MLB Network’s Fernando Tatis, Jr. Documentary Strikes The Right Tone

MLB Network’s “Tatis: The Rise of El Niño” captures the youthful exuberance of what makes modern baseball exciting and fun to watch by focusing on the player who is the avatar of baseball’s youth movement: Fernando Tatis, Jr.

The documentary, premiering on MLB Network on Wednesday, July 14 at 8 p.m. ET, gets its message across early. Tatis, Jr. is fast becoming the face of baseball and is on a trajectory to stay the face for a long time.

The opening scenes show Tatis, Jr. posing for the cover of MLB The Show as the youngest player to ever have that honor, followed by effusive praise from the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Pedro Martinez. Within the movie’s first five minutes, Rodriguez likens Tatis, Jr. to another Junior: Ken Griffey, saying that in the same way Griffey was the Michael Jordan of baseball in the 1990s, Tatis, Jr. is baseball’s current MJ.

From there, the film bookends his father’s two grand slams in the third inning of a game at Dodger Stadium on April 23, 1999 with Tatis, Jr.’s two home runs off of Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium on April 23 of this year. Coincidentally, both Tatises don uniform number 23, but not as a nod to Michael, but instead to honor their home city of San Pedro de Macoris. In the Dominican Republic, 23 is the number for San Pedro de Macoris.

Dad’s influence is a theme throughout much of the documentary, from the clips of his son at major league ballparks as a boy, to Tatis, Sr. managing his son during the Dominican Winter League in 2018, to him helping his son make a small fix to his swing early in the 2021 season.

The main theme that runs throughout “El Niño” is the transition happening in baseball right now — one that means moving away from some of the unwritten rules. There, Tatis, Jr. serves both as a lightning rod, thanks to his August 2020 grand slam on a 3-0 pitch in a blowout against the Rangers, and a marker. He’s unapologetic about his game and plays in a way that points toward baseball’s future.

“El Niño” also shows the way Tatis, Jr. has been embraced in San Diego. In the Ocean Beach neighborhood, one that prides itself on being countercultural, there’s fittingly a massive Tatis, Jr. mural. But the documentary also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Tatis, Jr. is still almost all promise at this point. He’s young, and he still has limited experience in the major leagues. The movie also shows some of his struggles, like an shoulder injury and Covid-19 diagnosis early this season. But despite his relatively short time as a pro, there are plenty of highlights, but “El Niño” does a good job of pointing out that the biggest achievements for Tatis, Jr. still lie ahead, in things like World Series championships for the Padres.

Even still, Tatis, Jr.’s marketability runs throughout the film. Early on, Alex Rodriguez says, “If I was Major League Baseball, I could not wait to deploy as much capital as possible to market this young man.” And it appears to be happening. There’s the aforementioned video game cover and a Gatorade endorsement to go with the 14-year, $330 million contract Tatis, Jr. signed with the Padres in February.

This comes full circle from a promise Tatis, Jr. made to his father when he agreed to sign with the Chicago White Sox for less money than they had hoped back in 2015. I’ll get the money later, Tatis, Jr. told his father. Six years down the road, Tatis, Jr. made good on his promise.

Near the end of the documentary, Padres TV color commentator Mark Grant brings viewers back to the central theme: “He’s becoming the face of baseball.” As the sport wrestles with how to respect its past and the way the game was once played and how to embrace the future that is coming, this documentary shows deference to both while leaning in to where guys like Tatis, Jr. are taking the sport. Tatis, Jr. is young, dynamic and holds appeal for the younger fan demographic that Major League Baseball is wisely trying to court.

Tatis, Jr. is a rare story in that he can merit such praise at so young an age and so early in his career. In MLB Network’s “El Niño” — just the second network documentary to feature a current player after their 2017 film featuring Mike Trout — they effectively walk the line of capturing the drama of what Tatis, Jr. means to baseball now and what he can accomplish without resorting into overdramatic cheesiness or bombast.

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