Life in 'Slam Diego': Don Orsillo explains the fervor around Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Padres

Hannah Keyser
·12 min read

Last week the San Diego Padres hit five grand slams in six games. When they hit their fourth in four consecutive games, it set a new MLB record. Play-by-play broadcaster Don Orsillo captured the moment’s surprise and euphoria by dubbing the city “Slam Diego,” a spontaneous slogan that quickly made its way onto merch celebrating the Southern California team that just might give the Dodgers a run for their money. And then, he was bombarded with interview requests.

All this attention and demand for his time is a welcome change for Orsillo. After 15 years as the voice behind some of the biggest moments in recent Boston Red Sox history, his first four seasons in San Diego were quiet and mostly disappointing. Now, all of a sudden and under the strangest of circumstances, the Padres are the blockbuster of the summer. Fernando Tatis Jr. is the breakout star and the soundtrack is Orsillo.

This conversation, conducted over the phone, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How are you? How's your summer? How's your incredibly weird baseball season?

I'm doing great. I’m so glad to be doing games. You know, I really felt like for a while there that this may not happen at all. I was really fearful for that. So I’m just so glad that we’re playing games and that they figured out how to do it safely for everybody. So that part of it, just being back to work, has been so good for me. And it’s kind of a milestone year for me, it is my 20th year in the major leagues, my 30th with minor leagues included.

So you know it was a big year for me personally, and I really was excited about what was going on here with this team and the Padres and what I saw in Peoria in spring training, and what I thought this year could be like. Then to have it shut down for a while was really disappointing, so I'm just really thankful to be back playing games, working, and seeing this team perform like I thought they might.

Let's talk about the day that they hit the fourth grand slam, the record-setting one. I'm sure it comes up in your pre-production meeting, like look if they hit another grand slam today that's history. How did you prepare for that? And how does that compare to actually doing it?

Yeah, so PR basically let us know at three that we tied a major-league record, so we were all well aware that if there was another one — I just couldn't even imagine there being another one, so I really didn't pre-plan anything, which is kind of unusual for me.

There are a lot of broadcasters in baseball who will not write something up ahead of time. I've never been that way, I've always felt like ‘Geez, you know if something happens I want to be ready for it, I don't want to be surprised by it.’ I mean I've had the chance to do three no-hitters, and a couple 500th home runs for Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, 3,000 strikeouts for [Curt] Schilling, so I mean I always had a little something in my mind — what I was gonna say that I think about during the game. Like, the sixth or seventh inning of a no-hitter, I start materializing in my head what I'm going to go with. This one was pretty rare so I just didn't think it was gonna happen. I'm like, what are the odds? It's never happened in Major League Baseball, I don’t even know how many thousands of games that includes.

But then the balls in the air, and the one thing that I had been thinking about the last couple days was “Slam Diego.” I incorporated that in there and it just sort of came out.

Did you ever watch your own calls back? Have you seen that play?

Yes, I do on occasion. Twitter has changed that a lot for me, I didn’t used to, cause you had to seek it out. Now, literally seconds after you make the call you can watch it on your phone. So, there's been no way around hearing it back.

Have you seen all the shirts?

Yes I have, I think it’s so cool. I think it's so great, the record itself is just so cool and then that it happened here, especially at home in San Diego, made it really special. This whole team has been, you know, I was gonna say it's been so fun to be around them, but we're not, which is really kind of weird. But we are, because we call their games every day.

It feels like it's a total luck stat, just totally random. But you know this team — is there something about them? Why are they the team to hit five grand slams in a week?

I just think that they've had a ton of people on base. It’s a product of the success that they've enjoyed offensively this year. What has been a new approach, quite honestly, that hasn't been here the last couple years which is to grind out at-bats, get deep in counts, get good hitter’s counts. It's been a change in philosophy here and it’s led to our on-base percentage really being very good. And all of a sudden, you look up and the bases are constantly loaded. You're right, you go back and look at it, and there's been tons of games like that! So that doesn't adequately explain it, I just think that that's the way it's gone for us so far and I think a lot of luck has to be involved.

Padres broadcaster Don Orsillo coined 'Slam Diego' as the thrilling home squad is making waves in a shortened 2020 season. (Photo courtesy Don Orsillo)
Padres broadcaster Don Orsillo coined 'Slam Diego' as the thrilling home squad is making waves in a shortened 2020 season. (Photo courtesy Don Orsillo)

When something like that happens, and for all those historic moments that you've witnessed and been a part of, how do you conceive of your role in those achievements? Do you feel a personal sense of pride about the grand slams?

I think the way my partner and I look at these games is, we’re two friends who are watching the game and commentating on the game like an average person at home with a friend of theirs or at a bar. I've always kind of taken that philosophy, and I think people get to know you a little bit that way because they can understand where you're coming from, and you're much like them.

