Eyeing a comeback season, Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. finds sanctuary deep underwater
Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. joins pitcher Joe Musgrove in underwater training program run by former Marine Raiders. ‘I love the silence it brings me’
It’s a little after 9 a.m. on a January morning and Joe Musgrove is floating face down, motionless in the deepest part of a giant swimming pool.
Five feet away, Fernando Tatis Jr. slowly sinks to the pool’s floor, arms outstretched. His long dreadlocks drift behind his swim cap.
The unquestioned leader and the alleged cheater, holding their breath together.
Tatis breaks the surface of the pool first, quickly drawing in air.
The process is one with which he’s familiar: one second you’re floating, the next you’re fighting to breathe.
In the water, if you allow the past to weigh you down, you will drown. So the pitcher for whom accountability is a core tenet and who has shown up in some of the biggest moments of the last two seasons and the kid with immeasurable talent who has fallen from grace are equally buoyant.
The two teammates are pushing themselves physically and mentally in a weekly underwater training class taught by former Marine Raiders. As they compete against and work with the unforgiving foes of water and doubt, there is common ground in striving for growth.
Padres superstar Fernando Tatis was suspended 80 games by MLB for testing positive for a banned substance. He won’t play this season.
Yes, the metaphors are thicker than the smell of chlorine at the Coggan Family Aquatic Complex.
“He’s having to face something that he never has or never wanted to face,” Musgrove said of Tatis, who is attempting to turn the page on the darkest year of his young life. “But he’s handling it really well. He’s been around Petco [Park] every day and the work ethic he’s putting in, he’s going to be ready.”
Musgrove was arguably the most vocal player in calling out Tatis after he was suspended for a failed PED test last summer. Musgrove said at the time that Tatis had work to do to show how much he wanted to be part of the team; later, the pitcher said he was ready to move forward with his teammate.
“How you act and the actions that he takes moving forward,” Musgrove said in August, “is what’s going to dictate how long this thing stays around.”
The two had private conversations detailing not only the disappointment, but the comeback.
So, the significance of Musgrove’s words now — and of Tatis working alongside him this winter — runs deeper than the 13 feet to the bottom of the pool where the two Padres players spend a couple of hours each Wednesday in a class designed to help participants deal with stressful and uncertain situations.
In this pool, last offseason, Musgrove learned to embrace and redirect fear. In October, facing playoff elimination, Musgrove controlled his emotions when an umpire rubbed his ears in front of 40,000 people with millions more watching on television.
This could also be where Tatis draws strength to endure the challenge that lies ahead in 2023.
“To slow down everything,” Tatis said, when asked what he believes underwater training will do for him. “Not even in the game. I feel like this year is gonna be a little bit wild — what is waiting for me out there. Just learn how to breathe and how to come back to the [peace] that water brings me.”
Padres stars working out together underwater as they prepare for highly anticipated 2023 baseball season.
The face of baseball was absent in 2022.
Tatis sat out the first four-plus months of the season because of a wrist injury sustained in a motorcycle accident. He sat out the final two months because of a suspension after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug.
In October, while his teammates rapturously sprayed one another with champagne, Tatis sat home soaked in regret.
He did not dance with Juan Soto nor smoke cigars with Manny Machado. He didn’t feel the euphoria that comes from contributing to such accomplishments.
Instead, Tatis experienced the loneliness of being on the outside.
“The fact that I wasn’t there in the playoffs, I feel like that was my depression,” Tatis said. “It was a hard moment. I’m not gonna say it wasn’t hard. [There were times] I didn’t want to [watch]. It’s really hard seeing your team go so deep in the playoffs and you can’t do nothing. It makes you feel like you aren’t part of it. It stabbed me straight to the heart. But you gotta remember that feeling and just put it into your work so you’re not going to get there again.”
Tatis faced his teammates Aug. 23, 11 days after his suspension was announced. He called it the most difficult moment he has experienced in the process.
“Seeing their faces, just how heartbroken they were,” Tatis said. “I feel like a different story could have been if I was on the field. I feel like that was a stab to the team. I was apart from them. It was the first time I ever felt that. I was really heartbroken. I’ve always been successful in this area and now for the first time, I really [messed] up. And I really felt that.”
