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.
This is Part 1 of the story of that journey. To read the entire story on a single page, CLICK HERE.
I woke up to the sound of muffled radio static on the alarm clock in my hotel room. I had not bothered to find a station before I went to sleep the previous night; I was exhausted, and I doubted I would miss much by scanning the AM dial for Abilene, Texas’ finest. Plus, I knew I would not be listening for very long when I awoke.
Instead, I did the first thing I could think of: reach over and hit the button on top of the radio.
I did not intend to go back to sleep, of course. I couldn’t. I was up for a reason: to drive ten hours, in one day, to interview two people, both of whom were integral to the life of Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis. A month earlier, Gattis made the Braves’ Opening Day roster as a 26-year-old rookie. Two weeks after that, he was named National League Rookie of the Month.
But that was not what sent me to Texas. I had arrived in America’s second-largest state to shine the spotlight on Gattis’ other claim to fame, the story that had captivated Braves fans in Atlanta and baseball fans across the country. After completing high school and committing to Texas A&M as a highly-touted prospect, Gattis left the game and did not return for half a decade. In the meantime, he traveled the state and the country, working odd jobs at golf courses, ski resorts, and even Yellowstone National Park. He followed a spiritual advisor to New Mexico, and he lived like a nomad, on a search for purpose and identity. Gattis had gone on a journey, to be sure, and came out of it a Major League baseball player.
How fitting, then, that I would have to take a journey of my own to properly tell his story.
I got up out of bed in that Abilene hotel room and took a shower. When I got out, I heard those muffled AM sounds again. I walked over, looked at the clock on the radio, and saw a time I generally only saw during the daytime.
I wanted to hit Snooze again. But not this time. It was time to hit the road.
A day earlier I had awoken at technically the exact same time. In this case I had gotten up at 5:44, but I was still on the Eastern Time Zone, at my apartment in Atlanta preparing to leave for the airport. This in itself felt like a big step. My trip to Texas was the culmination of roughly a month’s worth of planning – and nearly an equal amount of frustration – with Gattis’ story.
The news managers at my TV station, Atlanta’s NBC affiliate WXIA-TV, had decided back in April they wanted me to do an in-depth story about Gattis. It was a no-brainer, really; they had heard about Gattis’ improbable journey, watched his hot start for the Braves, and believed his story would be great for our big ratings period in May. I reached out to the Braves’ media relations team multiple times but did not hear back; finally I decided to meet Gattis myself, heading to the clubhouse for post-game interviews and introducing myself to the slugger at his locker. I told him we wanted to tell his story and even head to Texas to talk with his dad Jo, who played a huge role in Gattis’ growth both personally and professionally. Gattis gave the OK and simply asked that we go through the Braves’ media relations folks to reach his father.
Done, I said.
Over the next few weeks I sent roughly a dozen e-mails to the Braves’ PR person assigned to these types of requests. I found I could not even secure an interview with Gattis, let alone his dad. The Braves were only home for a week in late April, and numerous national media outlets had come knocking with a similar request to interview the catcher, who by this point had developed a Jack Bauer/Chuck Norris-like mystique among the team’s fans. I would have to wait until their next homestand, I was told. And what of Gattis’ dad? I heard very little.
Finally, my managers and I got tired of waiting. We wanted to tell Gattis’ story, and we no longer wanted to delay until the Braves’ media folks got around to us. “Head down to Dallas,” I was told. “Set up whatever interviews you can, and we’ll make it work.”
I spent last Monday and Tuesday making calls and developing contacts with people who had watched Gattis grow. I called his youth coach in Dallas and his college coach in Odessa; they jumped at the chance to talk about someone for whom they held great admiration. I connected with the Texas-based scout who recommended Gattis to the Braves; I got a hold of the machine shop owner who briefly hired Gattis during his time away from the game.
I even found his spiritual advisor in New Mexico. She declined my request.
I purposely abstained at this point from reaching out to Gattis’ father. The Braves’ PR person said he was expecting a call from Jo Gattis to discuss a potential interview. I was told I would hear back Monday, but by Tuesday night I still had heard nothing. Even though I had by that point learned Jo Gattis’ phone number, I decided I would wait until Wednesday to call him.
By that time, of course, I would be in Texas.
I gave my managers the update, and they gave me the go-ahead to book the trip. I always feel a slight trepidation when I click the “Book” button on a flight for work; it signifies a large financial commitment to a story, and in this case I had no idea what my trip would unearth. To use baseball terms, I hoped I would hit a home run but feared I would strike out.
