Absence of Tatis Jr. highlights baseball’s growing ability to self-sabotage

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinions for CBC Sports. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.

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

As performance-enhancing drug excuses wear off, it beats Shelby Houlihan’s tainted burrito defense. Meat from ridden pigs does not permeate the food supply, and the chances of an authentic food truck mistaking it for beef are slim. At least Clostebol is showing up in skin creams, so maybe Tatis Jr. isn’t pushing us on that front.

Yet common sense says that using any drug with a name ending in “ol” or “un” without first obtaining a therapeutic use exemption is essentially volunteering for a drug ban. If someone offers you Pepto Bismol, call the team doctor first. Better safe than suspended.

But if Tatis Jr. made any smart moves, he’d be back in San Diego already. Instead, he was in San Antonio, four games into a minor league rehab stint, testing the wrist he broke in an offseason motorcycle accident. We know there have been several accidents because when a reporter asked Tatis Jr. when the accident happened, one of baseball’s brightest young stars answered with his own question.


Getting back on his bike after the first crash hints that 23-year-old Tatis Jr. sometimes misses the bigger picture, and so he might be sensing the larger context of his failed doping test.

One aspect of this context is that Major League Baseball has an aging audience and a thirst for ways to grow it. It’s a 20th century relic trying to keep up with the social media era, and players like Tatis Jr. – young, flashy, confident and very, very, very good – are crucial to achieving that goal. Tatis Jr.’s OPS (.975 in 2021) is a testament to his overall dominance at home plate, while his home run totals (42 in 2021) demonstrate raw power. And the stuttering third base pitch on every home run? This steering wheel targets people who consume baseball via highlights and positions Tatis Jr. to bridge the gap between the current MLB fan base and the TikTok generation.

Now he faces another long streak of inactivity as the sport continues to walk on rakes, Sideshow Bob style hitting in the face with preventable issues. If baseball is America’s pastime, baseball’s pastime is self-sabotage.

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

“I am completely devastated,” he said in a statement released last Friday. “There is no other place in the world I would rather be than on the pitch competing with my teammates.”

His father, Fernando Sr., himself a former major league player, understood that the suspension would provoke aftershocks.

“It’s a disaster,” Tatis Sr. told ESPN. “Not just for Jr., but for all of baseball. There are millions of fans who are going to stop watching baseball now.”

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

But if millions of fans were attached to Tatis Jr.’s presence in a big league roster, they were already on the sidelines and awaiting his return to San Diego, where he would have joined Manny Machado and new addition Juan Soto in an NBA. -Big Three style.

So no, sports fans did not abandon baseball in droves in response to the positive test. But the prolonged absence of a young superstar gives audiences yet another reason to ignore a sport that has been bleeding viewers for years.

And the reasons abound.

Baseball’s declining viewership for decades

Spring training started three weeks late this season as owners locked players in, though a prolonged work stoppage could have crippled the sport, taking it off the air and inviting a long list of rookie sports to fill. the void.

Games are longer than ever – from an average of 2 hours and 49 minutes in 2005 to 3 hours and 11 minutes last season. If that extra time was filled with high-octane action, that wouldn’t be a problem. But modern baseball’s emphasis on efficiency emphasizes strikeouts, defensive changes, and home runs, while making stolen bases nearly obsolete. None of these trends are inherently negative, but if efficiency were entertaining, we’d all be watching Formula 1 racing to see who’s burning the least fuel.

Meanwhile, the sport’s unwritten rules treat personality flashes the way Tatis Jr. treated his ringworm — as something to be eradicated quickly, even at high, self-defeating cost. If Tim Anderson celebrates a home run, wow him next time. And if Jose Bautista throws a bat, wait until next season and then send henchmen after him. Make it clear that the culture of sport has no room for spontaneity or fun.

The suspension of Tatis Jr., seen celebrating a home run in 2021, has been described as a “catastrophe” for baseball by his father, Fernando Sr., himself a former major league player. (Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Alright, except potential viewers are probably getting the message as well, which might help explain the numbers.

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

There’s no factor explaining the decline in viewership size for decades, but keeping the game’s biggest stars in the field as deep into the playoffs as possible would help.

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

Or we have Mike Trout, a five-tool stud with three MVP awards at 27. One offseason, he posted a video of himself sprinting with a loaded barbell over his shoulders, perhaps to prepare for the strain of carrying the Los Angeles Angels for another season. Earlier this year, we learned that Trout had developed a chronic back condition that would follow him for the rest of his career. He hasn’t played since mid-July.

We don’t know that barbell sprints alone destroyed his spine, but if this exercise made you faster, faster people would. It might even be a worse off-season activity than riding a motorcycle, because at least the motorcycle never claimed to make someone better at baseball.

The thing is, players like Trout and Tatis Jr. could disappear from the roster for any number of reasons, but their production and marketing strength is not replaceable. If MLB tracked ticket sales above the replacement, both players would rank first every year. This summer, they are both spectators.

Of course, the Blue Jays have their own exciting young star who is worth the price of admission and, fortunately for Jays fans, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. shows up where he’s needed. In the spring and summer, he’s at first base, where he’s an improving defenseman, and in the batting box, tearing up line drives on all courts. Winters he’s in the gym — no barbell sprints, though.

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

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