FERNANDO TATIS JR.'S highly anticipated return to baseball will begin when he leads off Thursday night's game from Chase Field in Phoenix. Boos will inevitably reign down; the hostility that promised to surround him will instantly be felt. But the greatest challenge of his most important season might begin shortly thereafter, in the bottom half of the first inning, when he bypasses his original position of shortstop and ventures out to his new spot in right field. Confronting the backlash of a steroid-related scandal can be exceedingly difficult for any player. Nelson Cruz thinks it's toughest on the outfielders.
"You're out there alone," he said. "You hear everything."
In January 2013, a decade before he would join Tatis on this year's San Diego Padres, Cruz was among those linked to Biogenesis, the Florida-based anti-aging clinic that became notorious for distributing performance-enhancing drugs. A 50-game suspension followed in August. And the time between was spent occupying right field for the Texas Rangers. Every road game offered its own unique blend of boos and jeers, the most prominent of which were heard during the quiet moments between balls in play. Now Tatis will confront the same obstacle.
His only path, Cruz believes, is forward.
"He's got to go out there and do his job," Cruz said. "That's the only way he can shut up the noise."
It has been more than 18 months since Tatis played in a real game with real stakes. The 2022 season began with an injury to his wrist and ended with a positive test for an anabolic steroid. His return, therefore, is clouded with uncertainty. There are questions surrounding how his body will respond to two surgeries, how his offense will be impacted by the down time, how his skills will translate to a new position, how his mind will process the negative energy that follows him. One aspect that shouldn't be doubted, Padres manager Bob Melvin believes, is whether his teammates will accept him.
The news of Tatis' 80-game, PED-related suspension on Aug. 12 came less than five months after it was learned he had fractured his left wrist during an offseason motorcycle accident, drawing pointed criticism from within his clubhouse. Key members of the Padres were publicly and privately irked at what they believed was a lack of accountability and maturity from Tatis, a sentiment that festered until he addressed them 11 days later. Now, Melvin asserted, "They've embraced him."
"Because of the way he handled it," Melvin explained. "The way he went to everybody and opened up and was remorseful. And you could tell he was being authentic. He wasn't just having these conversations just to have them, to check the box. It wasn't anything like that. And you could feel that."
When Tatis led a 15- to 20-minute players-only meeting on Aug. 23, he asked for forgiveness, but also for help. Subsequent comments from some of the team's core members painted him as genuine and sincere. Tatis followed by undergoing the left shoulder surgery the Padres recommended a year earlier and later a second cleanup of his injured left wrist. He returned to San Diego in the first week of the new year to begin preparations for the 2023 season, then was among the first to report to the team's spring training complex in February.
A new season provided a clean slate with his teammates. Tatis' work ethic set a positive tone. His free spirit and infectious energy often made it seem as if he'd never left.
"I see an excited kid that's trying to move past a mistake he made," pitcher Joe Musgrove, one of the team's leaders, said early in spring training. "He's talked about it a lot -- about how he feels like he lost himself, made some poor decisions and was hanging with people he shouldn't be hanging around. He was very open and honest about what happened, how he felt about it. You can see this offseason -- there's a level of excitement, a level of energy and passion. You can tell he's really trying to make that step of getting himself past it and show the world the athlete that he is and the player he's capable of being."
Tatis, who turned 24 in January, has quickly gone from one of the sport's most celebrated prodigies to one of its foremost antiheroes. It's a circumstance he has readily acknowledged, but one he has referred to as "a challenge," not unlike anything he might encounter within the boundaries of his profession. He has spoken often about his desire to "embrace" the vitriol. Now it appears he'll have help.
"We're all gonna have to deal with it together," Manny Machado said, "as a team."
MELVIN'S FIRST SEASON with the Padres, in 2022, didn't offer many opportunities to connect with Tatis. The ensuing offseason was a chance to make up for lost time. Melvin historically leaves his players alone during the winter, but he felt an obligation to keep in touch with Tatis.
