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.
Ten hours of driving. Zero minutes of music.
These were my stats as I zoomed along I-20 on a 360-mile journey from Odessa back to Dallas. Somewhere in the 3 PM hour, I hit double digits in driving hours for the trip, and I had not yet listened to a single song.
I love music, of course, but I probably love it too much for a trip like this. I am an unabashed sing-along-in-the-car guy, and I will rock out in the driver’s seat under the right conditions.
But rocking out requires energy. I needed to conserve mine.
I decided early in the trip to take a page from the baseball lifers around me and remain even-keeled throughout. I already did not plan on getting much sleep, and if I fed off adrenaline, I reasoned, I would eventually crash hard at an inopportune moment. I needed to be on top of my game, from Wednesday’s touchdown at Dallas-Fort Worth to Friday’s departure back to Atlanta.
So, instead of bobbing my head to my favorite songs, I listened to podcasts. Instead of gulping down drinks with caffeine, I sipped on bottled water and green tea. And when I felt the occasional dip in appetite or energy, I sucked a few Tic-Tacs.
Quite the life, this road-tripping business.
I thought back to my off-camera conversation with Hernandez and Gerald Turner. We talked about Turner’s job as a scout for the Braves, and I asked him about his work schedule.
“From January to now,” Turner said, “I have maybe had six days off.”
“And those were probably days it rained,” Hernandez joked.
I posited to Turner that he probably tries to do whatever he can during these months to keep a semblance of normalcy and routine in his daily life. Turner quickly shook his head.
“There’s nothing you can do, man,” he said. “You’re traveling all over the place, you don’t know what the weather’s gonna be, and you don’t know when you might have to turn around and drive all the way across the state.”
A day later, Turner’s answer still surprised me. I could not imagine going months at a time without any kind of structure to my life. I thought of the discipline required to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle while still maintaining one’s health and sanity. I also wondered if the opposite was true: perhaps someone like Turner thrives off unpredictability and lack of structure. After all, he spends his life trying to predict the future, scouting high school and college athletes for a Major League Baseball team. Maybe that lifestyle has seduced him, in a way.
Maybe it had a similar effect on Gattis. Maybe that’s why he felt those initial nerves upon arriving at UT-Permian Basin, suddenly returning to a more structured world. Maybe, even today, he appreciated the opportunity in those five difficult years away from the game. Maybe those years – and those 167,000 miles – provided Gattis the necessary path to get where he is today.
I, on the other hand, was starting to drag. I had now been in Texas for more than 24 hours, and I was starting to feel my eyelids getting just a little bit heavy. I knew I would probably be fine for the remainder of the trip, but I could already imagine the exhaustion I would feel this weekend upon returning to Atlanta. That exhaustion was starting to creep into my drive.
And then I checked my voice mail.
“Good afternoon, Matt. Jo Gattis here.”
The voice on the message belonged to Evan Gattis’ father.
“Hope your trip to Odessa went well … some good people out there. I don’t know if we’re still on for tonight or not, but I hope we are.”
I had actually spoken with Jo Gattis a day earlier. When I had arrived at the Tigers’ field, Tommy Hernandez immediately called him up and gave me the phone.
I heard, on the other end of the line, a man who could not have sounded more excited to speak about his son.
I was excited, too, and I remained so upon hearing Gattis’ latest message. I still had so many questions about his son’s history and mindset, and I believed he could provide some of the answers. I also did not yet know whether I would get to interview the player himself, so I had to treat his father as my best window into Gattis’ head.
I drove several more hours, all along I-20, stopping once to re-fuel the Chevy Sonic while avoiding whatever traffic I had expected as I reached Dallas at rush hour. I headed 30 miles past the big city to the far smaller city of Forney, which the Gattis family calls home.
(Forney, by the way, sports a population of nearly 15,000 as of the latest census. Thus, while it is much smaller than Dallas, it is seven times the size of Jal, New Mexico.)
I exited the Interstate, made a few turns, and headed to what would be the most revealing interview of the trip.
Less than two minutes after I turned on the camera, Jo Gattis was in tears.
