Late in spring training, Fredi Gonzalez noticed that Evan Gattis sensed what everyone else was sensing: that the non-roster invitee with the movie-of-the-week history was on the cusp of making the 25-man team. “He was starting to feel it,” Gonzalez said Wednesday, recalling a day in March. “His knuckles were getting white.”
Gonzalez went to Gattis and said, “Don’t press.” Gattis, who’s not easily addled, said he was fretting because making the roster wasn’t up to him. Said Gonzalez: “Yes, it is up to you.”
Then the non-roster invitee with the epic back story did something not many ballplayers ever dare to do. He asked his manager: “Do you want to win?”
Startled, Gonzalez said that he cared very much about winning. To which Gattis said: “If you care about winning, you need me on this team.”
Gonzalez told general manager Frank Wren of this exchange. Said Gonzalez: “Frank said, ‘Heck, tell him he’s on the team.’”
Two months later, Gattis is no longer just the guy with the wayfaring history. He is, to invoke Gonzalez’s not-entirely-facetious word after Wednesday’s game, “a legend.”
All he did this day was hit a grand slam to cap a 8-3 walkover, which constituted a routine afternoon in the life of a burgeoning legend. Hours earlier, Gattis had launched a tying home run with two out in the ninth inning. On Saturday night, he hoisted a two-run homer with the Braves trailing 1-0 in the eighth.
Of his 10 home runs, four produced the tying or go-ahead run in the eighth inning or later. That Gattis is no ordinary rookie — he’s 26, having spent nearly four years out of baseball and 30 days in rehab after high school — is in large measure why he has become an extraordinary rookie. When you’ve worked as janitor and lived out of a van … well, you’re not apt to be cowed by the pressures of a mere game.
“I think what I’ve been through has helped me,” Gattis said. “This is a nerve game. You’ve got to control your nerves. And I credit playing (winter ball) in Venezuela a lot. Down there they’re yelling from Pitch 1 through 200. It’s outrageous and intense.”
For his part, Gattis is both. What he’s done is outrageous. What he is — his gaze could cut through steel — is intense. It took a massive effort to change his life and resuscitate a career, and someone of lesser will would have bowed to reality before drawing sight of the big leagues. (Teams tend not to spend much time cultivating 23-year-olds who were drafted in the 23rd round.)
After a year in rookie ball, Gattis didn’t make any of the Braves’ minor-league rosters in 2011. He had to hit his way out of extended spring training to Single-A Rome, and once there he kept hitting. In September, he was honored before a game at Turner Field as Rome’s player of the year, and it was that night that the erstwhile custodian began to believe.
“I wore a suit and walked through the clubhouse,” Gattis said. “I saw some guys I knew who had moved way up — (Julio) Teheran and (the since-traded Arodys) Vizcaino. That made it more of a reality to me. It made me more hungry.”
Not two full years later, he has become a fixture in that same clubhouse. The other Braves kid him about his sudden fame, but it’s a teasing born of respect. Gattis has taken the slimmest of chances and slugged it, figuratively speaking, over yonder wall.
After Gattis’ grand slam — swinging 3-0, he drove a low fastball the other way — cleared the right-field fence, the Turner Field PA blared the theme from “The Natural,” which was a movie made from a Bernard Malamud novel about a baseball player who found improbable stardom after dropping from sight. Gattis noticed the background music. He also scoffed at the comparison. “There goes Roy Hobbs,” he said. “Yeah, right.”
Self-deprecation aside, this isn’t a man of little faith. If James Evan Gattis didn’t believe in himself, he wouldn’t have said what he said to Gonzalez. “I said it as a matter of fact, not a cocky thing,” Gattis said, speaking of his do-you-want-to-win dare. “I said it honestly.”
With Brian McCann back, Gattis doesn’t even have a regular place to play. (Wednesday marked his first start at catcher, his primary position, in 17 days.) But he has become the biggest name among Braves, bigger than McCann, bigger than Justin Upton or Jason Heyward. He has become — dare we say it? — the stuff of legends.
Someone wondered if Gattis felt legendary. Rolling his dark eyes, he said: “I don’t know. What do legends feel like? I feel like me.”