Often the exchanges were lighthearted. Melvin would send videos of hiking trails he'd find in Arizona, a subject in which the two found commonality. Tatis would follow up with pictures of the sun setting on his native Dominican Republic. Occasionally, when it felt natural, they would engage in deeper conversations about what took place and what would follow. Melvin's message often centered on how quickly this will all move past him once the games begin to pile up and the monotony of a routine sets in. He told Tatis he might someday look back on this positively.
"Things came so easy for him in baseball, and now all of a sudden he had to go through something he wasn't used to," Melvin said. "I think he can end up being better for it."
One of the clearest signs presented itself in late February, on the morning of Tatis' first spring training game. Melvin took the Padres job in large part because he wanted to manage Tatis, one of the sport's singular talents. But he spent an entire year without being able to write Tatis' name in the lineup. When he finally did, Tatis acknowledged the significance. "I'm finally in there for you," Tatis told him.
"That meant a lot to me," Melvin said recently. "It just kind of showed you where he was in this process."
Tatis, allowed to play in exhibition games under the terms of his suspension, began with an eight-pitch walk that was followed by a stolen base. Over his next 18 plate appearances, he reached base only twice and didn't produce a single hit. He was particularly late on fastballs. But he was making sound swing decisions and his body was recovering better than he expected. An 0-for-16 start to Cactus League play turned into a 12-for-26 finish.
His experience in the outfield followed a similar path. On March 2, Tatis misread a fly ball during his first start in right field, taking a circuitous route and watching the baseball carom off his glove. Two days later, he turned in a nifty sliding catch. He displayed both ends of the spectrum within the same at-bat on March 17, misreading a foul popup that ultimately dropped and then tracking down a line drive to prevent a double. Ten days later, after a handful of aggressive throws that prevented extra bases, he recorded his first outfield assist.
Tatis' newfound enthusiasm toward the outfield, a position he didn't quite embrace in 2021, has seemed to resonate in his clubhouse. He grew up wanting to be the Dominican Derek Jeter, a pursuit that ended -- or, at the very least, paused -- when the Padres signed Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million contract in December. But he has readily accepted the change.
"He certainly has aspirations to play shortstop in the future, as he should," Melvin said. "But there's an understanding that this is best for our team, and that's just kind of the way he's going about it."
Twenty games remained on Tatis' suspension when the Padres broke camp in late March, but he declared himself "ready right now." He proved it during a subsequent rehab stint with the Padres' Triple-A affiliate, an eight-game stretch in which he slashed .515/.570/1.212 and accumulated seven home runs. Six came in his past three games.
Five came in a stretch of seven at-bats.
Tatis turned on a fastball out over the plate in the second inning last Thursday and sent a prodigious drive into the lawn that resides beyond the outfield fence at Southwest University Park in El Paso, Texas, slightly to the left of the center field batter's eye. He followed by homering on a line drive in the fourth and a fly ball in the eighth, each pulled a tad more than the other, then smoked two baseballs that left the stadium entirely two days later -- one to left field, the other to right-center.
Brett Sullivan, a journeyman catcher who was recently called up to the major leagues, watched them all from the dugout.
"The first two you're like, 'Hey, I get it, he's that good,'" Sullivan said. "And then by the third one you're like, 'Oh my gosh, he's locked in.' And then to go [again] the first game next at-bat, we all started laughing. And then he does it again and you're like, 'This guy's a made-up player.'"
Tatis returned to the Padres' clubhouse on Monday, for the first of three straight workouts that preceded his return, and Bogaerts told him it seemed as if he were playing a video game. His presence brought a discernable energy.
"You can sense it," Bogaerts said. "There's a lot of talk -- positive talk, positive vibes. This is a once-in-a-generation-type talent that we're here to see, and I'm so happy that he's on our team."
Bogaerts represents one of four Padres regulars who have yet to play with Tatis, a sign of both how long he has been out and how aggressively the roster has turned over. His suspension occurred 10 days after Padres general manager A.J. Preller emptied his farm system to acquire Juan Soto, who has drawn comparisons to Ted Williams for his advanced feel of hitting. Bogaerts, a four-time All-Star with the Boston Red Sox, has since been added to the mix, sharing the left side of the infield with Machado, who is halfway into a Hall of Fame career.
