The script — incomplete as the screenplay of Evan Gattis’ life is at the moment — might begin with a back-porch conversation between father and son. Baseball movies all are supposed to involve father and son.
Jo Gattis, a regular Jo who works in the purchasing department of a Texas box-making company, is hearing from his big strong 19-year-old that he is never going to play again.
Jo had known his son was unhappy, that the knee injury he suffered while away at an Oklahoma junior college had only added to the weariness he felt. Still, hearing it put so bluntly, with the finality of a eulogy, “was like getting hit in the head with a brick,” Jo remembered.
He pushes back, if only for a moment. You have a talent for this, he tells Evan. Don’t throw it away.
Evan cut him off. It’s finished. Nothing else to say.
“That was it, end of discussion. I thought he’d never play again,” Jo said.
It was 2006 when the spark of promise had been snuffed.
Now flash to a perfect April night in Atlanta, 2013. Opening night at Turner Field. A full house. The Braves’ 25-man roster jogs in from center field, accompanied by fireworks and loud music and the surround-sound of a stadium in the grips of hungry anticipation. Lining up along the first-base line, the players are one-by-one announced for the approval of the customers. Evan Gattis receives an unusually loud ovation for a 26-year-old rookie who had not yet taken a major league swing.
“I was listening for what the crowd was going to do. It did sound loud, didn’t it?” his father said afterward.
“I was very proud. It was a long time coming to fruition. I didn’t shed a tear, but his older brother (Chase) cried. He cried all night. Mine was more like an exhale — finally. Evan earned it all.”
The story is still in the making. Gattis, after a four-year walkabout spent trying to find out who he was away from baseball, has come back in style. He climbed rungs seemingly two at a time. He went from Texas-Permian Basin in 2010 to a 23rd-round draft pick signed by the Braves for $1,000 to non-roster invitee to spring training the past two years to the major league roster this year. He didn’t get into Monday’s opener, but likely will start behind the plate Wednesday night against the Phillies.
His background was sketched by several media outlets this spring training. Burned out on baseball, depressed and off one short stay in drug rehab, Gattis went on a prolonged journey of self-discovery. He supported himself with whatever job would have him — janitor, valet, cook, ski-lift operator. He fell into orbit around a couple of spiritual advisers, before one gave him the best piece of advice: Just relax, don’t over-think this life thing.
Many of the finer details of what Gattis found out about himself before coming back to baseball he won’t share with a stranger with a notepad.
This much he did reveal: “I learned maybe that there’s never been anything wrong with me.”
When Gattis came back to baseball, joining his stepbrother who was a junior-college pitcher, there were no half measures. This was an old love rekindled, and Gattis wasn’t going to take it for granted again. His coach at Permian Basin, Brian Reinke, told of Gattis working in the outfield by himself, dragging a truck tire he had loaded with stone in order to build stamina and strength.
Doubt shouldn’t come in extra-large. Gattis is 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. He grabs the bat as a lumberjack does an axe and without the benefit of batting gloves. His relationship with the wood is raw.
His strength has a visceral appeal. In the Venezuelan Winter League, fans took to calling him “El Oso Blanco,” the White Bear. “Oso, Oso,” his Braves teammates were shouting in the outfield during a Turner Field workout Sunday while Gattis was hitting batting-practice pitches off distant pennant-winning signs and into second-deck aisleways.
“New dimensions; had to see how far I could hit it in the new stadium,” Gattis smiled.
A caravan of friends and family had made its way from Texas to Atlanta, stopping Saturday in Pearl, Miss. for the Braves’ last exhibition game. There Gattis hit the longest homer any of them had witnessed. “Over the bullpen, over the beer garden, into the parking lot,” his father said.
Gattis’ exploits have tweaked the attention of one observer who has a keen sense of hitting for effect. There being no givens for how the Braves will use Gattis once Brian McCann comes off the disabled list, Chipper Jones seemed to think he wouldn’t just disappear.
“I’m going to be excited to watch him as the season goes on. (Opponents) are going to have to account for his power. He’s going to be an ace in the hole for this club all year,” said the Braves retired third baseman, back in town to throw out Monday’s ceremonial first pitch.
If ever there is cause to take the Gattis story to the big screen, the protagonist has the ending written in his head.
It won’t be the day in Orlando, Fla., when Fredi Gonzalez informed him he had made the major league club. Although that was a powerful moment, one that incited instant tears, Gattis said. “That was a moment of completion, however short that was,” he said. “I can sit on something and say I did at least do that.”
But it can’t end there and be truly complete.
The son for whom his father once only wanted a sense of purpose, now says, “I’ve got a career.
“I want to play for awhile. I want to be good. I don’t want to be just some guy who came in the big leagues then didn’t play anymore.”
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