LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It’s a rite of spring training: pitchers dominate hitters in early “live” batting practice, because pitchers have been throwing for weeks while hitters have been facing pedestrian 60-70 mph fastballs from coaches.
So imagine the surprise when Braves left-hander Eric O’Flaherty, who led major league relievers with a 0.98 ERA, began pitching to Evan Gattis last week and the minor league catcher jacked one after another to the far reaches of the ballpark and beyond.
“Normally guys are late on your heater this time of year, but he was turning on it, pulling it,” O’Flaherty said. “He hit a deep foul, took a couple deep to left field and I was like, who is this guy” A lot of guys come in taking pitches and feeling their way; he swung at everything I threw and just crushed it.”
Pitchers typically tell hitters what pitch is coming next in these sessions. O’Flaherty, juices now flowing, at one point told Gattis he was throwing a four-seamer. He threw a cutter instead. “And he crushed it anyway,” O’Flaherty said, shaking his head.
Gattis is a 6-foot-3, 235-pound, right-handed-hitter — “a beast, a man-child,” veteran catcher David Ross said — who hit .322 with 22 homers in just 88 games last season at Class-A Rome.
He is a non-roster invitee who’s created a buzz in Braves camp, both for his batting-practice exploits — including homers off O’Flaherty, closer Craig Kimbrel and top prospect Julio Teheran — and his highly unusual background.
Did we mention he is 25 and was out of baseball for nearly four years?
Who is this guy? Gattis himself is just starting to figure that out.
Journey began in Texas
Eight years ago, James Evan Gattis was a burly power hitter coming out of high school in Forney, Texas. He signed with Texas A&M, but never made it to College Station.
Instead he went to drug rehab for 30 days. Then a halfway house for three months. After a brief baseball career at an Oklahoma junior college, he dropped out and tried to tune in or turn on to something, anything that might give him some clarity.
His life began to resemble a Jack Kerouac novel mixed with new age spiritualism wherever he could find it. He traveled the western United States, stopping for a few months here and there, working jobs ranging from ski-lift operator to janitor.
“I knew there was something more,” Gattis said. “I just felt like there was this thing called happiness, and I wanted it. And the more you look for it, the more it seems further away.”
He told some Braves players his story recently. They were enthralled. The guy has lived a little bit.
“He,” Ross, “has lived a lotta bit.”
A career with many detours
Let’s back up. To 2004, when Gattis was set to play at A&M before abruptly deciding not to. He was 17. Gattis explained two years ago that had feared he might go to A&M and fail as a ballplayer, and his self-worth would be shattered.
He said this week there was another reason he didn’t go.
“I was terrified – I didn’t want to fail a drug test,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a mess-up, you know? I didn’t want to fail at that stage and have people say, ‘Here’s this kid with all this talent and he wasted it; what a shame’ and all that.”
Instead of going to college, his mother took him to drug rehab.
“I don’t know if that was the best choice, in hindsight,” he said. “But then again…”
Gattis said was diagnosed with clinical depression at one point and used several different medications. He also did plenty of self-medicating. Booze and marijuana.
He doesn’t know if he actually had depression, but said there were times he thought he’d end up dead if things didn’t change.
After 30 days of in-patient rehab, he went to Prescott, Ariz., for three months of out-patient care. While there he got a call from Seminole State (Okla.) baseball coach Eric Myers, asking if he was interested in playing.
“He said, ‘If you want to, it’d be a good spot for you.’” Gattis said. “He kind of found people like me. He was a good molder of people. He died since then, had a brain tumor. I wish he was still around, so I could thank him.”
Gattis redshirted as a freshman and played a half-season at Seminole, then left. Dropped out. Said he’d been sober for about 18 months before something happened.
“I was so overwhelmed with everything that I ended up quitting,” he said. “It surprised the hell out of me that [Myers] said, ‘Well, I see you as a friend and there’s no hard feelings. Enjoy whatever you’re going to do. Enjoy college.’ At that time I planned on going back to college and finishing my degree in psychology or something.”
He didn’t make it back to college.
Going out West
The next couple of years were a blur. Mom buys Gattis plane ticket to visit sister in Boulder, Colo. Falls in love with the place, sells his truck and moves there. Works at a pizza joint, gets a job as a lift operator at Eldora Mountain, hitch-hikes to work.
Seven months later, he got an itch again. Returned to Texas along with his brother, who’d been working at a Utah ski resort. The Gattis boys took jobs as janitors in Dallas at Datamatic – “we found it on Craig’s List” – then moved on to become cart-boys at a golf course.
“Right about this time I started finding these spiritual teachers or whatever on YouTube,” Gattis says, “and I thought, these mother******s know what I’m talking about. They’re speaking my language, whatever they’re saying.”
Gattis met with one such advisor when she came through Dallas. She said something that convinced him to drop everything and follow her to Taos, N.M. He told his parents a few days before Christmas, then left.
