LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Evan Gattis remembers the first time someone called him “oso blanco,” which is Spanish for white bear. The big-bodied Braves prospect was in back of a cab after a December game with his team, Aguilas del Zulia, in the Venezuelan Winter League.
“The cab driver was on the radio talking to another cab driver or something,” said Gattis, who spoke almost no Spanish but was with a bilingual passenger. "The cab driver said, ‘Who’s oso blanco? Who’s the white bear?'"
After the fellow on the other end of the line told the cab driver that Zulia had a large American slugger, the cabbie knew that's who was in the back seat.
“He said, ‘He’s in my cab.’ So that’s how it started.” Gattis said of the nickname. “Then Ryan Reid, who’s with the Pirates now, he kind of spread it. And from there, everybody just started calling me ‘Oso.’ It was funny.”
El Oso Blanco was the full nickname hung on Gattis, who became a Paul Bunyan-esque folk hero in baseball-made Zulia while crushing long home runs, including several to give his team a lead or win. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Texan hit .303 with a .960 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and tied for the league lead with 16 homers in 195 at-bats.
He his .595 slugging percentage was the league leader by 41 points, and Gattis had 50 fewer at-bats than either of the other two Venezuelan league home run co-leaders including Zulia teammate Ernesto Mejia, another Braves minor leaguer and Venezuela native who won his second league MVP award in three winters.
“We set a couple of records down there, the single-season record for homers by a [duo] on the same team,” Mejia said. “They [Zulia officials] asked me about him and I recommended him. I said, we have to take this guy. I knew it was going to be a good experience for him, and it was. He’s a great hitter. He’s a competitor. He fights.
“Let me tell you, I had a great season also because he was protecting me. He was behind me and having a great year. The pitchers over there didn’t know him, and every time I took a walk or they pitched around me, he killed them.”
Gattis' performance surpassed the expectations of Mejia and Zulia hitting coach Jamie Dismuke, who is also the Braves’ Triple-A Gwinnett hitting coach.
“I think he’s just growing as a player,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said of Gattis, a serviceable catcher who was moved to left field last summer in an effort to hasten his progress toward the majors. “As you get exposed to more, some guys get … exposed. And he hasn’t. He’s been up to the challenge at every level, and done very well.”
Carlos Zambrano can attest to that. He gave up back-to-back homers to Mejia and Gattis in a winter-league game. The pitch he hit off Zambrano was the second pitch Gattis saw in his first game back after a one-week break at home in Texas.
“He said, ‘Where did you guys get this guy from? He looks like a truck driver,’” Dismuke said of Zambrano's reaction. “He said, ‘I won’t throw him another fastball.’”
Dismuke said if Gattis stayed for the last week of the season, he probably would have been MVP. The Braves had an agreement with Zulia that he wouldn’t play beyond the end of December, and he missed the last week and playoffs.
Of Gattis’ performance in Venezuela, Wren said: “Pressure-packed environment, and he rose to the occasion.”
Have we mentioned that Gattis is already 26 and has only 933 plate appearances in the minors, and that he hasn’t played above Double-A? That he was out of baseball for nearly four years, time he spent doing odd jobs from janitor to ski-lift operator while drifting around the western United States searching for happiness and/or a deeper meaning to life?
His colorful background came to light last spring when he was a non-roster invitee to Braves camp after hitting .322 with 22 homers and a .986 OPS in just 88 games at Class-A Rome in 2011. He missed nearly half of the 2012 season with a wrist injury.
He has a .308 average and 44 homers and a .920 OPS in parts of three minor league seasons, and only 140 strikeouts in 933 plate appearances. Last spring he wowed Braves veterans including Chipper Jones by hitting more balls farther than any other hitter in the first weeks of camp, and Gattis gained another admirer Friday when Justin Upton saw him hit.
“That (bleep) is loud,” Upton said, turning his head quickly to see a line drive that Gattis hit land at least 50 feet beyond the left-center field fence during a wind-aided batting practice at Champion Stadium.
The right-handed-hitting Gattis has a compact stroke that is a thing of brute force rather than beauty. It’s been effective at every level so far, and at some point this year Gattis could get his first crack at the majors.
He had what seemed a decent chance at making the Opening Day roster as an extra outfielder and third catcher, maybe even a platoon left-field job. That changed after the Braves’ January trade for standout Upton, who’ll play left field.
“Regardless of what we’ve done (offseason moves), it’s going to be fun to watch him in camp and see how he’s progressing since a year ago,” Wren said, “and then evaluate where he goes and how we use him and how he fits here.”
There might possibly be a spot for Gattis as a fifth outfielder/third catcher and pinch-hitter, but those part-time roles usually go to veterans who have the experience to thrive in the difficult job. But with catcher Brian McCann expected to miss the first two or three weeks of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, the Braves could have Gattis as the backup catcher early if they want to see what he can do in a part-time role.
If he had big-league experience, Gattis’ catcher-outfielder versatility and big bat would make him a natural for a bench job.
“No question,” Wren said. “That’s a tough role for a young hitter. But he’s making himself a better fit for a team because he can do a couple of things. He’s not locked into one position.”
He’s not going to win any Gold Gloves in left field, but Gattis’ Double-A manager said he didn’t hurt the team with his defense and took good routes for a player so large and without outfield experience. Gattis has played seven games at first base in the minor leagues, but the Braves haven’t worked him there and aren’t considering him as a backup at either corner-infield position, at least for now.
Gattis, who DH’d and played left field in Venezuela, said he doesn’t care what position he plays. He just wants to keep moving up the ladder to the majors.
“Last year I was really nervous [at spring training], I’m not afraid to say,” he said. “I’m more comfortable now.”
Spanish-language broadcasters bellowed his name in the long, drawn-out style we’ve become familiar with from soccer highlights on ESPN, and fans – Zulia drew boisterous crowds in excess of 15,000 -- danced in jubilation and chanted his name before and after his tape-measure homers.
“Crowds would chant ‘M-V-P, M-V-P’ when he came to the plate,” Dismuke said. “He would get two or three hits a night. Even the outs were [hit hard]. And the strike zone is not American-friendly there, either. He laid off pitches. They were throwing him (junk breaking pitches) and he was spitting on it.
“Guys that go down there and struggle, they chase that pitch. And he would spit on it, or if they hung it, he would hammer it. He didn’t miss.”