You mentioned how busy you were last week with requests, and how that’s so different from your first few years in San Diego. It does feel like national attention is suddenly focused on the Padres. What changed between last year and this year?

You’re not imagining that. The first four years I was here were sort of disappointing, because my first year here we were in a different mode. ... I knew that it was going to be a year or two of rebuild.

It was some pretty lean times here, you know we just didn't win all that often. I think going into this year, and seeing what we saw at the end of last year, we knew that this year was going to be special. I think that the ownership’s commitment to adding some big pieces were a pretty good indication as to where they thought we were headed. You spend a good amount of money on an Eric Hosmer, you spend a lot of money on a Manny Machado, and then you look to your system at who's coming up, and it's a pretty bright future.

It started last year, I feel like, with the cover of Sports Illustrated with Machado and Tatis. I think a lot of people thought last year we were gonna be doing what we're doing this year, and by the All-Star break we were, which is interesting cause that was the 80-game mark. They took three out of four from the Dodgers going into the break and it looked like this is gonna be a great second half, and then Tatis got hurt and everything just kind of went downhill, pitching wasn’t very good. This year, there's no question, I mean from spring training through the layoff for the pandemic to when they actually started playing games, the attention paid to this team has been like no other year that I've been here. And seems to increase daily.

How much of it is, this year particularly, Fernando Tatis Jr.? You’ve seen a lot of good baseball, how do you contextualize what he’s doing?

There’s nothing like it. I’m getting a lot of different calls obviously about him and everyone's gonna compare him to somebody. And I have seen a great number of guys who are Hall of Famers explode onto the scene and I cannot compare him to anybody else. Because usually the other guys are somewhat, I don’t want to say one-dimensional, but I think of a David Ortiz: OK, David was about hitting. He really couldn't field, the other elements of his game weren't very exciting other than when he was at the plate.

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr., right, reacts with teammate Manny Machado (13) after hitting a home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Young star Fernando Tatis Jr. and big-ticket free agent signing Manny Machado are stoking excitement about the future of the Padres. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

I think of Mookie Betts as a comparison. Yeah, OK, but he wasn’t like that in the beginning. He showed up as a second baseman trying to learn the outfield. Nomar [Garciaparra] I had been in Triple-A with, he arrived and was very good, won a couple batting titles. When I think of the other superstars on other teams, [Cody] Bellinger jumps out at me because he was the guy that burst onto the scene. But what's different about Fernando, is that they figured Bellinger out. Baseball’s too hard. And there are too many really good scouts to not figure out how to get you out. And they make an adjustment pretty quickly. With Bellinger, it came towards the end of this first season and the postseason. He really did nothing in the postseason, especially in the World Series, because they had figured out how to get him out. The superstar has to make another adjustment and Bellinger did that. So he made that successful adjustment the next year and ends up coming back to win the MVP.

But with Fernando, they haven’t figured that out yet. The part that’s amazing to me is that he’s making adjustments on the fly here and successful in making them. Like if he goes through a game where he doesn’t get a hit, the next game you expect him to explode cause he sees what they’re trying to do. It’s just a natural ability. He hasn’t struggled.

When you’re a broadcaster, how do you continue to give someone an appreciation for how great a guy like that is?

It’s a struggle, I’m out of adjectives. He made a catch the other night and I threw out a Superman reference. I’m stretching here. I can’t wait to see what he does next! And he’s so big! Mookie Betts said to me last year, the Red Sox were in town, this was the first time he had seen [Tatis] in person and he said, “Wow, I had no idea how big he was! He’s just so athletic.”

It’s so much fun. It’s back to my days with Pedro Martinez where I couldn’t wait for his start cause you just didn’t know what you were gonna see and it was always an event. But with him, it’s every day.

So you guys are good and you’re young and the problem is the Dodgers.

Yeah, that’s the problem. And it’s a really big problem. I saw a stat today about how our record in some stretch has been second-best. But unfortunately the best record has been the Dodgers. They’re always going to be there. And to think they spent the offseason going to get Mookie Betts who’s what, top three player in the majors? And now he’s on there? They’re tough. It’s going to have to go through L.A. And I think the Padres know that.

If the Padres end up doing it this year, they win the World Series, or even if it’s that this is Fernando Tatis Jr.’s most exciting season, how do you as a person who chronicles baseball make sense of that given that it’s only 60 games and it’s such a weird season?

Speaking on behalf of this fan base, if they got a trophy, they could care less if it came in 60 games and a shortened season. From the fans’ point of view here, I don’t think it would matter in the least to them. They’re just so hungry for a championship in San Diego.

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