?Mama, puedes contarme la historia de mi papa y el bate de
How many times did he ask? How often did he need to hear the
story? So many nights the little boy cuddled up to his mother in
bed and begged her to tell him about his father and the baseball
bat. When she hesitated, the boy anxiously implored her, "Por
favor, por favor, Mama." Overwhelmed by his pleading, Yudelca
Tatis inevitably gazed at her son, Fernando, and launched into
the bedtime story she had told him a hundred times before.
She told him about the afternoon when he was two days old and
she carried him home from the hospital and put him into his
crib. His father entered the room with a proud smile and a deep,
throaty laugh. He laid a small wooden bat diagonally across his
son's tiny chest and said, "God bless you, Fernandito; someday
you will be a baseball player just like your father." The mother
was expert at embellishing the story with other details about
the father, the happy ones, until her son was sound asleep and
dreaming of fulfilling the prophecy set out for him.
For 17 years that was about all Fernando Tatis Jr. knew about
his father. At first, at the end of each baseball season, the
father returned to their home in San Pedro de Macoris, in the
Dominican Republic. But when Fernandito was five years old, the
father stopped coming back.
Still, the boy grew up desperately wanting to be his father's
son, and the story of the baseball bat would be enough to
determine his career path. "Doesn't every little boy want to be
just like his dad?" says Fernando Jr., the St. Louis Cardinals'
third baseman, who has been one of the surprise hitting
sensations of the early season. "I didn't know him, but he was
still my idol. I wanted his dream to become reality for me. I
wanted to become famous at the ballpark."
On Sunday, Tatis was tied for seventh in the National League in
home runs, with 14, and RBIs, with 44, and was tied for eighth in
runs, with 41. He is demonstrating the instincts and the arm to
someday become a Gold Glove third baseman. The 24-year-old, who
was sent from the Texas Rangers, along with pitcher Darren Oliver
and outfielder Mark Little, to the Cardinals at last year's trade
deadline in a deal for pitcher Todd Stottlemyre and shortstop
Royce Clayton, is setting off a '90s version of Fernandomania in
At 5'10" and 170 pounds, Tatis doesn't look like a typical
slugger, but he compensates for his modest size with a chiseled
upper body, strong hands, and hitting tips he picked up from
Sammy Sosa during shared off-season batting practices in the
Dominican Republic. Tatis swings as hard as any hitter in the
majors, yet he insists he is following teammate Mark McGwire's
philosophy of not trying to hit homers but simply waiting for a
good pitch to drive. "Last year you could throw the ball away
from him and he wasn't getting out to that pitch," says
Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Jason Kendall. "But now he's covering
more of the plate, and he's more patient."
Says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "Young players have a
tendency to be erratic, all highs and lows, but Fernando's
growing up in a hurry. He's one of those guys who has to try not
to overswing, because the less he tries to hit home runs, the
more he's going to hit."
On April 23 at Dodger Stadium, Tatis hit two home runs in the
time it takes some people to floss their teeth. He borrowed
teammate Eric Davis's bat that night, and in the third inning,
against Chan Ho Park, Tatis launched a pair of grand slams, the
first two of his pro career. McGwire, who at that time didn't
have eight RBIs, joked that you would "have a better chance of
winning the lottery" than of hitting two slams in a single
Indeed, Tatis's feat had not occurred in 124 seasons of baseball.
In this century only four teams have hit two grand slams in an
inning, and no Cardinal had ever hit two homers in one inning. "I
still think about it every day, and a smile comes to my face,"
Tatis says. "It's just my third year, and I already have a great
Prodded by reporters after the game, Tatis said that part of his
motivation as a ballplayer has been the experience of his
father, who didn't fulfill his dream of performing on the big
league stage. Three decades ago another Fernando Tatis came to
America, signed by Houston Astros scout Pat Gillick, who liked
the player's aggressive swing and reliable glove. In 1970 at
Class A Cocoa in Florida, Tatis roomed with Mike Easler, who
would go on to play 14 seasons in the majors. Easler thought so
highly of Tatis's potential that he switched from third base to
the outfield to avoid competing for that position with his
Playing for the Astros' Triple A affiliate in Denver in 1973,
Tatis hit .279 with 22 doubles, 11 triples and 80 RBIs in 136
games. He was added to Houston's 40-man roster in the
off-season, but he did not possess enough home run power to
wrest the job from the Astros' longtime third baseman, Doug
Rader. Tatis was sent down four days before the start of the
season. It was during that time that his son was conceived.
