Back in the game, Gattis close to realizing dream
Remarkable journey includes overcoming depression during four-year hiatus
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Not long ago, Evan Gattis would have feared the reality that he sits just two weeks away from potentially realizing his childhood dream of playing in the Major Leagues. But that was before he had the chance to find himself during a four-year stretch that included stints as a janitor, cook, valet and ski-lift operator.
"It's just my story," Gattis said. "Everybody has got one. I'm sure most people's story to themselves is pretty boring."
This one would not fall into that category. Few have a story as intriguing as the one experienced by Gattis, a 26-year-old catcher who has impressed with his powerful compact swing and positioned himself to be a part of the Braves' Opening Day roster.
"I wouldn't have ever imagined I'd be here," Gattis said.
Gattis certainly did not travel the path that was envisioned when he graduated from Dallas' Bishop Lynch High School in 2004 and signed a letter of intent to play at Texas A&M. His desire to be a catcher led him to decline the invitation to play first base at Rice University, which had won the College World Series the previous year.
His fear of not succeeding and potentially failing a drug test ultimately led him to pass on the opportunity of playing at A&M. Instead of sending their son to college, Gattis' parents sent him to drug rehab for a month and then to Prescott, Ariz., for three months of outpatient treatment.
"When he got out of rehab, they said, 'You don't have a drug problem. You have a depression problem. You have an anger issue.'" said Jo Gattis, the catcher's father. "That was kind of reassuring because I didn't think he had a drug problem."
Much of the anger and depression was a product of the pain that built after Gattis' parents divorced when he was 8 years old. Baseball provided an outlet. But as he neared the end of his high school days, marijuana and alcohol became a part of his therapy.
"It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks the summer before my senior year," Gattis said of his depression. "It's just heavy. I guess there was a lot of fear and anxiety. It's hard to explain."
Over the years, Gattis' parents have come to understand some of the frustration developed from his belief that many friends, family members and acquaintances recognized him more as a baseball player than a person.
"When he first started with all of the drugs, I didn't have a clue," Jo Gattis said. "I think he was more depressed over our divorce more than anything.
"I know his thought process now. I didn't know what it was back then. I didn't realize playing baseball was the only thing he felt people recognized him doing. Not for being Evan, the person. I think he had to really go find what else there was besides baseball."
|"The baseball part of the story is amazing. Being here and having a chance to maybe break with the team, that's all fun and exciting. It would be exciting for anyone. But my past and stuff, it's not too interesting to me."|
|-- Evan Gattis|
After exiting rehab, Gattis went to Oklahoma's Seminole Junior College for one year. A knee injury fueled his depression and led him to leave the school with the intention to never play baseball again.
"I felt like I could really be good at [baseball] if I really worked at it," Gattis said. "But for some reason, I had an ulterior motive. I had something else I wanted to try to figure out. I wanted to get to the bottom of it. The depression just kind of took over. The more I tried to fix it, it just seemed to get worse."
Gattis did not budge when he returned home and heard his father tell him that he might be selling himself short by walking away from the game.
"He looked me dead in the eye and said he would never play baseball again," the catcher's father said. "So to me, that was the end of it."
Seven years later, it seems that was actually just the start of the journey that has brought Gattis to the doorstep of reaching the Major League level.
Gattis returned to Dallas in 2006 and spent some time as both a cook and a valet. When he visited his sister in Colorado, he fell in love with the environment and became a ski-lift operator at Eldora Mountain Resort.
"I was 20 and in an apartment building with 20 20-year-olds," Gattis said. "I had a dream job. I didn't do anything. I skied all day and it was easy. I really enjoyed it."
During his four years away from baseball, Gattis also worked at New Mexico's Taos Ski Valley Resort as a ski-lift operator and a housekeeper at a hostel. He constantly sought advice from spiritual advisors and ultimately opted to drive to Santa Cruz, Calif., to interact with one of these advisors.
"I always knew where he was and we always communicated with him and knew he was safe," Jo Gattis said. "I really didn't worry about him. But you always want them to settle down and find a purpose in life."
Gattis got the message that he needed to return to Texas as he was sitting in his old pickup truck, which needed to be pushed to start because of a faulty ignition system.
While driving without ever turning the ignition off, even while getting fuel, he spoke to his stepbrother, Drew Kendrick, who was playing baseball at the University of Texas-Permian Basin.
Through the conversation, Gattis gained the sense he needed to begin playing baseball again and jumped at the opportunity to join his stepbrother at UTPB. Being away from the game for four years did not prevent him from impressing the Braves enough to select him in the 23rd round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Just two years ago, Gattis ended his first professional Spring Training with the frustration that he would have to stay at extended spring training because he had not been placed on any of the Braves' Minor League rosters. Utilizing his anger in a positive way, he quickly caught the front office's attention with tales of the titanic home runs he was hitting while stuck in Florida.
Gattis was promoted to Class A Rome during the 2011 season and hit 22 home runs with a South Atlantic League-best .322 batting average in 88 games. Silencing some of the doubters who believed he had just taken advantage of younger competition, he combined to hit .305 with 18 home runs while primarily playing for Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi last year.
Then to further validate his potential, Gattis hit .303 with 16 home runs and a .595 slugging percentage in 53 games during the Venezuelan Winter League. In the process, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound catcher became a fan favorite and gained the nickname "El Oso Blanco," which translates to "The White Bear."
"When we drafted him, the one thing they said was this guy can hit," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "But to say that anybody projected any of this, I think that would be really beyond expectations."
Gattis, now No. 16 on the Braves' Top 20 Prospects list, has continued to impress this spring, batting .378 with two home runs in 18 games. But his status as a likely candidate for the Opening Day roster is more a product of the fact that he has given the coaching staff confidence that he is strong enough defensively to serve as a catcher.
While Brian McCann misses at least half of April while recovering from right shoulder surgery, Gattis could share the catching duties with Gerald Laird. After McCann returns, the Braves could keep Gattis' potent bat on the bench by allowing him to serve as a backup outfielder and third catcher.
All of this will be determined over the next two weeks. But it's safe to say none of this was envisioned back when Gattis was working the ski slopes with the belief that he could find happiness without baseball.
"The baseball part of the story is amazing," Gattis said. "Being here and having a chance to maybe break with the team, that's all fun and exciting. It would be exciting for anyone. But my past and stuff, it's not too interesting to me."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.