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This Photo Is Just One Good Reason You Need To Know the Story of EVAN GATTIS

June 10, 2013
June 10, 2013

Table of Contents
June 10, 2013

LEADING OFF
THE MAIL
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
BASEBALL
NCAA FOOTBALL
THE BIGGEST THREE
  • IT'S A STORY THAT'S BEEN A DECADE IN THE MAKING: SAN ANTONIO'S TALENTED TRIO—A MISMATCHED GROUP OF GUYS WHO NONETHELESS COULDN'T THRIVE WITHOUT ONE ANOTHER—IS READY FOR ONE FINAL TITLE PUSH

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This Photo Is Just One Good Reason You Need To Know the Story of EVAN GATTIS

HERE ARE THE OTHER REASONS: THE BUNYANESQUE POWER, THE KEROUACIAN JOURNEY OF SELF-DISCOVERY—AND THAT THING WITH THE BEAR. IT'S ALL JUST PLAIN DAMN COOL

The power—you've surely heard of it by now, the legend growing with every home run, a dozen and counting. There was the shot the burly Braves catcher hit in his major league debut, on April 3, a towering fly off Phillies righthander and two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. Two weeks later Gattis tomahawked a 96-mph, shoulder-high fastball from Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg for his fourth of the season. Then there was number 6: a 438-foot blast at Coors Field on a 23¬∫ afternoon in April, a missile that according to hittrackeronline.com left Gattis's bat at 112.1 mph, the second-hardest-hit ball in Colorado this season. There was the grand slam, number 10, in a blowout win over the Twins last month, and the dramatic clouts Gattis has hit in high-leverage situations. Three of his home runs have tied the game or put his team ahead in the eighth or ninth inning.

This is an article from the June 10, 2013 issue

He can club a baseball very, very far, but Gattis has the power do more: The 26-year-old rookie can also warp a fan's sense of belief. His story strains credulity: After graduating from high school, he turned down a scholarship to Texas A&M and swore off the game; underwent treatment for drug abuse and depression; embarked on a four-year odyssey around the country in search of spiritual understanding before he was led back to baseball; was drafted in the 23rd round in 2010; then made the Braves' Opening Day roster a year after starting the '12 season in high A ball. Once you've accepted that tale as real, even the most outlandish hyperbole—whether it's from Turner, the Atlanta scout who discovered him, or the gleefully absurd Twitter account (@GattisFacts) that celebrates him—begins to feel credible. "Tried to tell y'all about Gattis in spring training," Braves icon and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones tweeted last month. "Y'all wouldn't listen.... Now he's a folk hero."

Forget Gattis's home runs, slugging percentage (through Sunday it was .593, fourth highest in the National League among players with at least 150 plate appearances) and the 6' 4", 235-pound frame and compact, batting gloveless righthanded swing that exude old school strength. Evan Gattis has a higher power, the power to make you believe. In a way it's exactly what he's always been searching for.

As a 17-year-old in 2004, Gattis was one of the top high school prospects in the country. He had starred at three schools in the Dallas area—he bounced around so he could play for specific coaches—and played on a junior national team with future big leaguers Justin Upton, Austin Jackson, Billy Butler and Homer Bailey. He had been recruited to play first base for Rice, then the defending NCAA champion. Gattis wanted to be a catcher though, so he accepted a scholarship to play at Texas A&M.

His baseball future looked bright, but even before he graduated Gattis felt like he was unraveling. He says he became overcome with depression and a fear of failure; to cope, he drank and smoked pot. His struggles intensified the summer after he graduated, and instead of enrolling at A&M in the fall of '04, Gattis entered a 30-day in-patient rehab program in Canton, Texas, followed by three months of therapy at an outpatient facility. Around this time he also developed an interest in spirituality, piqued by his reading of Eckhart Tolle's landmark book The Power of Now.

In the fall of 2005 Gattis tried to restart his baseball career, at Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma. But he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery to repair cartilage damage, and his depression returned. Just as he had during his rehab stay, Gattis contemplated suicide. "I didn't really want to die," he says, "but I did not want to live like that anymore."