He lived in a hostel at Taos and worked at another ski resort there, but after three months Gattis was ready to move on.
“Going to California, going to see some different people,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of them from the West Coast — the California guru game.”
The starter failed on his 1995 Dodge pickup, so Gattis said he push-started it and drove to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara without once turning off the engine, filling up with gas while idling. From there he went to Santa Cruz, Calif., where he ran into a famous spiritualist he’d wanted to talk with about life. Gattis asked him, what do I need to do?
“It was kind of a letdown, but it was like, ‘OK, cool, I don’t have anything to do. I don’t have to find anything.’ He basically said, chill out.”
A day or two later, Gattis had another epiphany. He wanted to play baseball again.
He was in San Francisco at the time. He said he waited four hours for two cars to move that were parked behind him on a steep street, so he could roll his truck into an alley, where he gave a six-pack of beer to a homeless person to help him push-start it.
Gattis called his dad and said he was coming home. He called his stepbrother, Drew Kendrick, a pitcher at the University of Texas-Permian Basin. The coach there remembered Gattis from high school, said there was a spot for him.
Back to baseball
Gattis, who hadn’t played since 2006, took a few months to shake rust off his swing. He hit .403 with 11 homers in his only season at UT-PB. Some teams were wary of his background, but the Braves drafted him in the 23rd round in 2010.
He weighed about 270 pounds at rookie-league Danville in 2010, where he hit .288 with four homers in 60 games. The following spring training, Gattis failed to win an opening day roster spot with any Braves minor league affiliate.
“When he came to camp that first year in instructional league he ended up hurting his knee,” said Joe Breeden, Braves minor league catching instructor. “But before he got hurt he asked me, ‘What should I do?’ I said the first thing you’ve got to do is you’ve got to get in shape. You need to lose some weight, 25-30 pounds at least.
“And he came back in that next spring and he was in great shape. Out of spring he didn’t make the [Rome] club and he was wearing it out down here in extended [spring training], really swinging it very well, hitting balls out to right-center, everywhere.”
Gattis was added to the Rome roster in May and punished A-ball pitching, winning the South Atlantic League batting title while posting a .386 on-base percentage and whopping .601 slugging percentage. He drove in 71 and homered 22 times in 338 at-bats.
He still needs work defensively, but he’s got a strong arm and tireless work ethic, and Breeden said he’s extremely receptive to instruction.
“He works his butt off,” Breeden said. “You see him he’s in there every morning in the weight room, not just lifting but stretching and flexibility. He needs more flexibility to be able to move the way he needs to move. Losing the weight has allowed him to move…. To me he’s improved the most with his arm, just the accuracy and being able to have true carry all the time. It’s getting better and better.’
Gattis will move up to either high-A or Double-A this season — whichever of those levels the Braves don’t send top young catching prospect Christhian Bethancourt.
Even though he’s 25 and hasn’t played above A-ball, the Braves now consider Gattis a legit prospect.
“He’s got such strength, and a good swing,” assistant general manager Bruce Manno said. “Defensively he’s gotten better behind the plate. He just needs work. His arm’s good enough, it’s just a matter of — with a lot of guys — you work on the feet, the footwork. Coming out quicker, that kind of stuff. But he’s doing that.”
“He’s a little older, but with guys like that it really doesn’t matter. He started later.”
When he’s in the batting cage there’s a distinctive thwack!
“It’s a different sound off his bat,” Manno said.
He’s got plenty of new fans who’ll be following his progress this year.
“He has some serious power,” Ross said. “Kind of rare to see a young guy come in here and make that big an impression… He sat down and told us all his story the other day. He’s a good guy, man. He’s an interesting guy.
“He seems to have his head on straight, and he works hard. Those are the kind of stories that everybody loves. You like the guy that had troubles in life and done some different things. Everybody likes that story. Even us players — you like the guy who’s worked his tail off and things have paid off.”
Gattis said baseball once seemed pressure-filled and grueling. Not anymore. The only thing that’s overwhelmed him recently is happiness.
“I was crying the other day,” he said. “First day here, just like that. It seems like it’s been just like that, four years just flying by….
“I think it might have seemed like a job, because it is a lot of work. But now I feel like I can work harder than some people because I legitimately want to and I enjoy it. I enjoy working hard, you know what I mean? I want to get better.
“I want to see what next year brings, and simple things like how strong am I pound for pound? Technique and all that stuff is going to come, and it comes because we work on it every day. You’re surrounded by instruction, and it’s fun to me now to work hard. It’s fun to try to make yourself better.”
Does he feel like he’s getting closer to fulfilling a dream or reaching goals?
“Absolutely,” he said. “Now I’m trying to play forever. So we’ll see how that goes. Crazy, huh?”
There was just one more question: Did he ever find what he was looking for?
“I didn’t find anything,” he said, smiling. “But I don’t have to look anymore.”