I sat in my hotel room and flipped through the channels on TV trying to find any baseball game to watch. Oh good, the Washington Nationals were playing the Atlanta Braves, and the Nationals’ ace, Stephen Strasburg, was pitching. An enormous hulk of a man was batting for the Braves, Evan Gattis—probably some benchwarmer. Strasburg uncorked a neck-high 96-mph fastball about a foot inside. Nobody hits a pitch like that—most guys duck. Then, WHAM! Gattis turned on the ball and launched it deep into the left-field bleachers. Who is this guy? The best hitters in the world can’t do what he just did. It was all the more impressive once I learned his story.
Gattis grew up in Dallas and showed his prodigious talent early, playing on youth all-star teams with future major league superstars Clayton Kershaw and Austin Jackson. But it wasn’t all fun and games. Gattis’ parents divorced when he was in elementary school and his increasing prestige created a weight of expectations, even as he tried to lose himself in the game he loved. Toward the end of high school he began to drink and smoke marijuana to block out the pressure. Gattis earned a scholarship to play baseball at Texas A&M University, but he never enrolled. Instead he enrolled in a substance-abuse rehabilitation program.
But it wasn’t the drugs or alcohol that kept him from going to college: Fear of failure paralyzed him. The substances were just medication. After months of rehab he enrolled in a junior college to play ball, but, after battling injuries and severe depression—even to the point of considering suicide—for part of a season, he dropped out. He migrated to Boulder, Colo., and worked at a pizza joint and as a ski-lift operator. After several months, he moved with his brother back to Texas where they worked as custodians. Gattis still struggled with depression and substance abuse and began following various spiritual teachers, one of whom was so compelling he followed her to New Mexico for a time. From there he traveled to California, still in search of wholeness and happiness. It was in San Francisco that Gattis realized something: He really missed baseball.
With help from a relative, Gattis was able to enroll at a small college, The University of Texas–Permian Basin, where he played one season, enough to knock three years of rust off. An elderly scout for the Atlanta Braves discovered Gattis and was dumbstruck by his power, so the Braves took him in the 23rd round of the 2010 amateur draft, a round comprised of nobodies and long shots. Gattis went on to destroy the minor leagues and put on legendary home run displays. During spring training this year it looked like he would be back in the minors for another season, turning 26, with fading hopes of making the majors. Instead, Brian McCann, the Braves’ All-Star catcher was injured, so Gattis made the team. And boy did he ever, hitting 12 home runs in his first two months and being named the National League’s Rookie of the Month in May.
Whether Gattis’ story continues for 10 more seasons or 10 more weeks, it is worth knowing. Such tales of perseverance and unlikely success are part of what make sports worth following. They inspire and set an example. And who knows? Maybe one day Evan Gattis will find what his heart yearned for from those spiritual advisors and his journey really will be complete.