In May 2013 I was assigned to tell the story of Atlanta Braves’ slugger Evan Gattis. It took me on a two-day journey across the state of Texas.
“I’d like to book a room for the night.”
Several hours after interviewing Hernandez and Turner, I was back at the Coppell West field, trying to make a hotel reservation from the driver’s seat of my rented Chevy Sonic. I had already driven for nearly two hours that afternoon, making stops at the aforementioned mechanics shop and golf course before popping back to the field to get footage of Tigers practice. Now I was preparing for the big drive: five hours from Dallas to Odessa, Texas, where Gattis returned to baseball after his time away from the game.
At least, I thought I was heading to Odessa.
But when I made my request to the operator at the hotel, she responded as follows:
“All right, sir. A room with one king-size bed is $309 a night.”
I quickly checked the number to make sure I hadn’t accidentally dialed the Holiday Inn in midtown Manhattan.
Nope, this was Odessa.
“What was that number again?” I asked.
“Three-oh-nine,” the operator responded, with genuine cheer that indicated she perhaps was not aware of why anyone would be surprised by this.
Hernandez was not surprised. “Yeah, Odessa is big with oil guys. You can’t get a hotel room there for less than $300 a night.”
I had to re-route. Unfortunately, the nearest city on my way to Odessa was Abilene, which sported a variety of two-star hotels off Interstate-20 but would also leave me 2 ½ hours from Odessa.
I did the mental math in my head. Suddenly I was facing a potential nine hours of driving the next day – on top of the three hours ahead of me on this day.
What could I do? I rolled with it.
I think all journalists, but particularly TV reporters, are imbued early on with the spirit of doing one’s job by any means necessary. We cram an absurd number of responsibilities into a workday but never question it, and we force ourselves to make every deadline no matter how ominous the circumstances. We do not spend a whole lot of time pitying ourselves – at least not until after the fact – because we cannot afford to do so in the moment. We don’t have a minute to spare.
I especially feel this as a do-it-all journalist. I shoot and edit my own stories, meaning I take these types of road trips by myself. I need to pick up the phone if I want to complain to anything other than the air.
I do not like to complain anyway, though. Beyond that, I do not take kindly to the idea that I might not achieve the task to which I have committed myself.
So I booked a hotel in Abilene and hit the road, driving through steady showers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and then darkness as I headed further down I-20. I pulled into my hotel at 10 PM, figured out how much time I would need in the morning to make my 9 AM interview in Odessa, and then grimly set my alarm for the 4 AM hour.
“That’s one advantage to being out here alone,” I thought to myself as I laid myself down to sleep. “I doubt I could convince someone else to wake up at 4:30 in the morning in the middle of Texas just for one crazy story.”
Christopher Columbus never had the benefit of Google Maps on an iPhone.
But Christopher Columbus never had to find Jal, New Mexico.
The sun had barely peeked over the horizon behind me when I exited I-20, with two hours of driving already under my day’s belt, and aimed the steering wheel towards the one-lane highways that would take me to my next destination.
I was hoping to swing by New Mexico on my way to Odessa. Gattis had journeyed through the state several years earlier to follow a spiritual advisor, and while I could not interview the advisor, I figured I could probably use a “Welcome to New Mexico” sign in my story. That morning I scoured the map for the most direct route to the Texas/New Mexico border, and I found it.
All I had to do? Follow the signs to Jal.
As of the 2010 census, the city of Jal was the home of 2,047 people, its name actually an acronym for the initials of a cattle owner from the late 19th century. I knew none of that until I searched Wikipedia several days later. At this point, I simply knew I needed to head in that direction to get my shots.
In my job I have gotten used to the concept of making long drives by myself, but I never felt more alone than I did on this particular drive. I did not just lack a companion in the passenger seat; I barely saw anyone else on the highway. I did not feel lonely, by any means, but I definitely felt alone.
Something happens, though, when you are alone. You start to pay attention to details you would not notice if distracted by other people. You see the beauty in gradual change, such as when the green trees of Dallas give way to the parched plants of west Texas. You appreciate the seemingly routine, like when the sun makes its first appearance in your rearview mirror and shines a glistening golden tint on the landscape in front of you. In short, you receive a momentary glimpse of all the things on which you normally miss out – the things that make the earth a pretty special place.