Bitterly disappointed by his demotion, Tatis hit just .226 at
Denver in '74, and toward the end of the season he suffered a
torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. He dropped down to
Double A in '75 and spent four seasons in Columbus at that level
before getting his release and taking a coaching job with the
As Tatis's baseball career went into decline, so did his
personal life. He divorced Yudelca in the late '70s and married
his second wife, Marjorie, soon after. His arm trouble had
gotten worse, so he couldn't even pitch batting practice without
severe pain in his shoulder. He began drinking too much. When
the '80 season ended, he quit his job managing the Sarasota
Astros of the Gulf Coast League and chose not to go home to the
Dominican Republic. "When I decided to leave baseball, I decided
to leave everything behind," he says now. "Of course, there is
no excuse for abandoning my son, but I was so miserable, I
wanted to suffer my pain alone, in another world."
Fernando Jr., meanwhile, had never stopped wondering about his
father, and when he signed his first contract, with the Texas
organization, and came to the U.S. in '94, he told his mother
that one of his goals was to find his dad.
In the summer of '97, just after Fernando Jr. had been called up
to the Rangers, then Texas scouting director Omar Minaya asked
New York Times writer Murray Chass to do a story about the
player's search for his father. The story was picked up on Aug.
19, 1997, by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Fernando Sr., then
living in Sarasota, heard about it. The next afternoon the elder
Tatis placed a call to Texas, and Minaya pulled Fernando Jr. out
of the batting cage to take the call. The younger Tatis picked
up a phone in the Rangers' clubhouse and heard the deep throaty
laugh he barely remembered from nearly two decades earlier. He
passed the phone to Minaya for a few moments while he composed
himself, and then he arranged a reunion in Texas on Sept. 12.
When father and son met in a hotel lobby in Arlington, both men
cried. "It gave new life to my heart," Fernando Sr. said later
that day. "After I finally saw him, suddenly it was like I was
Said Fernando Jr., "It's like a big pain is gone. I feel so much
better, like I can breathe again."
The day after the reunion, Fernando Sr. looked on from the
stands as his son hammered two homers against the Minnesota
Twins. The father told his son afterward that it was the best
present he had ever received.
Fernando Sr., 48 and married for the third time, has a son,
Malik, who is five, the same age Fernando was when his long
separation from his father began. Fernando Sr. has put his
bittersweet feelings toward baseball behind him and now helps
coach Malik's tee-ball team, embracing his chance to redeem
himself through another child. He is a contract painter, a
fiercely proud man who will drive through the streets of
Sarasota with his wife, Dee, saying, "Look at that beautiful
building. I painted that."
Following his emotional reunion with Fernando Jr., the
relationship has been a work in progress. Father and son have
seen each other four times since their meeting in Texas, most
recently on May 31, when the Cardinals visited the Florida
Marlins. "It's complicated, because after all those years apart,
both of them are afraid to get too close," Dee says. "Fernando
doesn't want Fernandito to think he's just calling now because
Fernandito's a major leaguer, and Fernandito doesn't want his
dad to think he's smothering him. They are both as stubborn as
"All the years we were separated, I knew I'd made a terrible
mistake and that I still loved my son," the father says. "I
don't ever expect him to say, 'I love my daddy,' I just hope he
doesn't hate me in his soul."
Fernando Jr., who now has a six-month-old son, also named
Fernando, with his wife, Maria, back in San Pedro de Macoris,
acknowledges that he has never asked his father to explain his
departure, and he has no plans to do so. "I think that if I
really knew what happened, I'm afraid that I might get mad that
he never called me or tried to find me," he says. "It is better
not to know."
When Fernando Jr. began his '99 spring training in a 5-for-28
slump, with nine strikeouts and no extra-base hits, he did not
consult his father, as many baseball sons might have done. He
sought help instead from an old family friend. The Cardinals'
new hitting coach this season is Mike Easler. The instructor
told his young pupil to stop trying to hit the ball out of the
stadium and to quiet his body, relax his hands and concentrate
on reading the pitch. Tatis finished the exhibition season with
16 hits in his last 48 at bats, including five homers.
"I believe in divine providence, and it's fate that we're here
together," says Easler, an ordained Baptist minister. "I look at
Fernando like a favorite nephew who has turned his scars into
stars. I think there is a little part of both of us that wants
him to succeed for his daddy."
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Nobody but Tatis has hit two taters with the sacks full in one inning.
COLOR PHOTO: VICTOR BALDIZON Fernando Jr. has yet to ask his dad (left) why he left home long ago.