“He’s LeBron, Mahomes, and Griffey”: Fernando Tatis Jr. could be the face of the next generation of sports

Fernando Tatis Jr., the most magnetic player on this planet, and now the San Diego Padres’ shortstop for life after he signed a 14 year-$340 million contract last week.

But let’s look beyond the years. Beyond the dollars. Let’s look instead at what that contract is telling us.

Franchises do not invest $340 million dollars and 14 years into a player they think is just a good player. Not even just an all-star level player. Only a select few players get to test the waters Tatis Jr. finds himself in. The deal Tatis Jr. signed are reserved for the had full of players that are transcendent talents, ones who can carry a team. Carry a sport.

The Padres willingness to sign Tatis Jr. to this massive life time deal before he ever plays a full 162 game season speaks to what they believe the future holds for their 22 year old shortstop.

“He’s literally becoming the face of baseball,” says Padres CEO Erik Greupner, “for all the right reasons.”

Fernando Tatis Jr. is the future. The future of Padres baseball. The future of Major League Baseball. Maybe even the future of a generation of sports.

Tatis Jr. is a package of smiles and style. Swagger and radiance. Long balls and diving plays. Bat flips and gold chains. Flare but respect. And the talent, oh the talent is elite.

Tatis Jr. has been compared to superstars of other sports.

“He’s the LeBron James of shortstops,” one Padres official said.

It is more than the 23 he wears on his back. Talent for talent, Tatis Jr. stacks ups with a young LeBron James. Skills that measure off the charts, in a small market not known for the home of excellence.

Maybe a more fair comparison is Patrick Mahomes. When you see Tatis Jr. drive a ball over the left center field wall with such ease and fluidity, you can’t help but think of Mahomes effortlessly flicking an 80 year pass to Tyreke Hill. Tatis’ seemingly bottomless array of tools, tricks and genius-level how’d-he-do-that creativity, on the field, in the moment, much like we get from Mahomes on a different stage.

The joy, presence and self-assurance Tatis exudes every day of every year — and has since the moment he arrived in the big leagues is very Mahomes like.

Padres broadcaster Don Orsillo who gets to watch every game Tatis Jr. plays live tried to put into words how special of a player Tatis Jr. is.

“Every night, you’re going to see something you’ve never seen before. … The only thing I can compare it to is the every five days when Pedro Martinez would pitch when I was in Boston. I always looked forward to that. It was an event. It was, ‘Wow, what’s Pedro going to do tonight?’ Now I have that feeling with Fernando Tatis Jr. — but it’s every night.”

So there’s a reason we drop these names, and it’s not just because it might grab your attention. It’s that humans with this combination of talent and personality don’t pass through any sport very often. And when they do, when they inspire these types of comparisons, they’re people who can leave a mark on more than merely the team they play for.

Tatis Jr. was asked about these comparisons at his press conference a week ago. His reply reflected his remarkable awareness and maturity at 22 years old.

“I just smile,” he said, “because I know the greatness of LeBron. I know the greatness of Mahomes. And the big thing is, they are winners. You know, there’s a lot of things I still need to accomplish to be close to those guys. But I feel like the main thing is going to be winning.

“And you know, I’m looking forward to that challenge and I’m looking forward to staying next to them. It’s not about this year. … It’s going to be about how (long) they showed it, especially LeBron. They show it every year. And that’s going to be the big thing for me.”

He understands that LeBron has shown it every year, for 18 seasons. Mahomes has shown it in all 54 games of an almost unparalleled career — 54 games (counting the playoffs) in which his team has gone 44-10, won one Super Bowl and played in another.

LeBron became LeBron in Cleveland. Mahomes lit up the sky from Kansas City. Those are not cities we confuse with New York or L.A. Then again, those two men also play sports that we don’t confuse with baseball.

Every winning quarterback in the NFL is, inherently, a team-changing player. The impact of one superstar on one basketball team could easily allow the Cavaliers to turn into Team LeBron, yes even in Cleveland.

But baseball doesn’t work that way. The Padres are going to be playing games where Fernando Tatis is the best player on the field and has the best day of any player on the field — but that doesn’t always equate to wins and losses in baseball.

Tatis will always be a reason to watch. He is box office. But in a sport that is a dying dinosaur. Playing in a market in San Diego, where you lose the entire Eastern time zone because the games will start at 10pm, can Tatis become the face of baseball, a face of sports?

Tatis will be hard to find despite playing a 162 game season. He’s not playing in Yankees pinstripes, or under the bright lights of Los Angeles as a Dodger. That creates a challenge that was never a problem for LeBron in Cleveland. Or Mahomes in Kansas City.

But it is not impossible for Tatis to become that guy, but he’s going to need some help, help that Mike Trout has not got in his career despite being a better player.

No matter how dazzling a talent Tatis may be, it is impossible for him to truly become the Face of Baseball in a city like San Diego without that long run of success from the team around him.

