Former top pick Tate rebooting Padres career
Outfielder eager to move on from history of substance abuse
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- You can't get to the clubhouse at the Surprise Recreation Campus if you don't first take a turn down Major League Boulevard, a straight shot on a paved road where five speed bumps are the only thing slowing you from where you need to be.
During the bustle of Spring Training, Major League Boulevard sees considerable traffic. Players, coaches and front-office staff come and go each day, slowing only to wave to a security guard before pulling into their designated spot in their designated lot.
Summer is a far different story.
The temperature routinely pushes well beyond 100 degrees with heat radiating off the sidewalk. Those patches of green on the practice fields are an oasis, standing out for no other reason than the scorched earth surrounding them. There are a million reasons why you should stay indoors.
And only one good reason not to.
This is where baseball begins. This is the lowest rung on the professional-baseball ladder, where recent draftees fresh off signing their first contract, and players on injury-rehabilitation assignments, head to get better or to get healthy. A short stay here is always preferred.
Unless you're here for a different reason altogether.
Just last week, 22-year-old Donavan Tate, who received the largest signing bonus in Padres franchise history in 2009, pulled his Jeep into this parking lot and went inside to the Padres' temporary training facility, looking for a chance -- a second chance -- to resume a career that to this point has been deterred by injuries and, to a greater extent, substance addiction.
"I didn't want to let this opportunity slip by me," Tate told MLB.com. "I have had a lot of chances and I'm at the point now where I can't have any more."
Tate has become a walking cautionary tale, a stigma he's working to overcome. This is why he's in Arizona, and this is why you'll find him driving down Major League Boulevard each day. He's here to give baseball a shot, his best shot and, quite possibly, his last shot.
Has it really been four years since the Padres, tired of going the safe route in the First-Year Player Draft, selected Tate third overall and gave the five-tool, athletic high school outfielder oozing with upside (and risk), a $6.25 million signing bonus?
Tate still remembers the day he went to Petco Park, having signed his contract with the Padres. He wore that white suit. He looked sharp. Tate sat in on the television broadcast and smiled a lot. Later on, he sat with his mother in the front row and smiled some more.
"I had worked hard toward a lot of goals and to get myself to that position, to be picked where I was ... that was a surreal feeling," Tate said. "Looking back on it now, it seems like forever ago. It was a good time in my life. Maybe the best day I had to that point in my life."
There haven't been nearly enough of them since.
These last four years, Tate said, have been both a blur and a crawl, the result of several stops and starts in his career, one beset by a variety of injuries, two failed drug tests and later two rehabilitation stints for substance abuse, the last of which he completed earlier this month.
"I look back now and think about how things might have been different. But I was immature and wasn't ready for all of the things I thought I was ready for. I should have slowed down more and taken the time to grasp everything I was learning," Tate said.
The wounds are still fresh. The treatment center Tate most recently attended was in California. He'll say that much. He was there five months. It was the toughest thing he's ever endured, much more so than anything baseball has or likely ever will throw at him.
"At some point, maybe later on, when I progress in my career a little more, I can probably answer more of those questions," Tate said, sounding almost apologetic for not being more forthcoming. "But I don't think that specifics are important right now.
"Addiction is addiction, really ... no matter what it is."
|"If you look at the Padres now, you see you have to be athletic at Petco Park. They've become that. We were trying to find that athlete -- an offensive, defensive guy with that speed dynamic. He was kind of the guy from the beginning."|
|-- Former Padres GM Kevin Towers, on the selection of Donavan Tate.|
It wasn't always like this for Tate. In fact, you don't have to go dig too far back in his past to find a time when everything seemingly was going his way. He was the star quarterback on his high school team in Cartersville, Ga. Tate's exploits in baseball, tales of tape-measure home runs on the travel-ball circuit, were legendary. Heck, there was even a Donavan Tate Day in Cartersville.
Tate had the bloodlines, too. His father, Lars, was a standout running back at the University of Georgia and later played in the NFL. The younger Tate is well-built (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and the game -- no matter what it was, football or baseball -- came easy for him.