In early 2006, Gattis dropped out of school and returned home to Dallas. He told his father, Jo, that he would never play baseball again. That summer he was working as a parking valet when his mother, Melynda, who was divorced from Jo when Evan was in elementary school, bought him a plane ticket so he could visit his half sister, Vanessa, in Boulder, Colo., for his 20th birthday.

Gattis decided to stay in Boulder: He got a job at Nick-n-Willy's, a popular pizzeria, and lived in an apartment with several roommates; his only furniture was an old mattress on the floor. He eventually took a job as a ski lift operator at Eldora Mountain Resort, hitchhiking more than 20 miles from his apartment rather than spending the money for bus fare. Says one of his Boulder roommates, Michael Mootz, "He was a very down-to-earth person."

It was early 2007, and Gattis, then 20, seemed as likely to become President as he was to become a professional ballplayer. He was meditating often, and one day he was in his apartment, rolling clean socks into a ball, when he says he heard a voice. It sounded like one of his own thoughts, he says, but seemed to come from somewhere else. "It was so peaceful," he says. "Little did I know that it would just escalate." Gattis says a sensation of fulfillment overwhelmed him: "I found what I was looking for and didn't want to lose it."

To hold on to that feeling Gattis kept himself awake, sitting alone atop the ski mountain, running his lift and scribbling his thoughts into a notebook. But soon severe insomnia set in, and after seven sleepless days he went to the emergency room. (On his admission form he wrote, "I need to get some sleep.") He was admitted to a psychiatric ward, where, he says, a doctor told him he had bipolar disorder, echoing a diagnosis he had received while in rehab. (Gattis says he disagrees with the diagnosis, though he was treated with medication and therapy.) When he awoke from some long overdue sleep, Gattis felt like he had been "cast out of heaven. It felt like I had something and then I lost it."

Gattis returned home to Dallas, where he lived with Jo, underwent further counseling and got a job as a janitor at a commercial cleaning company (his Twitter avatar now is a picture of his custodial ID badge) and then as a cart attendant at Firewheel Golf Park. Gattis also decided to dedicate himself to a spiritual quest, a grasp for those strands of personal understanding that had tantalized but eluded him in Boulder. He searched the Internet for people who had had similar experiences of awakening, and decided to travel the country seeking out the spiritual gurus he had discovered.

He flew to New York to see a teacher named Mooji who specializes in a Hindu philosophy that helps adherents find a sense of self through liberation from worldly concerns. He followed another guru, Jeannie Zandi, to Taos, N.M., where he landed a job at a ski resort so he could attend Zandi's retreats. "Here was Evan, 21 years old, tall and sturdy, with a passion you don't always see in folks that are exploring spiritually," Zandi said in an e-mail. She noted that Gattis had an impressive knowledge of spiritual teaching. Zandi called him Evan from Heaven.

After a few months in Taos, Gattis left for Santa Cruz, Calif., to attend a satsang, or spiritual assembly, led by a spiritualist named John Wheeler. Gattis was blown away by Wheeler's teachings, which center on the concept of nonduality, or a sense of oneness shared by all creation. "I started to get that [life] is just about what you are," he says. "Not about a way of behaving or feeling or thinking a certain way or stopping your mind [from having certain thoughts].

"[Wheeler] just cleared it up so fast. I was amazed down to the core. I really got the sense that this was not about something hidden or special or anything. It's more about just what you are."

Gattis says he expected his spiritual search to come to a less simplistic conclusion. But he was content with his newfound clarity. "It was the best letdown ever," he says, "because I knew [my search] was over."

As he was driving home from Santa Cruz to Dallas in the spring of 2009, Gattis remembered that a friend from a meditation meeting once said to him, "If you find what you're looking for, maybe you can go back and play ball." From the road Gattis called his stepbrother Drew Kendrick, who was a junior pitcher at Texas-Permian Basin, a Division II school in West Texas. The coach at UTPB, Brian Reinke, remembered that Gattis, now 22, had been a talented high school player; Reinke often jokingly told Kendrick that Gattis had a spot on the team if he ever wanted to return to baseball. Gattis was calling to take him up on the offer. "We made a handshake agreement," Reinke says. "He was going to work [hard] and I was going to make some calls [to professional scouts] for him."

