The amazing story of Evan Gattis
SEATTLE To fathom how far Evan Gattis has come to assume his role as a key player with the Atlanta Braves, one would have to believe in fairy tales.
Gattis knows it.
"I look back, and I'm proud of where I've come from," Gattis said Tuesday as he prepared to play against Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners. "Your day-to-day baseball routine keeps you busy, but every once in a while, I allow myself to think about it. It's like, 'Nice. Where am I at today? Oh, Seattle, playing a game against the best pitcher in the world.' Awesome."
Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta's manager, knows it.
"It's an unbelievable story," Gonzalez said. "Somebody will write something on Evan and include something that I didn't know, and I'll think, 'This is a pretty interesting young man.' It's not been an easy life."
No, it hasn't.
Gattis could never have envisioned playing in the major leagues.
Not back in 2004, when he was supposed to attend Texas A&M on a baseball scholarship and instead was taken by his mother for a 30-day stint in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic.
Not in 2007, when he spent time in a psychiatric ward, was diagnosed with clinical depression and seriously contemplated suicide.
Not in 2008, when he drove his beat-up pickup throughout California in search of spiritual enlightenment and life's answers.
Certainly not in 2010, when he picked up a bat and glove for the first time in four years and played for Texas-Permian Basin, an NCAA Division II school in Odessa.
"I guess I'd just been trying to find myself," Gattis said. "And then I finally decided I wanted to play ball again."
In 2004, Gattis had been an unusual talent growing up in Dallas, a man-child slugger projected to go no later than in the eighth round of the major league draft.
"He had tools you just don't see," Dallas-based scout Gerald Turner was quoted as saying. "He might be the strongest human being I've even shaken hands with."
Gattis accepted a scholarship to Texas A&M, "then dropped off the face off the earth," Turner said.
Gattis had started abusing marijuana and alcohol as a senior in high school and sank into a mental abyss, in part due to the divorce of his parents, in part due to the pressure.
"I was terrified of being a failure," he said.
So Gattis did his month at the Sundown Ranch Recovery Center in Canton, Texas, followed by three months at a halfway house. Over the next four years, Gattis swept across the western U.S., sometimes living in his 1995 Dodge pickup. He spent time in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and California, working as a car valet, a ski lift operator, a pizza cook, a housekeeper, a machine operator, a golf cart attendant and a janitor.
There may have been other jobs, too, but Gattis has a hard time keeping track.
At one point, he met a New Age spiritual advisor, followed her to Taos, N.M., and lived in a hostel. Imagine the 6-4, 245-pound Gattis sleeping in a bunk bed.
There was a point where Gattis didn't feel life was worth living. In a long feature that ran in The Sporting News last year, the headline read, "Braves rookie: 'All I could think about was killing myself.' "
"In that time of my life," Gattis says now, "it was very real."
Somehow, Gattis got back on the right track. He eventually landed at UT-Permian Basin in 2010, where he quickly regained the stroke that made him a prospect again, hitting .403 with 11 home runs. That June, the Braves chose him in the 23rd round of the draft.
Gattis played Rookie ball the first year, won the South Atlanta League batting title the next year. He started 2012 in Class-A advanced Carolina League, was promoted to Double-A at midseason, then made the Braves after being invited to spring training as a non-roster player in 2013.
In his second at-bat as a major-leaguer, Gattis hit a home run off Roy Halladay. He bombed the longest home run in the big leagues all season -- and the longest in the history of Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park -- with a 486-foot clout. He won the National League rookie of the month award for April and May and finished with 21 home runs and 65 RBIs in just 105 games.
The Braves let seven-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann go to free agency after the season to make room for Gattis. He started the season great, had a 20-game hitting streak in June and was on his way to his first All-Star Game, but went on the disabled list on June 30 with a bulging disc and missed three weeks.
"It would have been cool to be an All-Star," Gattis said. "I didn't want to go just to do the home run derby. I wanted to go because I was an All-Star. But hopefully, I can put together a good run and get to an All-Star Game in the future."
Gattis is hitting .276 with 17 homers and 43 RBIs in 75 games this season. He has plenty of power, but he's a solid contact hitter, too.
"He's a guy who can hit you the ball through to right field, but if you make a mistake, he'll run you out of the ballpark," Gonzalez said.
"I don't want to get lopsided and start swinging out of my ass and try for only home runs," Gattis said. "I want to be a good average guy. I want to keep a balance. I want to have a good at-bat every time up there."
Though Gattis is challenged defensively at catcher, Gonzalez is committed to using him there, at least in the short term.
"This is the most he has ever caught," the Atlanta manager said. "He'll continue to get better. It's not easy. He's a big man. I like him behind the plate. In this league, if you swing like a bull, they'll find a spot for you some place."
Gattis turns 28 on Aug. 18, but he's a young 28.
"I do feel young," he said. "I feel like I'm still learning. The more I spend time around the guys and around the league, you get a reputation, you get more comfortable and you get better."
As fans learn his story, he has become a favorite.
"He has a nice following of people supporting him around the country now," Gonzalez said.
Gattis' journey continues. But his mind-set is so much different than it was eight years ago, when despair laid on his psyche so heavily.
"It's kind of weird," he says now. "The search for happiness created the misery. Being OK with yourself, knowing yourself, drew me out of it.
"If I got anything out of it, that was the key. Once it resolved, it resolved quickly. It was, 'Why not go play ball? Why not go to college? Why not get drafted?' I kept pushing."
Sometimes, fairy tales do come true.