Before Fernando Tatis Jr. achieved Major League stardom and became one of the faces of baseball, he was yet another teenage prospect from the Dominican Republic -- albeit one with a big league pedigree. Prior to signing his first deal with the Chicago White Sox, Tatis impressed Marco Paddy, the club's international scouting director, with his desire to become "the Dominican Derek Jeter."
It remains a goal he's held onto throughout the years. "When I see Derek Jeter, I see respect, and that's what I want to be," Tatis told ESPN's Jeff Passan in 2020.
When Tatis makes his 2022 debut after completing his recovery from a wrist injury, the moment will mark the beginning of an abbreviated fourth season with the San Diego Padres. In 1998, Jeter's fourth year with the New York Yankees culminated in a World Series win via four-game sweep over San Diego, as detailed in the second episode of the ESPN Films documentary "The Captain".
It is presumptuous to assume Tatis will end his fourth season in the same fashion -- even after the Padres' big trade deadline acquisitions -- but there are plenty of reasons to believe Tatis will continue to build a résumé worthy of comparison to Jeter.
In 2020, when the Padres visited the Miami Marlins in late July, Tatis blasted his 30th homer of the season, reaching the mark after just 82 games. In doing so, he became only the third shortstop to hit 30 home runs in a season before age 23. Jeter, then the Marlins' CEO, had given Tatis the proverbial tip of the cap before the game.
"He can do everything," Jeter said. "He's a lot of fun to watch, whether it's defense, offense, running the bases.
After the Padres acquired Tatis in a 2016 trade with the White Sox for pitcher James Shields, hype built quickly within the organization as Tatis tore through the minors.
"The first time I watched him play was in 2017, in a prospects game at Petco Park," said Padres outfielder Wil Myers, the longest-tenured player on San Diego's roster. "I remember thinking: 'This dude is the real deal.' He's the most dynamic player I've ever seen up close and personal in my career."
Comparing both shortstops at the start of their respective careers reveals similarities that shade favorably toward Tatis. In his first three full seasons with the Padres, Tatis posted a 13.6 WAR. In Jeter's first three years with the Yankees, his number was 7.9, despite playing in 58 more games than Tatis. Jeter hit .300 over that span, while Tatis has posted a batting average of .293. As far as power is concerned, the Padres shortstop mashed 81 homers to Jeter's 20.
When discussing the all-important intangibles, Jeter's work ethic was regarded as legendary.
"When it comes to leading by example, you could not do better than Derek Jeter," Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner told MLB.com. "His work ethic, the way he conducted himself, the things he said, there's never [anyone] better."
Similarly, Tatis' willingness to do the work in order to get better over the years has not gone unnoticed.
"I admire his work ethic," said Junior Lake, who plays for the Mexican League's Tijuana Toros and is a former winter league teammate of Tatis. "He's the type of player who comes to play with the same level of effort every day."
Those traits and the early returns on Tatis prompted the Padres to offer a landmark 14-year, $340 million extension before the 2021 season. At the news conference announcing the deal, Tatis explained why he made such a lengthy commitment at 21 years old.
"I want that statue," he told reporters, referring in part to the bronze sculpture of late Padres legend Tony Gwynn eternally watching over Petco Park behind right-center field.
In evoking Gwynn and idolizing Jeter, it's clear Tatis hungers to follow a similar path -- both Gwynn and Jeter played for one organization during their respective careers en route to Cooperstown.
That sense of loyalty and belonging extends across all of Tatis' professional endeavors. In the Dominican Republic's winter league, Tatis has played exclusively for Estrellas Orientales in his native San Pedro de Macoris. Managed by Fernando Tatis Sr., the team won the 2018-19 league crown, snapping a 51-year drought in the process.
"Fernando and his father would arrive together to the stadium, and they'd go right into the manager's office to watch video and talk about the next game," said Lake, who was a member of that team. "There are many players who have that level of talent and ability, but the [work ethic] is what sets Fernando apart."
Off the field, Tatis seems to also be following in Jeter's footsteps as one of the most visible -- and marketable -- ballplayers in the last quarter century. Tatis reached videogame stardom when he graced the cover of MLB2K in 2021, a feat Jeter achieved three straight years between 2005-07.
When Gatorade signed Tatis to an endorsement deal in 2020, the brand's head of sports marketing, Jeff Kearney, likened the Padres star to Jeter himself.
"Jeter had such swagger," Kearney told CNBC. "Walking on the diamond, you just knew he was somebody, and if you didn't know who he was, you knew he was important. I think Tatis brings that."
Of course, there is still a key component of Jeter's lasting success that Tatis has yet to touch: winning in the postseason. By the time Jeter was 23 -- as Tatis is now -- he had won a World Series, hitting a lofty .361 in October to help the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves in six games. He would go on to win another four and earn 2000 Series MVP honors.
Tatis has barely sniffed the playoffs in his career, with the Padres reaching the postseason just once in that span. With the Padres down 4-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the 2020 NL Wild Card Series after losing the opener, Tatis mashed two homers that sparked an 11-9 victory. The Padres would advance to the NLDS, but Tatis managed just two hits in 11 at-bats as the Los Angeles Dodgers swept San Diego.
Still, San Diego's continuing effort to build a winner took a serious leap with this summer's acquisitions of Juan Soto, Josh Bell, Josh Hader and Brandon Drury -- giving the Padres six current or former All-Stars in time for a postseason run. Even if some of the names surrounding Tatis change, the superstar shortstop is primed to continue building a legacy that can match -- or surpass -- his idol.
"Obviously Derek Jeter had a great career, but Fernando Tatis is somebody who I think can do even more because of the type of talent to take over a game like he can," Myers said.