One night Kendrick and Gattis were sitting in lawn chairs in Kendrick's driveway and talking about the season ahead. Gattis looked at his stepbrother and asked, "Why am I doing this?"

Kendrick replied, "Evan, it's your destiny, man." It took a while for Gattis to get into shape and to feel comfortable behind the plate, but it quickly became clear that he was born to hit. In an intrasquad game in the fall of 2009, Kendrick threw a fastball down and in that Gattis "hit forever," the pitcher recalls. "When I saw Evan rounding the bases, I saw that smile and you could see the joy back in his face again. I remember thinking to myself, I'll get over that home run. My brother's back playing baseball."

Gattis batted .403 with 19 doubles and 12 home runs in 58 games at UTPB. Before the 2010 draft he worked out for Gerald Turner, a longtime Texas area scout working for the Braves. Turner had scouted Gattis in high school and liked what he saw from the teenager. "I thought he had dropped off the face of the earth," says Turner.

Gattis smacked 20 home runs in that workout, and as the draft approached Turner pushed the Atlanta front office to take a chance on Gattis. "You've got a guy here with 70 raw power and a 60 throwing arm," Turner told his bosses, referring to the 20-to-80 scouting scale. "He's got two-plus tools. There are a lot of guys in the big leagues who don't have two-plus tools." Plus, Reinke had raved that Gattis had been a diligent worker and model citizen at UTPB. Turner told his scouting director, "This guy is low risk with high reward."

Atlanta took him in the 23rd round. Gattis signed for $1,000 and reported to the Braves' rookie league team in Danville, Va.

Gattis's folkloric status preceded him to camp this spring, long before he ever took a swing in a major league game. In 2011, Gattis hit 22 home runs and slugged .601 in 88 games at Class A, and the shots he hit caught the eye of several Braves veterans—including Chipper Jones—during spring training in 2012. Last year Gattis hit 18 more homers and batted .305 at three minor league levels, finishing the season at Double A. He had intimidating raw power and flashed an above-average arm as a catcher, but he was still a 26-year-old fringe prospect with only 49 games of experience above high A ball.

Last October, Gattis joined Aguilas del Zulia in the Venezuelan winter league. By the end of December his career arc had spiked. He slugged 16 home runs, tying him for the league lead even though he left Aguilas a week before the end of the schedule.

Gattis arrived in spring training with a reputation for hitting epic home runs and the Bunyanesque new nickname a cab driver in Venezuela had given him: El Oso Blanco, the White Bear. He won a spot on the Braves' Opening Day roster thanks to a standout spring and a shoulder injury that forced starting catcher Brian McCann onto the disabled list for the first month of the season. McCann returned to the lineup on May 6, but by then Gattis had been so productive (he hit six home runs in April) that Atlanta kept Gattis on the big league roster. To get his bat into the lineup, manager Fredi Gonzalez has used Gattis at first base and in leftfield as well as McCann's backup behind the plate. "My job is to get him more at bats, somehow," says Gonzalez. "And we will do that."

Gattis has embraced the structure of pro ball's daily routine. "I never thought I would like it," he says. "I used to love waking up not knowing what I was going to do today." Now he's meticulous about the details, logging every CrossFit workout and counting every calorie and protein gram. In the minor leagues he began reading the work of J. Eric Bickel, an engineering professor at Texas who has studied the optimal decisions for a hitter to make in each count, a program that helps shape Gattis's approach at the plate.

A contented mind clears the way for Gattis to let his physical tools take over. His swing is explosive yet compact, which lets him generate power while maintaining a relatively high contact rate. That may help him avoid the slump that often comes when rookies face pitchers a second and third time. "He has such a short swing that he won't have to make that many adjustments," an NL scout says. "He attacks the strike zone and has power to all fields."

Braves G.M. Frank Wren praises Gattis's ability to "take everything in stride," and Gattis acknowledges that his experiences have given him a mature perspective many rookies don't have. "It makes my errors and stuff like that easier to swallow," he says. Gonzalez puts it more bluntly. "This guy has lived some life," the manager says. "A baseball game's not going to faze him too much."

