Tatis strives to revisit grand past

Onetime Cardinals star starts over with O's

March 15, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Fernando Tatis' ascent to stardom began on April 23, 1999, with two powerful swings in less than an hour's span. A promising third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, Tatis hit two grand slams off Los Angeles pitcher Chan Ho Park in the third inning at Dodger Stadium, a feat no other major league player has ever accomplished.

Tatis hit .298 with 34 home runs, 107 RBIs and 21 steals that season, earning himself a four-year, $15 million contract. But about 16 months after his crowning accomplishment in the big leagues, he was traded to the Montreal Expos, the first in a series of events that has gotten him to this point.

He is a former future star relegated to near anonymity in the Orioles' clubhouse; a player invited to spring training, out of baseball for the past two seasons to recuperate both his body and his mind, scratching and clawing simply to keep his professional baseball dreams alive.

"It's great to be back," Tatis said before he boarded a bus yesterday morning and headed to Port St. Lucie, where the Orioles took on the New York Mets. "Baseball has been a big part of my life."

There is very little - if any - chance that Tatis will make the Orioles' Opening Day roster. He is hitting just .188 with no home runs or RBIs this spring, his once swift and powerful swing seemingly encased by a good bit of rust that is understandable for a player that hasn't had a big league at-bat since June of 2003.

Tatis, a 31-year-old Dominican Republic native who was in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' camp in 2004, is most likely headed to Triple-A Ottawa to begin the season. But the most important thing, Tatis says, is that he is healthy and no longer dogged by the rash of injuries that he says caused his premature exit from baseball.

"I feel great," he said. "Last year, I took the whole year off, just to be healthy and try to come back strong. I feel like 100 percent."

The soft-spoken Tatis isn't much interested in discussing the specifics of how he got in this predicament, or how a once-promising career was derailed. But those, like New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya and Tony La Russa, his manager in St. Louis, who have followed closely his career path, pointed to the time when the injuries started to mount.

"When we first saw him and signed him, he was a young player that could run, throw, hit, could do a lot of things," said Minaya, who was a scout with the Texas Rangers when he signed Tatis in 1995. "I thought he was going to become that kind of a player, an All-Star that can hit close to .300, hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs. If he ever stayed healthy, I think he could have done that."

Said La Russa: "It's tough to play this game when you are hurt, especially when you are a productive player. What we saw when he was with us, he is a capable third baseman and a tough out with men in scoring position. A lot of things have to come together and part of it is good fortune and good health."

Tatis said that he was devastated after "blowing out" his groin in April 2000, an injury that cost him 54 games. At the time, he led the National League in RBIs (28) and had hit safely in 18 of 21 games. He had 18 homers and 64 RBIs despite missing nearly two months that year, and was traded after the season along with pitcher Brett Reames to the Expos for pitchers Dustin Hermanson and Steve Kline.

"[Expos manager] Felipe Alou really loved the guy and thought that he'd be a very good third baseman for us and hit in the middle of the order," said former Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie, Montreal's general manager at the time. "We thought he'd be a better player obviously, but he didn't do much at all. Baseball-wise, it just didn't work out."

In 2001, his first season in Montreal, Tatis played in just 41 games due to shoulder and knee injuries. He missed 25 more games in 2002, hitting just .228 with 15 homers and 55 RBIs. Tatis was still Montreal's Opening Day third baseman in 2003, but he sat out the last 3 1/2 months of the season with what was termed as "inflammation in his chest wall."

The Montreal Gazette reported that Tatis was suffering from panic attacks. At the time, Tatis acknowledged the panic attacks - described as a knot in his chest that caused tightening and shortness of breath - but he said yesterday that it was just the frustration from injuries that caused his problems.

"I think everybody in baseball sometimes gets nervous," said Tatis, who played in 208 games in three seasons with the Expos, hitting .225 with 19 homers and 81 RBIs. "When you're hurt, it's just frustration. You try to come back and you can't. It just kills you."

Tatis spent last year at home in the Dominican Republic, content to be far away from the media glare and the expectations that he intensified that night in Los Angeles when he slammed two grand slams. But the encouraging voice of his 7-year-old son, Fernando, became too much to ignore.

"My son always bothers me and [asks] me, `When are you going to play again, when you are you going to be back in the big leagues?'" said Tatis. "That pushed me when he said that. He just loves this game. That's why I took the year off. Now I am doing the best I can to make this ballclub."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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