"I remember I went to watch him play football one time. He was like a man among boys. He was a water bug out there. ... No one could tackle him," said Ash Lawson, the area scout who recommended Tate in 2009. "The bottom line was he was the best athlete in the country that year ... hands down."
In the 2009 Draft, the top two picks went down as expected, with the Nationals taking San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the first pick and the Mariners taking University of North Carolina infielder Dustin Ackley at No. 2. The Padres had Tate ranked third on their board, though Georgia prep pitcher Zack Wheeler, now a rookie in the Mets' starting rotation, was also given strong consideration in that spot.
"I know that [Grady Fuson, vice president of scouting and player development] liked him a lot," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers, who was GM of the Padres at the time, said of Tate on Thursday. "If you look at the Padres now, you see you have to be athletic at Petco Park. They've become that. We were trying to find that athlete -- an offensive, defensive guy with that speed dynamic. He was kind of the guy from the beginning."
Where the organization had previously used their first-round picks on safer, more proven college players, the Padres decided it was worth it to spend big to get the player with the highest ceiling at No. 3. It didn't matter the cost might be high (Tate's agent was Scott Boras). The organization wanted an impact player and was willing to wait on Tate.
"The guy was a freak," Lawson said. "The one shot we had to hit it big was with Donavan."
But Tate's indoctrination into professional baseball took an immediate hit, the first of many to come.
Shortly after reporting to Arizona for workouts, Tate suffered a stress reaction to his pubic bone. During the fall, he had surgery to repair a sports hernia.
Before his first Spring Training with the team, he suffered facial lacerations and a broken jaw in an ATV accident. That spring, he suffered a shoulder injury diving for a ball. Once he started playing in 2010, he missed a month with an intestinal problem. Later, there were injuries to a knee and wrist.
But where Tate ran into bigger trouble was away from the field. As someone who had essentially been handed everything, coddled by coaches, family, he struggled with being on his own and adjusting to his new lifestyle, which for an 18-year-old can often be a lonely existence.
"You'd like to think you're ready for it, that you're prepared to handle all of it," Tate said. "But you're 17, 18 years old and these teams are making big investments in you. Dealing with off-the-field distractions wasn't easy. Making your own decisions and being an adult. I just wasn't grounded in the way I needed to be. I was immature and not ready for all of the things I thought I was ready for."
In June 2011, Tate was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a drug of abuse a second time. The first positive result was only revealed to him and the organization. When the second failed test landed, everyone knew about it.
"I'd like to think the first positive test would have been enough," Tate said. "The second one, it was like, this is something I really need to get a grasp on. When you fail a second test, everyone knows about it. You're hearing a million different things from a million different directions. I thought that I had a handle on this."
Tate served his suspension and following the season went directly to a 30-day treatment center, but he didn't fully commit himself to the process.
"It was me realizing there was a problem but not fully grasping how severe it was," Tate said. "I was just sort of going through it, doing what I had to do."
In 2011, Tate split time between short-season Eugene and Class A Fort Wayne. He hit .288 and also had a .410 on-base percentage in 39 games. His talent was finally starting to emerge. All the while, Tate was using again. He learned to hide it well, even if it made him miserable.
"It just got so normal for me. I could justify when I was doing something ... thinking I could get away with it. I felt like I was in control of it," he said. "Some people can do these things [drugs] once and walk away from it. I couldn't. I started to figure out you can't continue to use drugs and alcohol and be happy."
But he pressed on and, in 2012, got more at-bats (371) in one season than he had before. He hit .226 in stints with Fort Wayne and Class A Lake Elsinore. There were spurts in which he played well. There were also times when he looked lost.
"I don't think we have ever really had a long run with him being healthy," said Randy Smith, the Padres' vice president of player development and international scouting. "There have been so many stops and starts that it was hard to gauge what kind of player we had."