Remorse into redemption
In September, Tatis underwent shoulder surgery, something the Padres had encouraged a year earlier. Wrist surgery in October revised the initial procedure done seven months earlier. Much of Tatis’ winter was spent healing and rehabbing in the Dominican Republic while he remained in daily contact with at least one member of the Padres’ medical staff and/or front office. He returned to San Diego to train in early January, much earlier than usual.
Tatis, who turned 24 on Jan. 2, said his shoulder is fully healed.
“I’m glad I got it,” he said of the surgery, which he agreed to after the Padres strongly suggested it following his suspension. “It feels way better. [I am] way confident. I feel like I’m gonna have my swing 100% back this year.”
His wrist, he said, is close to fully healed. He began hitting this week.
“It feels good,” he said. “I feel way more confident [compared] to last time. I feel like this time they got it right. ... It didn’t get healed right the other time. It was like 25%. This time, the last time we checked it was 90% healed. So it’s way better.”
Tatis said he will be full-go for spring training. He can participate in workouts and games through camp and then will serve the remaining 20 games of his 80-game suspension. He is scheduled to be reinstated April 20, when the Padres open a series in Arizona.
Justin Turner is excited to be part of the Boston Red Sox, but the former Dodgers third baseman always will cherish what he accomplished in L.A.
“I’m really excited,” Tatis said. “I feel like this is one of the years there’s gonna be more emotion and I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’m definitely looking forward to just being back on the field.”
He was asked whether he thinks, considering the period in which he has had to sit, that it might take time to get back to being the same player who has batted .292 and hit a home run every 12.8 at-bats in his career.
“I don’t think so,” he said, shaking his head at the suggestion. “To me it’s just baseball. This is the thing that I’ve been doing since I had memory. The same time I learned how to walk, I was swinging a bat. On the baseball side, I’m definitely not scared of what’s going to happen or how my body is going to react. I mean, I had one arm the last year I was healthy and I still found a way to play baseball in the best way possible.”
Tatis appears healthy, strong. He maintains a quiet focus in the pool but every so often allows for a moment of laughter, his head bobbing backward, his eyes mischievous. That’s when it shows — the assuredness that has been so much a part of his ability from the start.
In many ways, he appears the same fun-loving kid Padres fans adored even before they got to see him up close. The one with the big smile and the bat flips. The one who hits missiles to the seats and does a stutter-step just before the final 90 feet of his home run jog.
On a recent morning, Tatis’ voice was most alive as he described being on the field again.
“I definitely miss that,” he said. “Hitting a home run, jogging around third base, I definitely miss it.”
It’s also clear he is readying himself mentally, preparing for the boos and the derisive talk and whatever else will come.
“I’ve seen baseball all my life,” Tatis said. “From the inside of the field, from the outside of the field. I know what people are gonna talk about out there and what people are gonna be talking about on the field. It depends on me — how I’m gonna approach it, how I’m gonna take it. And it’s gonna be up to me if I’m going to answer back. ... The answer is gonna go out by itself. It’s going to be just me playing and being back on the field.
“You can’t be loved everywhere. I’m definitely going to look forward to those boos and to the applause.”
It’s most important to him, he said, to stay healthy the entire season. Tatis has played only 273 big league games in his four-year career. In February 2021, he agreed to a $340-million extension through 2034.
“When I signed the contract, I assigned myself to being on that field for 14 years,” Tatis said. “So I feel like that’s what we need to do — be on the field for the years we [set out] for.”
Facing the challenge
The pool workout is more than 30 minutes in when one of the instructors announces the final “warmup” exercise. The morning has already seen the participants hold their breaths for intervals of 15, 30 and 50 seconds before a fourth time in which they remained submerged for as long as they could.
Musgrove, who at his peak last winter held his breath for 4 minutes 2 seconds, reached 3:20 on a recent Wednesday. Tatis, who could hardly go 50 seconds when he first showed up, reached 1:45.
