin pointed out that the Padres’ infield hadn’t adequately provided Tatis with a cutoff man in the first place). In the ninth, Tatis and second baseman Ha-Seong Kim nearly collided on a popup beyond the infield.
“We're just getting started,” Tatis said. “I'm still learning the position. I feel like every single day I'm going to get better at it.”
About 30 minutes prior to first pitch, Tatis emerged from the visitors' dugout and jogged toward right field, his formal return to a big league atmosphere. He received a rousing ovation. Each time he came to the plate, more of the same followed.
It won’t always be so easy. Tatis was one of the most beloved superstars in the sport when he last suited up for the Padres. Now? It’s all a bit more complicated. In certain road locales, he’ll assuredly be booed and called all manner of names. He says he’s ready for it.
“That’s going to come,” Tatis said. “... Nothing I can do about it. I’m just going to keep playing this game and enjoy every part of it.”