LOS ANGELES – It was barely mid-morning Sunday, maybe not enough hours since he’d left Dodger Stadium the night before, and here was Evan Gattis, standing in a hallway off the clubhouse, eyes puffy, voice syrupy with sleep, gamely keeping up.
One more question, I said.
“Thank you,” he said, relieved, I think, to have the end near.
So I asked what it was like to be El Oso Blanco, the man/bear/myth on everyone’s T-shirts in Atlanta, when previously he hadn’t even been all that popular in his own pickup truck, where he lived for a while by himself.
Granted, that’s pretty deep before batting practice on a Sunday morning. He sighed.
By now you know the story of the good, young ballplayer who quit the game and went out looking for happiness, only to find it back in the game. Turned out, the game hadn’t quit him.
Coming up on 27 years old and not yet 50 games into the big leagues, Gattis is batting .258. He’s hit 13 home runs. He has 34 RBI. He was the National League’s Rookie of the Month in April and then again in May. More than a third through the season, only Baltimore’s Chris Davis and Philadelphia’s Domonic Brown have averaged fewer at-bats per home run than Gattis’ 11.69. The Braves are full up at Gattis’ positions – the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward in the outfield, Brian McCann at catcher – so Gattis is five for seven with three home runs and eight RBI as a pinch-hitter. On Sunday, he did catch Mike Minor’s eighth win.
He has this very cool way about him, how he slows down for just about anyone, and laughs at the simple stuff, and so appreciates what he put off for a few years. And there’s a lot about him, you know, physically. At 6-foot-4, 230, he’s put together a lot like that old truck of his, probably; thick thighs and hips, thick shoulders, thick neck, thick beard-like thing coming off his chin. Big, strong hands that pitchers say frame a heckuva pitch.
“That arm,” Minor said Sunday afternoon, “is not moving.”
The only thing small about him is his batting stance. He squeezes into the box, all burly, waves a big ol’ bat, and looks like he’s deciding whether to eat the pitcher plain or with barbecue sauce.
And then he crouches.
“A large man with small-man mechanics,” is how Braves hitting coach Greg Walker described Gattis.
And that’s good. That means he’s short, simple and quick to the ball. He does not excessively load on his back leg. There are no large, slow, vulnerable movements. And then his bat stays in the strike zone longer than most.
“He has amazing bat speed and strength,” Walker said. “You don’t see that combination of power and speed that translates to baseball power and speed that often. For some reason, somewhere along the way, he became mechanically consistent. It’s nothing we taught him. He just showed up.”
Almost just like that, too, dropping in on the Braves after the time he spent journeying across the continent and into his own head. He re-entered baseball over three minor-league seasons, finished out last year with 49 games with the Double-A Mississippi Braves, picked up the name “El Oso Blanco” (“The White Bear”) one winter in Venezuela, and on April 3 started hitting home runs in the big leagues.
He looks up from behind his catcher’s mask and sometimes can’t believe he’s trying to figure a way around hitters that not long ago were so impossibly far away. In his own clubhouse, Tim Hudson, B.J. Upton and Heyward wear red T-shirts with a white bear on the front. In Atlanta, it’s as if he walked out of the woods and into the Braves’ lineup, like it wouldn’t be more improbable if he actually did.
It’s all great, too. Certainly better than the alternative. So he comes to the ballpark and learns new things, and separates the fluke successes from the stuff that’ll work over time, and then fine tunes that.
“Other than that,” he said, “you just go play.”
After once giving up on this sort of life, and then working himself back into it, and then getting here of all places, he said the best part of the past couple months has been, “The game itself. It’s cleaner. It’s better. It’s fun seeing people work. It’s as good as it gets.”
So, the last question. What’s it like being El Oso Blanco? The guy on the T-shirts, on the posters, on the signs, all blown up and celebrated? What’s it like living with that, being lifted into stardom, carrying that around for a while?
“No,” he said. “It’s not me.”
“It’s not me,” he said quietly. “People act like they know you all the time. They don’t. You know?”
This, here, hours before a ballgame, the lights dim, the day out there and him chasing it, maybe that’s Evan Gattis. The cartoon bears are fine. The fun nickname, that’s fine. They won’t help Mike Minor through a 31-pitch first inning. And they won’t drive in a man from third with one out in the third for the first of the Braves’ eight runs.
He smiled and nodded. That it? I nodded back.
He didn’t get here thinking he was any more than he is, or any less. A former teammate, a guy who’d witnessed it, said he’d never seen anyone work out harder than Evan Gattis, that it was borderline humiliating for anyone else in the gym. Maybe that’s him.
It sounds like Gattis spent a good, long period of his life trying to figure out who he was. Who he is. It’s a sad, beautiful, triumphant, inspiring story that leads eventually to a baseball field, and another day of work, and another win.
But maybe that’s not the whole story, or even the end of the story. Maybe that’s what Evan Gattis was trying to say. Reading about a guy, watching him play, even shaking his hand, it’s not the same as knowing a guy. Not even close.
“See ya,” he said.
And I wish I’d had one more question.
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