Tatis Jr., Padres make baseball fun again in San Diego

San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. smiling
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — Baseball is fun again in San Diego, where the Padres are heading into one of their most anticipated seasons ever.

The main focus is always on electrifying shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who has reached full-blown superstardom and received a $340 million, 14-year contract – the longest in MLB history – without having yet played the equivalent of a full season.

Also in focus is San Diego’s revamped rotation. With Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove leading the way, it’s expected to be one of the best in baseball, the product of general manager A.J. Preller‘s relentless wheeling and dealing.

And, of course, all eyes will be on NL West race against the rivals up the freeway, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who stand in the way of where the Padres want to go.

Anchored by a star-studded infield featuring Tatis and third baseman Manny Machado, San Diego ended a 13-year playoff drought and won a first-round series against St. Louis last season before being swept in the Division Series by the Dodgers, who went on to win the World Series.

The Padres return their entire infield – Tatis, Machado, second baseman Jake Cronenworth and first baseman Eric Hosmer – as well as outfielders Trent Grisham, Wil Myers and Tommy Pham.

They also look to welcome back fans to Petco Park, which, due to the coronavirus pandemic, was empty when the Padres clinched a playoff spot and when they clinched a wild-card series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Thousands of fans packed downtown to celebrate that win, and the Padres hope fans get to celebrate inside the downtown ballpark this year.

Musgrove, who pitched for Grossmont High in suburban El Cajon, is looking forward to having family and friends in the ballpark as California slowly reopens.

When he heard during a Zoom call with the media that there should be limited capacity for opening day, Musgrove pounded his fists on a table and said, “Good news. It’s exciting, man.”

Musgrove said players were getting tired of the fake crowd noise pumped into empty stadiums last year.

“I’m thrilled to have fans in San Diego,” he said. “I know these fans are excited. It’s been a long time since they’ve been able to come to games and I know they’re waiting to watch this team.”

EL NINO

Tatis – a son of former big league infielder Fernando Tatis – has played in only 143 games during two seasons, including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, yet has quickly become one of the faces of baseball. He stands out because of his flair, easy smile, blond dreadlocks flowing from under his cap and his dance moves in the dugout after hitting home runs.

He vows his big contract won’t change him. “I’m playing the game I love. And I feel when you do the things with passion and with love, I feel like it’s going to reward you,” he said. “And I feel like when people ask me how I’m going to play this game, I’m just going to be the same kid every single time.”

ROTATION

The Padres ran out of pitching in the playoffs and Mike Clevinger had Tommy John surgery in mid-November. No worries for Preller, who quickly rebuilt the rotation with a flurry of blockbuster trades after Christmas. He landed Darvish and Snell in the span of about 24 hours, and a few weeks later added Musgrove.

Those moves bumped Chris Paddack, the 2020 opening day starter, down to No. 4. Dinelson Lamet, who missed the playoffs with an arm ailment, doesn’t look to be ready for the start of the season, which could open the door for Adrian Morejon or one of two top rookies, MacKenzie Gore, baseball’s top pitching prospect, or Ryan Weathers. The Padres could go with a six-man rotation at times.

NEW LOOK

The Padres haven’t identified their closer after losing Kirby Yates and Trevor Rosenthal to free agency. They have four relievers on the roster who have closed before: left-hander Drew Pomeranz, newcomer Mark Melancon, Emilio Pagan and Keone Kela.

Fans are eager to see how South Korean slugger Kim Ha-seong will do against big league pitchers. He’ll be used as a utility infielder.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

At some point this season, the Padres are expected to promote Gore, a left-hander, as well as Weathers, who made his big league debut with 1 1/3 scoreless innings in the opener of the NLDS against the Dodgers.

INJURIES

Pham has bounced back from needing 200 stiches after being stabbed in the lower back during an altercation in a strip club parking lot in mid-October. Grisham strained his left hamstring during a spring game and catcher Austin Nola fractured his left middle finger on a foul tip, leaving his status for opening day in doubt.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.