As I headed toward the border, I could not help but wonder if Gattis had similar revelations during his numerous drives. I would later receive an up-close look at the Dodge Dakota in which Gattis toured the western side of the country. The odometer showed more than 167,000 miles. Surely Gattis spent many of those miles alone with his thoughts, pondering his lot in life, trying to make sense of the yearning and unfulfilled desires that consumed his mind.
Maybe those drives provided some clarity. Or maybe, like the sunrise, they only offered a brief taste of beauty before the responsibilities of the day – and of life – took over.
I was not about to miss my opportunity. I pulled over in my far less road-tested Chevy Sonic, popped a fresh memory card in my camera, and captured the beautiful colors of the sunrise. As I did this, a pick-up truck pulled up behind my car. An older man with burnt skin and a handlebar moustache emerged from the truck, a genteel smile on his face.
“You got a flat tire?” he asked.
“No, no,” I laughed, and pointed to the camera. He laughed back, apologized, and headed on his way.
I smiled to myself as he left. Nope, I thought, I definitely don’t feel lonely out here.
“First thing’s first,” I said to the head baseball coach at the University of Texas-Permian Basin. “Where can I find your restroom?”
I had just arrived at the Odessa-based school, fresh off my brief but triumphant appearance at the New Mexico border. Since a brief 5:15 AM stop at a 7-Eleven, I had not exited the car for longer than five minutes. I was ready for the next step.
In this case, that meant an informative, enlightening interview with a man who received a front-row seat to the transformation of Evan Gattis.
Brian Reinke has coached at a variety of junior colleges and small schools in the heartland. He will be the first to say, he did not know what to expect when Gattis came into his field of vision.
“Basically,” Reinke said about his first meeting with the then-23-year-old, “I wanted to know if mentally he was in the right spot.”
By the time he arrived in Odessa, Gattis had spent five years away from baseball, feeling no desire to return to the sport. But something had happened. Something, or someone, had convinced Gattis he no longer needed to search for a deeper purpose or reason. The young man had either found what he was looking for, or, as Reinke put it, “he didn’t find something, but he realized he didn’t need to keep looking.”
Whatever the case, Gattis decided he wanted to give baseball one last chance. He came to UT-Permian Basin to play with his stepbrother, Drew Kendrick, a pitcher at the school. Reinke invited Gattis to join the team, but according to the coach, early on Gattis still felt a healthy dose of uncertainty.
“He had trouble the first couple of weeks just trying to get into a rhythm of doing everything,” Reinke recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ All the structure put on him in high school, the expectations put on him … I think he was nervous about letting other people down.”
The slugger quickly put his fears – and anyone else’s – to rest. Gattis dominated the Heartland Conference that season, leading UT-Permian Basin in batting and hitting 12 home runs (the rest of the team combined for 19).
Beyond that, Reinke said, “he became the center of our team. He became the guy that everybody rallied around.”
Reinke recounted a moment early in the year when Gattis saw his coach fall off a ladder and break several ribs. The next time Reinke showed up to practice, Gattis had taken a rope and made a police-style chalk outline of Reinke’s body around where he had landed.
“It was hilarious,” Reinke said. He still laughs today about it, recalling how the younger men on the team were stunned that any player would have the audacity to make fun of his coach. “But, come on,” Reinke said. “What was I supposed to do?”
In less than 24 hours in Texas, I had already heard a number of stories about Gattis the Prankster and Gattis the Superhuman Athlete. But I also heard an equal number of stories about Gattis the Great Human Being. A day earlier at the Dallas Tigers’ field, Tommy Hernandez spoke of how Gattis still practices with the Tigers’ current crop of players whenever he comes home.
On this day in Odessa, Reinke very quickly followed the chalk outline anecdote with a second story. He talked about how, when his wife was very sick recently, Gattis always called to check in and did whatever he could to provide support.
And, Reinke said, Gattis still calls to this day. “He will send a video to my son,” said the coach. “He will talk to my wife on the phone. He is that kind of person that you absolutely love and want to see him do the best that he can.”
Reinke then added, “He has done more with his one opportunity that I think he ever could have dreamed.”
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.