Wednesday, April 3, 2013

'It's not magic, it's baseball'

Micah 7:7-8 (NIV)

But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
   I wait for God my Savior;
   my God will hear me.
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
   Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
   the Lord will be my light.
I’m a pretty big baseball fan, and I’ve recently started listening to the new ESPN “Baseball Tonight” podcast with host Buster Olney. Today’s episode featured an interview with a player I’d never heard of, rookie Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis.

Gattis, 26, is a special story because, despite having a baseball body and a good deal of natural talent, he stopped playing the game entirely at age 19. He grew up in Texas and was headed to Texas A&M University on a baseball scholarship, but a crippling fear of failure sidelined his career. Instead of going to A&M, his mother took him to a drug rehab facility. He enrolled in a junior college, Seminole State College in Oklahoma, but an injury and further confidence issues led him to walk away from the sport he loved in 2006.

Olney asked him how his parents responded to his decision to quit. He was surprised when they offered acceptance and understanding.

“My mom was actually proud of me,” Gattis told Olney. “I was like, ‘Wow, I never saw that coming.’ For some reason I thought… who I thought I was a person was so wrapped up in baseball that I didn’t realize how much they loved me regardless of if I played or not.”

After leaving baseball and eventually school, he worked a remarkable series of entry-level jobs, including for a pizza parlor and golf course and as a valet and ski lift operator. He lived with his brother in Dallas and his sister in Colorado. He consulted with “spiritual advisers” and said he wanted to reach the goals they discussed, but never had a plan for achievement.

In 2009, he started to get the itch to play ball again. He started by getting together with his stepbrother and some of his older teammates. As he realized he could play the game and keep his life in balance, he was shocked to learn he still had remaining collegiate eligibility and signed on to play with the University of Texas Permian Basin. A far cry from College Station, but the fact he could do what he loved at a high level was a success all its own.

“I actually just wanted to do it, not even so much to get drafted and all this stuff, it was more the structure and I wanted to play again for fun. It was more like to go do something, at least kind of accomplish something. … I never really thought it would take off like it has.”

And take off it did. The Braves selected Gattis in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft, after which he played rookie ball that summer. Though he didn’t make a minor league roster to start the 2011 season, he was on the Braves’ low Class A team by May and won the South Atlantic League batting title. In 2012 he started at High A Lynchburg where he hit .385 in 21 games with nine home runs and 29 runs batted in, earning a promotion to the AA team in Pearl, Miss. There management tried him in left field because the Braves already had two talented catchers on the Major League roster.

He played winter ball in Venezuela in the 2012 offseason, hitting .303 with 16 home runs in 53 games, then hit .358 in spring training this year. With longtime Atlanta catcher Brian McCann starting the season on the disabled list, Gattis remarkably made the Braves’ opening day roster.

That’s the sports and human interest part. But here’s where it gets personal for me. I listened to the conclusion of Olney’s interview with Gattis tonight in Max’s bed. I’d read him a story (the first half of “Bad Kitty Meets the Baby”), then we prayed and I sat there waiting for him to start snoring. Once that began, I came downstairs to write — but not before catching up on social media. Which is when, as Paul Harvey might say, I learned the rest of the story.

It turns out tonight Gattis got his first Major League start. The opposing pitcher was the Phillies’ Roy Halladay, who despite recent struggles is not far removed from being one of the most dominant starters of the decade. In fact, Gattis struck out swinging to end the first inning. But when he came up to lead off the fourth, the Braves TV crew found Gattis’ family in the stands. The reporter was interviewing Gattis’ father when the young man turned on a 1-1 fastball, depositing his first big league hit just over the outstretched glove of left-fielder Dominic Brown and into the bleachers.

The ensuing images — Gattis’ beaming father clapping as his son rounded the bases, his gleeful teammates mobbing him upon his return to the dugout — left me thinking about the emotional roller coaster the family surely has been on for years and what it must have felt to experience this pinnacle tonight. Redemption, pride, relief, elation… it could take hours to compile an exhaustive list.

Braves rookie catcher Evan Gattis waves to cheering fans at the end of the game after hitting a homer in his debut game with the team. — Curtis Compton, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 3, 2013

“It’s not magic, it’s baseball,” Gattis told Olney hours before his big moment. “I’m sure I’ll be nervous, I’m sure there will be some emotions. But it’s a baseball game.”

And it really is — it’s just a game. Like when I wrote about Kerry Wood’s final strikeout in May, baseball is a job, not life itself. On that magical day for Wood, I identified with the athlete as father, leaving his playing career behind to go be a dad to three young children. But as I watched the Gattis homer over and again tonight, I kept focusing on his father, the chubby-cheeked guy in the green Braves hat with a smile so broad it might never leave his face.

I’ll bet a good deal of money the little boy upstairs in the bottom bunk (who snores like his great-grandfather) won’t ever hit a home run for a Major League ballclub. Odds are his finest moment, whatever that may be, won’t be televised. But I pray that he, and his brothers, one day find something they love to do, that whatever that pursuit turns out to be helps give their life meaning and that I get the chance to see them excel.

Like Evan Gattis’ parents, I will love my sons for who they are and not what they do. I will let them know they are defined by the way the live and love, not how far they hit a ball or how well they play an instrument. If they struggle, I will support them. Whether they decide to quit or go back, we’ll be in it together, talking and praying, seeking God’s will and trying our best to see what makes the most sense in the big picture, what we should be doing to make a real difference.

Evan Gattis was near the bottom. Tonight he’s indisputably on top. And there, in the bleachers and on TV, was his family, cheering him along and sharing in his big moment. I’m as happy for Gattis’ personal success as I am for his dad being able to be along for the journey. It probably says something about my age and lack of athletic skill that I identify more with the guy in the stands than the one on the field, but that’s a matter for another day. Right now, I simply share in the joy. What a wonderful moment for a dedicated family.

A prayer for April 3:

Lord, I don’t know what my children will choose to pursue when they get bigger. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to help them or if we can afford to support their dreams or even if they’ll want to involve me in the process. But no matter what, I want to be in their corner. I want to be able to give them guidance and advice, to keep life in perspective and to watch them thrive. Help me help them learn to discern their calling, and please bless our family with the ability to above all else be good to one another. I want to be the best parent I can be, the dad my children deserve, and I will always need your help to meet that goal. Amen.

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