PHOENIX (AP) — Fernando Tatis Jr. is back with the San Diego Padres, bringing his trademark flair to the game of baseball.
He's also returning with a little humility.
The 24-year-old is playing in a regular season game on Thursday for the first time since an 80-game PED suspension that shocked and angered his teammates, management and a fan base. He'll bat leadoff and play right field against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"It's like my debut in the big leagues — those nerves again," Tatis said before the game. "Just happy to be here, grateful for the chance. We have a long way to go, so can't wait to contribute."
Tatis' maturity has been under the microscope over the past couple years, ever since he signed a $330 million, 14-year contract prior to the 2021 season.
Tatis missed all of last season after breaking his left wrist — reportedly in a motorcycle accident in his native Dominican Republic. He was on the cusp of returning from that when his PED suspension was announced on Aug. 12. He blamed his positive test on a cream he said he used for ringworm.
The Padres still made it to the NL Championship Series before falling to the Phillies.
He was one of the game's premier sluggers from 2019 to 2021, batting .292 while mashing 81 homers, including an NL-best 42 during the 2021 season. Nicknamed El Niño, Tatis also plays the game with a flair that quickly made him one of the game's most recognizable and popular players.
"There are very few players who get this kind of notoriety for their first game of the season — and rightly so," Padres manager Bob Melvin said. "He's made to play this game."
The Padres had a short team meeting before Thursday's game, officially welcoming Tatis back to the fold. Some teammates were critical of Tatis when his suspension was announced last summer, but by all accounts, his return has been celebrated.
"You do some soul searching during those times," Melvin said. "You realize how lucky you are to be a big league player. When you come back from something like that, you're humbled a little and appreciative. He's been nothing but easy to deal with, easy to manage."
Tatis' recent stint at Triple-A El Paso, which was in preparation of his big league return, was a reminder how good he can be. He was 17 of 33 with seven homers and 15 RBIs in eight rehab games, slashing .515/.590/1.212. Early in Tatis' rehab stint, San Francisco Giants minor leaguer Kade McClure called him a "cheater" on Twitter after allowing a mammoth home run to the suspended player.
Tatis said there wasn't much he could do about the barbs.
"That's going to come," Tatis said. "Everyone has freedom of expression in this country, so nothing I can do about it. I'm just going to keep playing this game and enjoy every part of it."
The Padres hope Tatis' return can jolt a team that's had a slow start. San Diego has the third-highest payroll in baseball, but has started with a 9-11 record and sits in third place in the NL West.
Despite the PED suspension, Tatis was allowed to play during MLB's spring training. He's moved to the outfield to make room for Xander Bogaerts, who signed a $280 million, 11-year deal in December to play shortstop.
"It's big, man," Bogaerts said of Tatis' return earlier this week. "Time heals a lot. What I've seen so far is someone who wants to come in and show everyone that he's still the real deal and what he did was a mistake and he wants to show that he's matured from that."
AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this story.
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