I had asked him a simple question: What has this experience felt like for you?
“You really don’t expect that somebody is going to get (to the Major Leagues),” he responded, “let alone someone you know, or one of your kids, so …”
And then he choked up.
“It’s great,” he spurted a few seconds later, cutting his words short in order to secure the levees around his eyes.
Much like everyone else I met in Texas, Jo Gattis did not hold anything back. For the next twenty minutes, he spoke candidly about pretty much everything involving his son.
On whether Evan liked baseball as a kid: “He didn’t want to play. He cried. I said, ‘I’m signing you up to Tee-ball.’ And he went, ‘Waaaaah!’”
On Evan’s potential when he was younger: ““He got to be eight years old, and I had parents saying, ‘Your son throws the ball too hard. Tell him not to throw the ball too hard!’ I said, ‘You need to teach your son how to catch!’”
The candidness continued when Gattis talked about his son’s tougher times, starting with his initial decision to turn away from baseball when he had initially committed to playing at Texas A&M.
“His mother put him in rehab, and he agreed to it,” Gattis said, “Evidently he was just smoking some pot and drinking. Sixty days later, they said, ‘Hey, your son doesn’t have a drug problem. He has other issues, but he’s not a drug addict.’”
The elder Gattis said everyone gradually realized the bigger issues.
“The fear of failing is what got him,” he said. “He was afraid of being on the big stage, and getting caught for smoking pot, like he’s probably the only student at A&M at 17 that (would be) smoking pot. He was like, ‘I don’t want to go down there and fail a drug test, and then everybody would say this great baseball player was just a dope-head.’”
When his son started to tour the country seeking solutions, Jo Gattis said he rarely tried to intervene. He, like everyone else, always had faith that Evan would find his way, and he always provided whatever emotional support his son required. He recalled just one instance where he tried to set Evan straight, and it did not go well.
“I decided to have that talk on the porch,” Gattis said. “I told him, ‘You’re selling yourself short. You’re a good baseball player.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I am never playing baseball again.’”
The elder Gattis paused for a few seconds, letting the statement sink in for me as much as it did for him.
“What are you supposed to say?” Gattis asked. “’How ‘bout them Cowboys?’”
Eventually, of course, Evan Gattis found both the spiritual answers he sought and the passion for the game he once loved. His father could not speak enough about that.
“When I do get to talk to him, he says, ‘I’m great. I love it.’ He’s having a good time. This is what he wants to do.”
And then, the elder Gattis smiled just a little wider, reflecting the pride that comes with watching your child finally figure it all out.
“He told me several times, ‘I’m gonna play baseball for a long time.’ And I believe him.”
My long Texas journey ended with a pleasantly short drive.
I awoke Friday morning at 5:30 AM, hopped in the rental car, and took the side roads to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. The total drive time? Fifteen minutes.
My total drive time for the trip? Fifteen hours.
After finishing such a surreal adventure, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the ease with which the rest of the Evan Gattis story fell into place. I interviewed Gattis himself that Saturday at Turner Field, and much like his father, he offered honest, thoughtful insights about his past and present. I wound up with a mountain of on-camera interviews, videos, and photos; more importantly, I felt I had obtained the necessary perspective to produce a story about such a complex individual.
But even after all that, I still could not help and think about the journey.
How many chances do we ever receive to be alone with our thoughts and the world? Of those chances, how many do we actually recognize and appreciate? Those are the times when we simply think about things, with no hurry to arrive at the answers. Those are the times when we notice the details and discovery in the world around us. Those are the times when we come up with our most profound revelations.
Simply put, those are the times when we reveal our selves to ourselves.
Perhaps I should never have been surprised that someone as cerebral as Evan Gattis would find value in such a journey. His voyage took, not two days, but five years. He searched for meaning while seeing the country, and he resurfaced with the drive, determination, and conviction to become a Major League baseball player.
All these thoughts, of course, would come later. On this day, I dropped off the rental car, flew home to Atlanta, and at long last plopped my head on my own pillow, ready to take part in an activity of which I had done far too little in the previous few days.
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.