It was toward the end of last year, at a time when Tate should have been preparing for Spring Training, when he finally realized he couldn't continue to abuse, couldn't continue to mask his trouble or live this kind of life. Tate needed help, even if it came at the expense of baseball.
"It was an accumulation of everything I had been through for a long time, not just as a professional but my whole life. Issues that I held in for a long time and didn't let others know about," Tate said. "... And leading up to Spring Training, I realized there was something bigger I needed to work on.
"The addiction stuff ... I don't think you can understand the severity of it until you're in those shoes. I knew there would be a lot involved with me stepping away from the game. But I didn't care about that. I needed to get a handle on the demons I had."
Instead of heading to Spring Training, Tate headed to California for the start of an exhaustive and, ultimately, enlightening, five-month treatment program.
"It was five months of doing stuff every day, from 10 in the morning to 7 at night. I looked at myself from a lot of different angles, trying to see why I was doing these things. It was a humbling experience to go through," he said.
"But I surrendered myself to it. It was like, whatever I have to do to get rid of this addiction and to take control of my life, I'm going to do it."
One exercise that resonated deeply came when Tate was asked to list every bad thing he had ever done in his life -- not just to himself, but to others. The process took him several days and revealed something about himself that Tate didn't care for.
|"At some point, you start to question your intentions and what you want from life. While I was in there, I realized I wanted to play baseball again. I realized how much I really loved the game."|
|-- Donavan Tate, on his five-month stay at an addiction treatment facility.|
"It's different when you see that on paper. You can see how you dug yourself into a hole," Tate said. "I knew in my own head what I had done. But for me to sit down and visually see it, how I harmed myself and others. I thought, 'Wow, that's not me.' From that point forward, it was doing things to let people know who Donavan really is."
Baseball was never really a part of the treatment picture for Tate, though he occasionally let his mind wander. His girlfriend sent him two baseball gloves and, during down time, he found someone to play catch with on the grounds of the treatment facility.
"At some point, you start to question your intentions and what you want from life," Tate said. "While I was in there, I realized I wanted to play baseball again. I realized how much I really loved the game."
Tate finished treatment earlier this month and then returned to Georgia, where he promptly loaded up a U-Haul, hitched his Jeep to it and, with his girlfriend, Kensey, and his two cats, Turbo and King, made the long drive from Georgia to Arizona.
Soon after, Tate sat down with Smith to talk about his re-entry to baseball and the Padres organization.
"I asked him, 'Do you want to play baseball?' He said he did," Smith said. " I asked him again if he was sure he wanted to dedicate himself to that. He said it was 100 percent yes and looked me in the eye when he did it. To me, there was some maturity behind it. He had a different look. In the past, he's had trouble making eye contact. But he was engaged and forthcoming."
The rest, of course, is up to Tate. He will remain in Arizona as long as it takes to get up to speed. He'll then appear in games for the Arizona League team and, if all goes well, could join one of the Padres' Minor League affiliates.
The road back, oddly enough, starts on Major League Boulevard.
And while Tate has been labeled a bust and has been passed by others in his Draft class, there are still many who aren't quite ready to discount him.
"I still think if this guy gets it right, we got the best player [in 2009]," said Lawson, now a professional scout with the Mets. "This guy's career isn't over. He's 22, not 35 years old. Even if he doesn't make it, I'll still be a Donavan Tate fan. I know what he's got. If he doesn't make it ... it won't be because of his tools."
The story isn't over yet for Tate and neither is his career, he's certain of this. The game is full of failure. He gets that. But now he sees his life doesn't have to be.
"I believe going through all of this has given me a strong grasp on my life and my career," Tate said. "It's given me a second chance. I can't begin to express how thankful I am to be in this organization. I'm excited about coming to the field every day. It's my job, but it's more than that. It's my life."
He then leans back in his chair and smiles.
"I finally have a desire to want to better myself in every aspect of my life. Ever since I was drafted, I have not been fully invested in baseball. So it's really exciting for me to know where I'm at now ... and realize the opportunities I have ahead of me."