The class, run by Deep End Fitness, opens with a “circle of trust” where participants perform breath work before outlining accountability goals and individual intentions for that day’s effort. Once in the pool, the emphasis turns to relaxation techniques and mentally resetting under duress. (Translated to baseball-speak: learning to truly flush the last play or the last pitch.)
The final warmup is called “drown-proofing.” Swimmers hold their hands behind their back and keep their feet together, as if tied. They perform 10 repetitions, dropping to the bottom of the pool and bobbing back up.
The key is to exhale before descending to sink faster.
“Work with the voice trying to limit you,” instructor Prime Hall tells his class, which on this Wednesday consists of a pair of professional baseball players, two mixed martial arts fighters and a professional rugby player. “Don’t block it out.”
The bulk of the workout consists of a series of swims and underwater walks while carrying dumbbells, including one impromptu race between Tatis and Musgrove.
San Diego-area native Joe Musgrove will pitch in Game 4 of the NLDS and can help oust the hated Dodgers and lift the Padres into their first NLCS since 1998.
“All that speed on land means nothing in here,” Musgrove called to Tatis.
Tatis grinned. “All right, let’s go,” he said before dipping underwater, grabbing his weights and taking strong, quick strides on his way to victory.
Hall and fellow instructor Rick Briere served together in Afghanistan. They push their students to places once perceived as impossible. The physical pressure is inherent; the emphasis is on mental fortitude.
“Every rep that you go underwater, you’re training yourself to intentionally go against what your mind is telling you to do from a survival perspective,” Hall said. “You’re focusing beyond that. You’re training your mind, every time it’s in limbic friction or mental friction, or whatever it is where you don’t want to do something, to say, ‘No, this is what we’re doing. This is a nonnegotiable. I’m in control.’”
Briere explained Tatis’ improvement underwater this way: “It’s the pressure of performance — thinking, ‘I have to get to 2 minutes.’ Now, you’re increasing your body’s demand for air supply. And you’re out of breath, so you don’t breathe freely. It makes it a lot harder. The more they learn to relax, the longer they can go.”
Tatis first worked with Deep End Fitness last season as he underwent rehabilitation from his initial wrist surgery. Lately, he has been a regular with Musgrove.
As someone who grew up swimming in the warm, clear Caribbean Sea off the Dominican Republic, Tatis finds peace in water. It’s a sanctuary, a part of his identity.
“I’m from the island,” Tatis said as he sat on a bench after class, squeezing droplets from his hair. “I just need to be in the water. I feel part of it. I love the silence it brings me.”
As he seeks the calm and consistency necessary to maintain excellence over the course of a baseball season, Tatis will return to the things he’s learning in the pool. He will try to draw strength from the scars.
Even before the reduction of Trevor Bauer’s suspension last month, the Dodgers were taking a more restrained approach with their payroll this offseason.
“He’s been leaning in, being in those uncomfortable situations and working through them,” Hall said. “He’s been working hard.”
Musgrove has been impressed.
Tatis has, according to some in the organization, held himself apart in some ways in the past. To some extent, it was a natural reaction to a meteoric ascension as not only his team’s biggest star but one of the most popular players in Major League Baseball. The team essentially demanded after the suspension that, going forward, Tatis be more communicative and amenable.
“Being the superstar and the face of baseball is a lot to take on,” Musgrove said. “So he hasn’t put himself out there a ton in the past. And I feel like now you’re starting to see a little bit more of him open up.”
Tatis is moving forward, focused on next steps and appreciative of those walking with him.
“You want to flip that page,” he said, “But you also want to remember what took you to those down [places] so you don’t do that again. … We gotta face whatever comes. It’s life. It’s part of it. We can never be afraid. If we’re afraid we’ll be stuck in the same part, so just look to the challenge and just stab it right in the throat.”
Tatis has little doubt this season is going to be a kind of challenge he has not yet experienced.
He was asked whether what he lost — in terms of respect in the game and love in the stands — is recoverable. He paused before answering.
“Yes,” he says. “All of it. All of it.”
He will attempt that the only way possible: One breath at a time.
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