Tatis will return to lead off in front of all three of them, representing one of the most decorated foursomes in recent memory.
"It's going to be really fun," Soto said.
THOSE WHO HAVE watched Tatis this year have noticed someone who's outwardly happy to be back but is also committed to maintaining that joy in his play. After throwing out his first runner in spring training, Tatis strutted and and pretended to holster a gun with his fingers. On home runs, he continued to perform his patented stutter-step upon reaching third base, then boisterously celebrated with teammates in the dugout. The threat of backlash has seemingly done nothing to dilute the flair and the swagger that once turned Tatis into a transcendent star. If anything, it has helped accentuate it.
"One of the things we talked about early on was at some point you're going to have to forgive yourself and just kinda move past it and try to show everybody who you really are and what's in there," Musgrove said. "It's very easy to walk around and feel like you have to have this certain sense of remorse or you have to show everyone how bad you feel for what you did, but I think he's done that already and he's shown what he's about and the things that he's going to do to fix that."
Tatis' return to the public consciousness occurred in early February, when the Padres trotted him out as part of a community outreach event, joining members of the Marines and visiting children at a local elementary school. The following day, Tatis was presented alongside Machado, Soto and Bogaerts, and showered with love during a fan fest that was attended by nearly 50,000 residents of San Diego.
Reality hit shortly thereafter. Tatis was roundly booed when the team played in front of a heavy contingent of Los Angeles Dodgers fans at Camelback Ranch on March 8. When he hit his first minor league home run on April 5, the pitcher who gave it up, Kade McClure, called him a "cheater" on Twitter. The animosity will only heighten when the stage gets bigger, particularly from road fans but perhaps also from his own peers.
"He has to be himself if he's going to be the player that he is," Melvin said. "It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks of him; it just matters what we think of him."
"'Just be you,'" Profar recalled telling him. "'Play your game, and people are going to love you.' All the kids, they're going to love him -- because of the way he plays. He's an exciting baseball player."
Profar and Tatis still communicate almost daily and, as of the first week of April, were still trying to decide on their annual wager. Usually they settle on who will hit the most home runs, a bet Profar always loses. Profar, who has the benefit of spending his home games at the hitter-friendly Coors Field this season, was instead thinking of making it doubles. But he didn't feel good about that, either.
"I know he's going to be fine," Profar said of Tatis. "He will find a way to be great."
Tatis accumulated 39 home runs, 27 stolen bases, a .956 OPS and 6.4 FanGraphs wins above replacement through his first 143 major league games from 2019 to 2020. The Padres rewarded him with what was billed as a "statue contract" -- a massive 14-year, $340 million extension -- in February 2021, a month after his 22nd birthday, then watched him finish third in MVP voting despite battling a series of shoulder subluxations.
The events that followed completely altered the perception of Tatis and prevented him from doing what he loves most for an entire year. While the Padres made a stirring run to the National League Championship Series in October, Tatis watched from his couch.
"That gave me a lot of fuel," he said shortly before reporting for spring training. "Trust me."
Tatis' return is expected to provide an instant jolt to a team that has lost six of eight games and has scored only two runs over its past 35 innings. As the season plays out, observers expect Tatis to take some overly aggressive routes on fly balls but also expect his arm strength and agility to serve him well in right field. On offense, they think he'll be the same dynamic hitter and will thrive off the new rules that have allowed for more stolen bases.
Said Padres infielder Jake Cronenworth: "I think a lot of people are forgetting how special he is as a player."
The big question, of course, revolves around how he'll ultimately be remembered.
Encouragement can be found within his clubhouse.
Cruz, now a 42-year-old designated hitter for the Padres, has become one of the game's most celebrated players, a prominent philanthropist revered by his peers and treated like royalty among Latin-born players. His ties to steroids are forever a part of his story, but they are no longer his defining characteristic. Cruz envisions similar possibilities for Tatis, noting how young and charismatic he is and how much baseball lies ahead.
"Two years from now," Cruz said, "he will be a superstar and this will be in the past."