Evan Gattis’ Strange Road to the Majors
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ATLANTA (AP) — As Evan Gattis was rounding the bases, soaking up the cheers from his first grand slam, he noticed the song blaring triumphantly from the speakers at Turner Field.
The theme from “The Natural.”
Did he get the correlation?
“There goes Roy Hobbs,” Gattis said, chuckling at the thought of being compared to the mythical figure played on screen by Robert Redford.
“Yeah, right,” he added, sarcastically.
But, much like Hobbs, this is the tale of someone who turned away from the game he loved, only to find his way back. Then, like a script straight out of Hollywood, he makes the team and suddenly becomes an almost mythical figure — or, as Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez put it, a “legend.”
The 26-year-old rookie catcher has already hit 10 homers, which was tied for fifth in the National League heading into Thursday’s games. He’s second on the team with 27 RBIs. Most impressively, he keeps coming through in clutch situations. Four of his homers have been in the eighth inning or later, tying the game or putting the Braves ahead.
Not bad, considering Gattis gave up on baseball as a college sophomore.
It took nearly four years before he decided to give the game another shot.
Boy, is he taking advantage of his second chance.
Last weekend, with Atlanta trailing the Dodgers 1-0 in the eighth, he came off the bench to hit a two-run homer. On Tuesday, with the Braves down by a run and down to their final out, Gattis hit a tying homer against Minnesota, allowing the Braves to pull out an extra-inning win. The next day against the Twins, getting what has become a rarer start at catcher, Gattis swung away on a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded and hit a towering, opposite-field drive that just cleared the wall next to the right-field pole.
“Gattis is a monster,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire marveled. “That’s impressive. It looked like a left-hander hit that ball. He’s a strong young man. You get a ball up to him, he’s going to do that to you. Or down and in (the pitch from Perkins). We saw that one, too.”
What makes Gattis even more compelling is how he got here. After high school, there were bouts with drugs and alcohol, not to mention plenty of dark days where the thought of killing himself seemed like a good way out. The fear of failing at baseball proved overwhelming, leading him to quit when he was only 19.
After that, he worked a series of menial jobs — from valet to janitor to cart boy at a golf course — and struggled to uncover a deeper meaning to life, hoping that would help him deal with his demons. He became a wanderer, traveling through the western United States. He lived out of his vehicle and listened intently to the words of various spiritual advisers.
“It took some time,” he said. “I was desperate.”
Finally, something clicked. The quest was over. It was time to get back to what he knew best — baseball.
His stepbrother was playing at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. The coach remembered Gattis from high school. He joined the team and became one of the top players in the Heartland Conference, showing enough power and potential to be a late-round pick by the Braves.
He spent the rest of that summer in the Appalachian League, but wore down late in the season, admittedly not quite in good enough shape to handle the long grind. The next spring, he was still a member of the Braves organization, but there wasn’t a spot for him on any of their minor-league teams. He spent a month at extended spring training before there was an opening at Class A Rome. He went on the claim the league batting title, earning a trip to Turner Field for a ceremony honoring the organization’s top minor leaguers.
That’s when it first struck Gattis that he might have a chance to make it to the big leagues, something that had never really occurred to him, even when he was a hotshot coming out of high school and earned a scholarship to Texas A&M.
“I didn’t know anyone at the time who went to the big leagues. I had never seen it done before. That was something that was far off, for special people,” Gattis recalled. “Then, I won that award. I was like the player of the year for Rome. I came here in a suit and everything. I walked around this clubhouse. I saw everybody. I saw some people I knew on their way up.
“That,” he added, “is when it became more reality for me. I became more hungry, more driven.”
Gattis split time in 2012 between Lynchburg, an advanced Class A team, and the Double-A team in Mississippi. Then, he become something of a cult hero in the Venezuelan Winter League, hitting 16 homers in 53 games and earning the nickname “El Oso Blanco” — the White Bear. He was invited to spring training as a non-roster player, but given only a slim chance to actually make the team.
He hit .358 in the spring to earn a spot on the team as a backup catcher, albeit with starter Brian McCann on the disabled list, still recovering from shoulder surgery. Gattis homered off Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay in the second at-bat of his career. A few days later, he homered off Washington’s Stephen Strasburg. At the end of April, he was named NL rookie of the month.
“He has no fear up there,” Braves pitcher Kris Medlen said. “I mean, what does he have to fear? He’s been through a lot. That only helps him out.”
Gattis has been more of a part-time player in May, now that McCann has returned to the lineup and two other regulars — first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Jason Heyward — are back after spending time on the DL. The Braves have gotten more creative in how they use Gattis, mostly as a pinch-hitter with occasional starts at catcher, first base and left field. He’s shown a knack for coming off the bench, hitting three pinch-hit homers already.
Gattis has no complaints about taking on a lesser role and his expectations haven’t changed even after all that’s happened in such a short time.
“No, not really,” Gattis replied. “I want to go to the World Series. Other than that, I don’t know. I’m not expecting much of anything. I just want to play baseball.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.