“Only if the Padres, who are obviously gearing up to make this happen, have a series of seasons like Atlanta had in the ’90s,” says America’s most eloquent sportscasting voice, Bob Costas. “A run of playoff seasons is going to be essential for that to happen.”

But even Atlanta in the 1990s was not San Diego in the 2020s. The Braves played in the Eastern time zone, had their own dedicated cable channel beaming their games across America every night and marched a Hall of Fame starting pitcher to the mound nearly every game.

The best comparison to be made to the Padres and Tatis is the Seattle Mariners and Ken Griffey Jr.

When you think about it, it is damn near flawless.

Pacific time zone? Check. Never won a World Series in the history of the franchise? Check. A smiling, mesmerizing superstar as the centerpiece of possibly the best teams ever assembled in their cities? Check again. The face of “let the kids play?” Check once again.

Griffey became a national pop culture figure for simply being himself while dominating the sport from day one. He was young, talented, exuberant, excitable, smiling all the time. His swing is still the sweetest swing anyone has ever seen. His swagger with the bat backwards while winning the Home Run Derby.

He was The Kid. Anywhere he played, that would have happened. He was that marketable. He was that transcendent. And we see that same energy within Tatis Jr.

Griffey was able to do all that while not even making a World Series appearance. At his peak (1995-97), the Mariners did ride a wave in which they went 40 games over .500, reached the postseason twice, won an epic 1995 playoff series against the Yankees and provided a stage for Griffey to win an MVP.

Tatis Jr. will need that same type of scenario to play out. The built in division rivalry with the Los Angeles Dodgers will provide a nice starting off platform. The aggressive front office of the Padres appears to be all in on winning, and should present the opportunity for Tatis to explode nationally when playing in the postseason.

2020’s San Diego could be 1990’s Seattle.

But it would be foolish to lay all the pressure on the Padres. The Padres have made their investment, a hefty one at that.

It’s Major League Baseball’s turn to invest in their game and their players. It’s time for the power brokers in this sport to throw their arms around this player and not let go, the way the other sports would — the way, in fact, the other sports do all the time.

“Fernando Tatis is not just a Padre,” says Bob Costas. “He’s important to baseball.”

That’s not merely true of Tatis, of course. We can say that about many, many other players, from Francisco Lindor and Juan Soto to Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. The more baseball celebrates all of them, the better the sport will be for it.

The NBA works with TNT to market its sport. It’s a shared responsibility. If you want the game to grow and you want it to increase in popularity, and you want to have the young stars of MLB be like those stars of the NBA, you (MLB) needs to work together with the players to make that happen.

For starters get Tatis and the Padres on national television.

On April 25, something amazing will happen. The Padres will appear on an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game — for the first time in 14 years.

Not a single member of the 2007 Padres team who appeared on your television that night is still playing. That should tell you a little something about the national profile of this franchise over the last decade and a half.

They play in a spectacular ballpark in one of America’s most beautiful cities. But they’re not the Yankees or the Red Sox, the Cubs or the Cardinals, the Mets or the Dodgers. So that’s a sure formula for dropping off the national radar. But it’s time for that, too, to change.

ESPN has the Padres scheduled for two of its first seven Sunday night games. That’s more than the Yankees, believe it or not. So that’s encouraging.

Remember the way Yankees and Red Sox games were must watch TV, promoted and broadcasted as such, on national tv every series they played? Major companies like ESPN and Fox Sports should do the same any time the Padres and Dodgers link up this season on beyond.

One final hump to get over, actually let the kids play, and not just use it as a slogan.

Two and a half years since MLB first rolled out this message, that it was OK to let these kids play, who better to remind everyone that this time we mean it than Fernando Tatis Jr.?

If this sport is really ready to buy into the idea that this is The Guy, that this is The Face, there is nothing more important to remember than this: It isn’t the data points on his FanGraphs page, sensational as they are, that will make him The Face. It’s the smile, the style, the highlight reel.

Let the Kids Play wasn’t a Nike ad or a Gatorade slogan, you know. It was a commercial that was written, produced and approved by Major League Baseball. That commercial appeared before Tatis reached the big leagues. But watch him play, and you’ll know exactly what that means.

It’s 23 years since Griffey flipped that cap around for the Derby, and the old rigged baseball world tried to vilify him. Tried to teach him lessons. Let’s not impose that same energy on to Tatis Jr.

The lesson is, let him be all he can be. Don’t hold him back.

Baseball has to let Tatis be himself, put him in prime time, and the rest will fall into place.

Perfect place. Perfect time. Perfect talent. So let’s not ask: Is this possible? Because the only question Fernando Tatis Jr. asks is: Why not?

“(I) just want to be one of those athletes that kids grow up to,” Tatis said this week. “That’s one of the main things that keeps me pushing every single day and just gives me more gas in the motor every single day.

“Let’s do it for the next generation,” said the man who aspires to be The Face for that generation, “because they’re gonna keep this game alive.”


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