No Regard

July 12, 2008

A Blast from the Past

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Brian Murphy @ 9:10 pm

People usually favor the past over the present. It isn’t a statement that applies to all, but the past represents a time when you were younger and life was probably more innocent. Plus, no one enjoys getting older. So, with all the nice comeback stories in Major League Baseball this year — Josh Hamilton, Jon Lester, Rick Ankiel, the Tampa Bay Rays, just to name a few — I think another one is right up there. It’s one that brings me back to the tail end of my childhood.

It’s April 23, 1999. I am a freshman in high school and it’s a Friday night, so obviously, I am at home watching baseball with my family. Screw you, social life!

Growing up in Southern California, I was truly fortunate to have Vin Scully as the narrator to my favorite sport. On this night, the Dodgers were playing the Cardinals, and a big inning was brewing for the Red Birds.

Chan Ho Park had allowed two singles and hit a batter to open the third inning of a scoreless game. Fernando Tatis stepped into the box next and crushed a 2-0 fastball 450 feet down the left-field line, into the Dodgers bullpen. Now, I have always hated the Dodgers, so that grand slam was pretty cool, but not nearly as cool what happened later in the same inning.

Park continued to struggle and here came Tatis again. With the bases loaded again! And he homered again!! The second grand slam came on a full-count pitch as Park lobbed up a beer-league quality slider and Tatis drove it into the left-field pavilion.

TWO GRAND SLAMS IN ONE INNING! Now, my dad and me are just cracking up. And for such a record to be set by a St. Louis Cardinal in the late ’90s, it was a shock that it wasn’t andro spokesman Mark McGwire or can’t-miss prospect J.D. Drew. It was accomplished by some dude. Tatis’ lack of notoriety is what made that moment kind of beautiful.

It is also an event that I don’t think will ever be matched for a couple of reasons. One, to have the confluence of pitcher, batter, inning and results all end so correct seems unfathomable. There are just too many variables.

And secondly, no baseball coach outside of Dusty Baker and Grady Little will ever show so much stupidity in handling their starting pitcher. You couldn’t blame it all on Dodgers manager Davey Johnson. He did the smart thing and got ejected in the middle of the inning. But, as Tatis stepped to the plate for the second time in the third, this is what someone had to be thinking in the L.A. dugout:

“OK, well, Chan Ho is not looking real good out there. He’s allowed seven runs, five hits, two walks and hit a batter in this inning already. Uh-oh, here comes Tatis again. Now, 20 minutes ago, he homered with the bases loaded. OH, LOOK! The bases are loaded! Should I make a move or risk my pitcher becoming an infamous fact for baseball eternity?

“Uh …. oh, what the hell, there are two outs! GO GET’EM, CHAN!”

Tatis had a tremendous all-around season in 1999. He finished with a line of 104-34-107-21 and a batting average of .298. But, as we entered the new millennium and Park went on to become one of the worst free-agent signing in the history of game (and really, who outside of Arlington didn’t see that coming???), Tatis’ game dropped off. In 2000, He hit around .250 and saw his home run production cut nearly in half.

Injuries started getting the best of Tatis. Over the next three seasons, he played in just 208 games with the Montreal Expos, hitting 19 home runs.

So, Tatis moved on to … nothing. He dropped completely out of baseball after the 2003 season. Many probably thought that would be the last we see of Fernando Tatis. I know I did. There are plenty of times in which a player has one or two seasons that stand out, and then due to either injuries, lack of sustainable talent, lost passion for the game or competition catching up with you, those players just fade away and everyone moves on with their lives.

But, in 2006, Tatis was invited to Orioles spring training and actually made the team. Tatis was back in the game, and from out of nowhere. Apparently, that’s how he likes it.

Tatis played in 28 games with the Orioles, but didn’t put up many significant stats. In 2007, he bounced from the Orioles to the Dodgers’ spring training roster and finally to the Mets. On March 23, 2007, he signed a minor-league deal with the Metropolitans.

Ironically, while playing that year for the Mets’ Triple-A club, the New Orleans Zephyrs, he was teammates with his baseball soul mate, Chan Ho Park. Assuming Park understands the words “grand slam” and “I own you”, that had to be a solid conversation.

Tatis made his Mets debut on May 13, singling in his first at bat. And now that he’s back up at the highest level, he looks like he’s never going to leave. He provided game-winning, walk-off hits for the Mets on May 28, May 31 and July 6. He also hit a go-ahead home run against the Giants on July 10. Through Saturday, Tatis is hitting .414 with three home runs and nine RBIs in the month of July.

Fernando Tatis will never be a star and yes, he was rumored to have used performance-enhancing drugs (that may explain that 1999 season a bit better). But, America has shown it can forgive those kind of faults as long as the player doesn’t deny involvement in the face of mounting evidence. And in the case of Tatis, there are no blood-soaked cotton swabs or stored needles.

But what makes his story so cool is the way he came from completely out of the game to being a valuable contributor at the MLB level in the span of just three years. It differs from the stories of Hamilton and Ankiel because we always knew those players were very talented; they just needed to get themselves straight. There’s nothing special about Fernando Tatis. His career probably should have ended after that second grand slam, and it almost did. But, he’s back and if nothing else, he’ll always be the answer to a great trivia question.

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