No matter. Wednesday morning I awoke at 5:44, drove to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and hopped on a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. I prepared to spend the next two days criss-crossing Texas, the metaphorical baseball bat gripped nervously in my hands.
Dallas is a mess.
I had only spent a few hours in the belt-buckled city, but I found myself marveling in the amount of highway space per square mile. In Atlanta, another metropolis known for its sprawl, we have a particularly congested spot called Spaghetti Junction. Highways intersect and layer on top of each other. Cars move in every direction, at best like a symphony and at worst like a lurching batch of lemmings.
Anyway, I had already counted six Spaghetti Junctions in metro Dallas.
I was off to a good start on my story, though. I had picked up my rental car, stopped at Chipotle for a two-burrito lunch, and headed to Coppell Middle School West, home of the Dallas Tigers youth travel baseball program. Gattis spent much of his childhood with the Tigers, a program that has churned out several Major Leaguers – Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson among them – in addition to the newest Atlanta Brave.
I was greeted first by the weather. I had prepared for a slight chance of thunderstorms; I arrived to a combination of ominous clouds and swirling winds, which tossed my normally straight hair to the point that my head looked like Spaghetti Junction.
The gentlemen awaiting my arrival were, of course, not fazed.
“Texas in the springtime,” shrugged Gerald Turner.
Turner has been around baseball since before cable television. He coached for 30 years before becoming a scout. He worked for the Royals first and now covers most of Texas and Oklahoma for the Braves. He is credited with alerting them to Gattis. Joining Turner at the park was Tommy Hernandez, who has coached the Dallas Tigers since the team’s inception two decades ago.
Both men are baseball lifers, and the game fits their personalities. Baseball folks are usually the most even-keeled guys in the room. Chalk it up to years of three-hour games, 162-game seasons, and everything else about baseball that makes it the perfect game for a patient soul. Over the course of a typical season, players and coaches receive thousands of chances to do something of impact; they gain nothing by overreacting to each one.
(Related Evan Gattis story: Early on after returning to the sport, he stepped up to the plate for his college team with runners in scoring position. He struck out. Gattis then walked over to his coach and apologized. The coach looked at him in disbelief and said, “What for?” Gattis responded, “Because I struck out with guys in scoring position.” At that point, the coach put his arm around Gattis and chuckled. “You will get plenty of chances with runners in scoring position,” the coach said. “Don’t worry about this one.”)
After chatting briefly off-camera, I put a microphone on Hernandez and set up for our interview. Then the rain hit, suddenly and ferociously, forcing us to pause the proceedings while I covered my gear. We chatted some more, and when the topic turned to Gattis, both Turner and Hernandez spoke frankly about the young man who had gone through such difficulty off the field.
“He called me one time,” Hernandez recalled. “I asked him, ‘Evan, where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m working at a ski resort in Colorado.’ And I just shrugged and said, ‘OK!’”
Gattis took a slew of odd jobs after leaving the game of baseball after high school. He worked as a janitor in Dallas and a machine operator in nearby Garland. He was a golf cart boy, then a parking valet, then a restaurant worker at Yellowstone.
Through it all, the people in Gattis’ life always supported him but rarely hounded him. They did not press him about why he was doing all this or when, if ever, he would return to baseball. They all believed Gattis would ultimately find his way.
Once the rain stopped and the interview began, Hernandez remained candid and explained exactly why they had such confidence in Gattis. “There’s a lot more to Evan than what everyone knows about or is reading about,” he said. “I think everybody assumes, ‘Oh, he’s not a good kid because he was drinking.’ He’s not a druggie or an alcoholic or a bad kid … he’s a great kid!
“He found himself in a situation that a kid his age couldn’t control,” Hernandez said. “Now, thank God he has a second chance … because a lot of kids don’t.”
And did Gattis appreciate his second chance? Turner chimed in with a story that answered that question loud and clear.
“Evan was drafted in the 23rd round (by the Braves),” Turner recalled. “I called him and congratulated him, and we had dinner. We filled out all the paperwork, signed the contract, and he got up out of the chair. He reached out to shake my hand, and he had tears coming out of both sides of his eyes.”
A poignant moment. Turner, of course, the baseball lifer that he is, couldn’t resist concluding the story with a little joke.
“I went to shake his hand, but I had my ring on, so he crushed my hand. I wanted to cry right along with him.”
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.