SAN DIEGO – The laugh and smile are starting to return. So, too, is the fan adulation for Fernando Tatis Jr., at least in San Diego.
Still serving an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, the superstar was warmly received at FanFest on Saturday, when thousands of fans jammed Petco Park for a preview of the most eagerly anticipated season in Padres history.
Tatis received sustained applause when he was introduced before a panel discussion on a grassy knoll just beyond center field that also included star teammates Manny Machado, Juan Soto and the newly signed Xander Bogaerts.
“I love you San Diego. . I’m not going to leave here for a really long time,” Tatis told the crowd, to more applause.
This season will be a redemption tour for Tatis, one of baseball’s biggest stars whose entire 2022 season was wiped out by a wrist injury and then the suspension. He was on the cusp of returning from surgery on his left wrist when he was suspended by MLB on Aug. 12. He missed the Padres’ stirring run to the NL Championship Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I’ve missed it a lot,” Tatis said during a news conference earlier in the day. “I mean, I missed a year of it. I’m not looking forward to missing anymore. It just feels great to be out there again.”
Tatis said the toughest part was missing the postseason. The Padres eliminated the 101-win New York Mets in the wild-card round before beating their biggest rival, the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers, to reach the NLCS for the first time since 1998.
“It has given me a lot of fuel, trust me,” Tatis said. “I don’t want to put much words into it, I more want to prove myself on the field, just get back to the field with my boys. I definitely missed that fire, being in the jungle with them. It was definitely a dagger to my heart and now I’m looking forward to being on that front line.”
Tatis blamed his positive PED test on a cream he said he took for ringworm. He was already drawing scrutiny after breaking his left wrist in December 2021, reportedly in a motorcycle accident in his native Dominican Republic that required surgery in March. After his suspension was announced, Tatis had surgery on his troublesome left shoulder.
Tatis said he learned from all that happened to him in the last year. “I’m really looking forward to redeeming myself,” he said.
He’s been taking batting practice, catching flyballs and fielding grounders for about a month. He expects to be a full participant at spring training and be ready when he’s eligible to rejoin the active roster on April 20.
Tatis said his shoulder “feels really good. Everything that we have been doing feels back to normal. I’m as close to 100% as I’ve been in the last two years. It feels like it was the perfect time to do it and I’m really glad we decided to get it out of the way.”
When Tatis returns, it won’t be at shortstop. The Padres signed Bogaerts to a $280 million, 11-year contract in early December. Tatis will likely play in the outfield, although which position hasn’t been determined.
“I’ve got to talk to my manager,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m open. I feel this is a great team we have, it’s a great roster. I feel everybody’s on the same page and that page is winning. So, whatever it takes we’re going to do it.”
Asked about the reaction he’s sure to get on the road, he said: “I feel like I’ve seen everything, what this game can bring you, what the fans can bring you, and I’m definitely looking forward to that challenge. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be one of the most emotional years, I feel like, in my career. I’m looking to embrace it and looking to what’s going to come.”
Tatis, who plays with a swagger, was an All-Star in 2021.
“He’s a big part of this team, a big part of this organization, and we’re going to be with him the whole way,” said Machado, who finished second in NL MVP voting. “To have him back healthy, to have him back in that lineup and have him do the things that he’s capable of doing, is huge.
“He was a big, big part of our lineup in the past and he’s going to be a big part of the lineup this year for us. I know he’s going to have a monster year and he’s going to take us to the promised land,” Machado said.