Tatis Jr.'s absence highlights baseball's ever-growing capacity for self-sabotage

San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. looks on from the dugout during a game in May. Tatis Jr. was suspended 80 games by MLB last week after testing positive for the performance-enhancing substance Clostebol. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images - image credit)
San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. looks on from the dugout during a game in May. Tatis Jr. was suspended 80 games by MLB last week after testing positive for the performance-enhancing substance Clostebol. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. earned an 80-game suspension last week after testing positive for a steroid called Clostebol, and he says he flunked the drug test because of the ointment he used to treat ringworm.

As performance-enhancing drug excuses go, it beats Shelby Houlihan's tainted burrito defence. Meat from roided-up hogs doesn't permeate the food supply, and the odds that an authentic food truck will mistake it for beef are beyond remote. At least Clostebol does actually show up in skin creams, so maybe Tatis Jr. isn't hustling us on that front.

Still, common sense says using any medication whose name ends in "ol" or "one" without securing a therapeutic use exemption first is essentially volunteering for a drug ban. If somebody even offers you Pepto Bismol, call the team doctor first. Better safe than suspended.

But if Tatis Jr. made smart decisions, he'd already be back in San Diego. Instead he was in San Antonio, four games into a minor-league rehab assignment, testing out the wrist he broke in an off-season motorcycle crash. We know there were multiple crashes, because when a reporter asked Tatis Jr. when the accident happened, one of baseball's brightest young stars replied with his own question.

"Which one?"

Hopping back onto his motorbike after the first crash hints that the 23-year-old Tatis Jr. sometimes misses the bigger picture, and so he might whiff on the broader context of his failed doping test.

One aspect of that context is that Major League Baseball has an aging audience, and is thirsty for ways to grow it. It's a 20th-century relic trying to keep pace in the social media era, and players like Tatis Jr. — young, flashy, confident, and very, very, very good — are crucial to that goal. Tatis Jr.'s OPS (.975 in 2021) speaks to his overall dominance at the plate, while his homer totals (42 in 2021) demonstrate raw power. And the third-base stutter step during every home run trot? That frill targets people who consume baseball via highlights, and positions Tatis Jr. to bridge the gap between MLB's current fan base and the TikTok generation.

Now, he faces another long idle stretch, while the sport keeps stepping on rakes, Sideshow Bob style, smacked in the face by avoidable problems. If baseball is America's pastime, baseball's pastime is self-sabotage.

For his part, Tatis Jr. issued a public explanation tinged with apology.

"I am completely devastated," he said in a statement released last Friday. "There is nowhere else in the world I would rather be than on the field competing with my teammates."

His father, Fernando Sr., himself a former major leaguer, understood that the suspension would cause aftershocks.

"This is a catastrophe," Tatis Sr. told ESPN. "Not just for Jr., but for all of baseball. There are millions of fans who are gonna stop watching baseball now."

Naturally, the Padres, who are positioned for a playoff berth, are heavily invested in Tatis Jr.'s health. Last year they signed him to a 14-year, $340-million US contract.

But if millions of fans were tethered to Tatis Jr.'s presence in a big-league lineup, they were already tuned out, and awaiting his return to San Diego, where he would have joined Manny Machado and new addition Juan Soto in an NBA-style Big Three.

So no, sports fans didn't dump baseball en masse in response to the positive test. But the extended absence of a young superstar gives the audience yet another reason to ignore a sport that's been bleeding viewers for years.

And reasons abound.

Baseball's decades-long audience slump

Spring training started three weeks late this season, because owners locked the players out, even though an extended work stoppage might have crippled the sport, taking it off the airwaves and inviting a long list of upstart sports to fill the void.

The games are longer than ever — from an average of 2 hours, 49 minutes in 2005 to 3 hours and 11 minutes last season. If that extra time was filled with high-octane action, it wouldn't be a problem. But modern baseball's focus on efficiency emphasizes strikeouts and defensive shifts and home runs, while making stolen bases nearly obsolete. None of those trends are inherently negative, but if efficiency was entertaining, we would all watch Formula One races to see who burns the least fuel.

Meanwhile, the sport's unwritten rules treat flashes of personality like Tatis Jr. treated his ringworm — as something to eradicate quickly, even at a steep, self-defeating cost. If Tim Anderson celebrates a home run, bean him his next time up. And if Jose Bautista flips a bat, wait till the next season and then send some goons after him. Make it clear that the sport's culture makes no room for spontaneity or fun.

Denis Poroy/Getty Images
Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Fine, except potential viewers are likely getting the message, too, which might help explain the numbers.

The top five highest-rated World Series all took place between 1978 and 1982, and averaged 40.8 million television viewers. And the five least-viewed? They averaged 12.25 million viewers, and have all taken place since 2008.

No one factor explains the decades-long decline in audience size, but keeping the game's biggest stars on the field as deep into the post-season as possible would help.

Instead we have Tatis Jr., sidelined first by his off-season hobby, and then (allegedly) by a steroid-fortified anti-fungal cream.

Or we have Mike Trout, a five-tool stud with three MVP awards by age 27. One off-season he posted video of himself sprinting with a loaded barbell across his shoulders, possibly to prepare for the strain of carrying the Los Angeles Angels for another season. Earlier this year we learned Trout has developed a chronic back ailment that will dog him for the rest of his career. He hasn't played since mid July.

We don't know that the barbell sprints alone wrecked his spine, but if that exercise made you faster, more fast people would do it. It might even be a worse off-season activity than riding a motorcycle, because at least the bike never claimed it would make anybody better at baseball.

Point is, players like Trout and Tatis Jr. could disappear from the lineup for any number of reasons, but their production and marketing muscle aren't replaceable. If MLB tracked Ticket Sales Above Replacement, both players would rank high, every year. This summer, they're both spectators.

Of course, the Blue Jays have their own young, exciting, worth-the-price-of-admission All-Star and, thankfully for Jays fans, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. shows up where he's needed. Spring and summer he's at first base, where he's an improving defender, and in the batter's box, ripping line-drives to all fields. Winters he's in the gym — no barbell sprints, though.

I would suggest that the Jays swaddle him in bubble wrap when he's not on the job, but bubble wrap is made of plastic, which causes sweating, which could give Vlad Jr. a rash … which is exactly how we got here with Tatis Jr.