VIERA, Fla. – If ever a movie is made about Evan Gattis’ life (the way he’s going, it might be) then what happened Wednesday could be a climactic scene.
Gattis was told he made the Braves’ opening-day roster, bringing to fruition the catcher’s once-improbable dream of playing in the major leagues. The big Texan teared up when manager Fredi Gonzalez told him he made the team.
“Definitely a day I’ll remember forever,” said Gattis, 26. “It finally happened. I’m trying not to get too excited yet, even though I’ve already cried and everything else.”
Now he’s a prospect with a splendid nickname, El Oso Blanco (“The White Bear”), which Gattis earned while leading the Veneuzulan league in slugging and homers last winter. But not long ago, he was a young guy with an entirely uncertain future, searching for — in his words — meaning to his life.
He’d been out of baseball nearly four years, after walking away from a Texas A&M scholarship without attending a class. Gattis battled depression, anxiety and substance abuse and traversed several western states doing odd jobs, from cook to janitor to ski-lift operator, while seeking out new-age philosophers and spiritual advisors.
After getting the itch to play baseball again, he spent a year of college at Texas-Permian Basin and was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round in 2010.
Upon learning he’d made the team, Gattis made three phone calls Wednesday morning, the first to his girlfriend of four years, Kim Waters.
“She wanted to be the first to know, and I told her I’d call her before my dad,” said Gattis, who then called his father, Jo, and mother, Melinda. All were in Dallas, and Gattis said they’ll try to come to Atlanta for Monday’s season-opener against Philadelphia.
“Tough ol’ Oso Blanco shed some tears a little bit,” Gonzalez said. “He was excited. We were excited. The whole coaching staff was excited for him.”
Just two years ago, Gattis didn’t make the Class-A Rome roster out of spring training, instead toiling in extended spring training until there was an opening.
Now he’s on the major league opening-day roster and might end up starting as many or even more games than veteran catcher Gerald Laird until starter Brian McCann returns from shoulder-surgery rehab, perhaps in late April or early May. Laird strained a calf muscle early in camp and had only 22 at-bats before Wednesday.
“Try not to get too excited and just go play ball,” Gattis said. “I’ll be pinching myself when I’m there.”
But staying hungry for more success won’t be a problem, he said.
“I don’t think that’s going to change,” said Gattis, whose ultimate goal wasn’t to make the team. “Absolutely not. I want to stay. I hear it’s harder to stay.”
Using a distinctive crouched stance, feet spread over much of the length of the batter’s box, the ferocious swinging Gattis has been has one of the Grapefruit League’s top hitters, batting .357 (20-for-56) with five doubles, six homers and 16 RBIs. He ranked among major league leaders with a .736 slugging percentage before Wednesday.
Five hours after learning he made the team, he homered off Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler.
“We know what he can do offensively,” Gonzalez said. ” I didn’t tell him he was going to be the backup guy. Hell, he could split time with Laird right down the middle. Maybe he could even get more time (than Laird). I wasn’t by any means saying he was going to be the backup catcher.”
When McCann returns, the Braves might keep Gattis as a third catcher and left fielder.
“So many things can happen by then,” Gonzalez said. “You can carry three catchers if everything’s going well. I didn’t even go that far with him, because I don’t know myself.”
The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder hasn’t played above Double-A, but Gattis hit for a high average and power everywhere the Braves have sent him, including .303 with 16 homers in 195 at-bats in Venezuela, where his .595 slugging percentage was 44 points better than anyone else’s.
Gattis came to camp a non-roster invitee and was to compete with Christian Bethancourt and Matt Pagnozzi for a backup job. It became apparent that Bethancourt wasn’t ready and Gattis’ offense outweighed any defensive advantage Pagnozzi might have. The Braves assigned Pagnozzi to Triple-A Gwinnett on Wednesday.
Gattis’ defense has been a pleasant surprise to many who expected he’d be serviceable-at-best behind the plate.
“Is he going to go out and win the Gold Glove? Probably not,” Gonzalez said. “But he’s good enough where he’s not going to cost you the game. And if you feel like that is the situation, maybe you put Laird back there in the last couple of innings the days that Gattis catches. If you feel that. I don’t feel that way right now about his catching abilities.”
Gattis has only 933 minor-league plate appearances, with a .308 average, 44 homers and a .920 OPS in parts of three seasons. His colorful background came to light last spring when he was a non-roster invitee to Braves camp after hitting .322 with 22 homers in 88 games at Rome in 2011.