The easy metaphor for Gattis's first two months in the majors is that he's Roy Hobbs—an older rookie with a mysterious past who arrives from nowhere to torture opposing pitchers. Indeed, when he hit that grand slam at Turner Field, the theme to The Natural blared over the P.A. system as he rounded the bases. And with each home run, with each @GattisFacts entry (If Evan Gattis were President, he would protect the secret service.... Evan Gattis can text using a rotary phone....), his story takes on a more mythic feel. But somewhere, deep down, Gattis might have known he'd end up here. When he learned he had made the Braves' roster this spring, he cried in Gonzalez's office. Among the barrage of congratulatory text messages that followed was one from Kendrick. Remembering their late-night conversation a few years ago, Gattis replied to his stepbrother with one simple word: "Destiny."

"Tried to tell y'all about Gattis in spring training," Chipper Jones tweeted last month. "Y'all wouldn't listen.... Now he's a folk hero."

Better Late Than Never

Evan Gattis, the early front-runner for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, will be 27 when the season ends. Just nine ROYs have been that age or older when they won the award.

JACKIE ROBINSON 28

In 1947 he hit .297, led the NL with 29 steals—and broke baseball's color barrier.

WALT DROPO 27

He belted 34 homers and led the AL with 144 RBIs for the Red Sox in 1950.

SAM JETHROE 33

The Negro leagues' vet, joined the Braves in 1950, led the majors with 35 steals.

HARRY BYRD 27

In a down year for rookies, he went 15--15 for the Philadelphia A's in 1952.

JACK SANFORD 28

The Phillies' righty went 19--8 and led the majors with 188 strikeouts in 1957.

TODD WORRELL 27

He replaced Bruce Sutter as the Cardinals' closer in 1986 and led the NL with 36 saves.

HIDEO NOMO 27

The Dodgers' righty started the majors' Japanese invasion, led the NL in K's in '95.

KAZUHIRO SASAKI 32

The Japanese import arrived in Seattle in 2000 and saved 37 games with 11.2 K/9 IP.

ICHIRO SUZUKI 27

The Japanese star joined the Mariners in '01, won the batting title and was also AL MVP.

He's got the strongest hands I think I've ever seen.

—GERALD TURNER, Braves scout, on Evan Gattis

Evan Gattis doesn't get lost. Everything around him is just in the wrong place.

—@GattisFacts

SI.COM

For complete coverage of the major league draft, including a live draft tracker with analysis of each pick (such as possible top choice Kris Bryant, left) go to SI.com/mag

PHOTOPhotograph by POUYA DIANAT FOR SPORTS LLUSTRATEDBEAR DOWN, OSO BLANCO Gattis took a four-year break from baseball and embarked on a spiritual journey, then returned to the game with a clear mind—and a lethal bat.PHOTOJUSTIN K. ALLER/GETTY IMAGESHE'S GAT THIS Gattis takes a ferocious cut, but his strong hands and the compactness of his stroke allow him to make contact at a respectable rate and still generate elite power.TWO PHOTOSCOURTESY OF EVAN GATTISON THE ROAD During his odyssey Gattis (top right) made a camping stop and worked odd jobs like his janitorial position in Dallas (above); last winter he made a nickname for himself in Venezuela (right).PHOTOCARLOS EDUARDO RAMIREZ (VENEZUELA)[See caption above]PHOTOLENNY IGNELZI/AP (BRYANT)PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGESDRAMA KING Gattis has a knack for flashing his power at the most opportune times: He already has three pinch-hit homers, including one that fired up the Braves' dugout on May 18.PHOTOKEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES (ROBINSON)PHOTOAP (DROPO)PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBIS (JETHROE)PHOTONATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY (BYRD)PHOTONATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY (SANFORD)PHOTOST. LOUIS CARDINALS, LLC/GETTY IMAGES (WORRELL)PHOTOCHRIS MARTINEZ/AP (NOMO)PHOTOTOM HAUCK/GETTY IMAGES (SASAKI)PHOTOTOM HAUCK/GETTY IMAGES (SUZUKI)