Can Fernando Tatis Jr. make baseball cool again?

Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2019.

Over the holidays, I was watching an NBA game on national TV, when a commercial caught my eye. It was an ad for the Gatorade-affiliated energy drink Bolt24. The drink isn't what caught my eye, but the man they had promoting it: a Major League Baseball player. It caught my eye because I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a professional baseball player trying to sell any kind of product on national TV. And the man trying to sell me that energy drink (that I had no interest in buying) might just be the linchpin in baseball’s efforts to regain its toehold in American culture that has been loosening for years: San Diego Padres phenom Fernando Tatis Jr.

I don’t need to tell you that baseball is in pretty bad shape as I type this. Ratings for the World Series have been consistently on the downswing for the past several years. Last year’s World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays was the lowest viewed since Nielsen began tracking the event. Baseball, which once dominated American culture like the unmistakable soundtrack to a classic movie, is now but a whisper in an increasingly crowded sports and media landscape. I would guess most of my fellow Generation Zers who read this paper neither watch, nor follow, nor really care about the game. Even a trip to the ballpark has lost its appeal for a lot of people. Attendance peaked at a record of almost 80 million fans in 2007, and it’s been falling steadily ever since.

Another big problem is baseball’s lack of household-name stars, at least to the average fan. The NFL and NBA are so popular that even a state like Wisconsin, far away from America’s coastal media hubs, can produce household-name megastars like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, well known to people who have never even seen them play. How many people are watching Milwaukee Brewers games to get a sneak peek at their superstar outfielder, Christian Yelich? Probably not that many. That’s not to say that’s Yelich’s fault; baseball does do a pretty terrible job of marketing its stars. But that may be due to the fact that many of their stars are just, well, boring and dull. Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, arguably the best player since Willie Mays, is just kind of “meh” as a person. He shows up, does his job, and that’s about it. Same goes for New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who might be the most dominant starter since Pedro Martinez, but has about 1/10 of Pedro’s fire and zeal for the game.

That brings us to Tatis. The 22-year-old Padres prodigy is no stranger to baseball: His father, Fernando Sr., had a decent big-league career and has the awesome distinction of being the only player in major’s history to hit two grand slams in the same inning. Fernando Jr. would follow in his father’s footsteps, being signed as an amateur free agent by the Chicago White Sox out of his native Dominican Republic. Tatis was then traded by the White Sox to San Diego for veteran starter James Shields, a move I’m sure that the Southsiders have since come to regret.

Tatis rocketed through the Padres’ farm system, making his big-league debut in 2019. Since then, he has become one of baseball’s premier attractions in a sport that desperately needs some. Tatis only played 84 games in his rookie season in 2019; the 2020 season was shortened to 60 games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time span, Tatis has played 143 games, almost a full regular season. Of the course of those games, he has hit .301, with 39 home runs, 98 runs batted in, 27 stolen bases, 111 runs scored, and a .956 OPS (on-base plus slugging). Those are MVP-caliber numbers. And he’s just getting started.

Watching Tatis play is like going back in time, not just to baseball’s past but his own childhood in the barrios of San Pedro de Macoris. He’ll slide into first to beat out the throw on an infield grounder. He’ll try to score from first on a seeing-eye single up the middle. He might even tag up and try to score on a popup just beyond second base in shallow right field. But Tatis’s actual on-field exploits cannot be seen as childlike fun. His abilities could be compared to a created player in a video game: He can hit for power, fly around the bases, fire bullets from short, and covers a whole swath of territory on the left side of the infield with almost no effort.

Speaking of video games, Tatis just happens to be the cover star on this year’s edition of MLB The Show. He seems to be recapturing interest of fans across America who used to love baseball but drifted away for various reasons. Tatis may not be the “best” player in baseball, at least not yet. But it would be in the sport’s best interest for him to be the face of baseball for years to come.

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