Archive | November 2017

Evan Gattis’s Winding Championship Road

It took the Houston Astros 55 years to win the World Series for the first time. With the win over the Dodgers, they take their place as the best team in the sport. Theirs is a remarkable story of organizational perseverance through many failures, recent natural disasters, and rising from the ashes of one of the worst records ever in 2013.

There’s plenty of individual stories that make this team special. Jose Altuve rose from poverty in Venezuela to the MVP of the American League after being signed for $15K in an Astros camp as an unproven 5’6″ infielder from Venezuela after multiple failed tryouts. George Springer came from the relative baseball no man’s land of the University of Connecticut to win the MVP of the World Series. Alex Cora becomes the manager of the Red Sox on the heels of winning this series with the Astros, and now looks to win World Series as a player, coach, and manager. Justin Verlander and Carlos Beltran are both certain Hall of Famers and both finally won World Series rings. Beltran has been playing since 1998 and barely missed playing in the Fall Classic with Houston in 2004, with the Mets in 2006, and lost in the World Series in 2013 with the Cardinals. Verlander was the MVP of the ALCS and experienced a rebirth in Houston after a decorated career in Detroit.

All these men have compelling stories that merit recounting. All these men have lessons to teach to onlookers and fans. However, of the Astros players and coaches, no one is more worthy of admiration for his perseverance and painful ride to the show than Evan Gattis. Gattis is a 31 year old catcher/designated hitter from Dallas, Texas. He’s a .252 career hitter over five seasons split between the Atlanta Braves and the Astros. He split time this season with Brian McCann behind the plate and hit .300 in only ten at-bats in the World Series this year. He was a good contributor to the team and a clubhouse glue guy, but not a star on his team or in the sport. But the fact that he was even able to play in the World Series, let alone in Major League Baseball at all, is nothing short of a miracle.

James Evan Gattis grew up in Forney, the Antique Capital of Texas, just north and west of Dallas. At eight years old, his parents divorced. At 12, he moved from his mother’s house to live with his father, who had remarried and started a new family. Gattis didn’t process this well, as he was too busy playing baseball. Fortunately for young Evan, he was a talented player and Dallas was a hotbed of baseball talent. He played on travel teams with Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, and Yovani Gallardo. As he got older, he played on a travel all-star team with Austin Jackson and later in the Junior Olympics with Billy Butler, Homer Bailey, and Justin Upton. All the mentioned teammates made the Majors and had some sustained success at various levels. Gattis proved himself among his peers on the travel teams and in high school, bouncing between R.L. Turner, Forney, and Bishop Lynch high schools so he could play for his favorite coaches.

He was viewed as a good draft pick in the 2004 draft, but he decided against playing professional baseball. Rice University and Texas A&M both offered scholarships for Gattis to play college baseball for them. He accepted A&M’s offer so he could play catcher. But he never played an inning for the Aggies. Before he ever suited up, Gattis had some demons to deal with. His parent’s divorce fed an in-built sense of anxiety and stress that he bottled up for years playing baseball. He started doubting he could succeed in the college game when he left home for College Station and practiced with his new teammates.

These stresses led him to abuse alcohol and marijuana. His mother grew concerned and personally drove him to a drug rehabilitation facility for a 30 day inpatient stay when she found out how Evan was doing. The counselors determined he did not have a drug issue, but he had major anger issues. Gattis was sent to outpatient therapy in a halfway house in Prescott, Arizona, for three months. After his therapy months, Gattis left A&M and enrolled at Seminole State College, a junior college in Seminole, Oklahoma, after the coach recruited him. He redshirted his freshman season and played half of the 2006 season before injuring his knee. After the injury, he burned out and quit baseball. Telling his father he never wanted to play the sport again after doing nothing but baseball to cope with his parent’s divorce. Gattis moved back to Dallas and worked as a parking valet.

Shortly after, he visited his sister in Boulder, Colorado. He liked the area, so he decided to move there, selling his truck and starting work in a pizza parlor and as a ski-lift operator at the Eldora Mountain Resort. That summer, in 2007, Gattis went into a tailspin. He was depressed, unable to sleep, and contemplating suicide. Eventually, he couldn’t take it anymore and checked into an inpatient psychiatric ward. There, he was diagnosed with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. Gattis was then released into the care of his father. He moved to Dallas with his brother, with whom he found work as a janitor for Datamatic Global Services, then as a cart boy at a local golf course.

Years past and Gattis went on even more absurd adventures. He was homeless in New York City for a bit, worked at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and in 2009, Gattis met a New Age spiritual advisor who convinced him to leave his possessions behind and go to Taos, New Mexico. Gattis lived in a hostel and worked at a ski resort while there.

Three months later, Gattis went to California to find a particularly famous New Age Guru. The starter in his 1995 Dodge pick-up truck, so he had to push start his truck to get Los Angeles and then to Santa Barbra without stopping the engine once. He went from there to Santa Cruz where he found the Guru and started to talk to him about the meaning of life and the trials of life. All the Guru said to Gattis was “Evan, maybe you need to chill out.” The disgruntled Gattis thought he had wasted his time and went to San Francisco the next day.

Eventually, after being woken up by a cop tapping on his window while sleeping him his truck, Gattis had some time to reflect on the Guru’s words and the ride he had been on. Here he was, 1,752 miles from his home, close to four years removed from his knee injury, and no longer an athlete. He was not in a psych ward or driven by crippling depression. He had sought direction from famed spiritual gurus and was still wandering. He was still searching for the key to his happiness. He still wanted to close the door on his anger but did not know how to move on. That day, miles from home, it clicked. Evan Gattis was happiest playing baseball.

The now 22 year old Gattis decided that he wanted back on the diamond. Not to bury his anger or be away from his family, but to find solice and peace within himself and in the union of a team again. He pointed his car towards Texas and push started his car with some help from a homeless man in exchange for a six pack of beer. Once moving, Gattis called his father and told him “I’m coming home.” There was only one problem: Gattis had no idea how to get back to playing organized baseball after so long away.

He made one more call, to his step brother, Drew Kendrick. Kendrick was also a baseball player; pitching for the University of Texas-Permain Basin Falcons, a Division II program in far western Odessa, Texas. Kendrick told his head coach, Brian Reinke, about his step brother and Reinke remembered the powerful hitter from his high school days. The Falcons Head Coach offered Gattis a spot on the team with the words “Play a year here and we’ll get you drafted.”

In his first season playing organized baseball in four years, Gattis dazzled, hitting .403 in 57 games, belting 19 doubles, two triples, 12 home runs, and taking 35 walks, 19 of which were intentional. He was named to the All Conference team for the regular season and tournament in the Heartland Conference. True to Reinke’s word, Gattis was drafted after one year in Odessa. Atlanta selected the wandering catcher in the 23rd round of the 2010 MLB Draft, with the 704th pick.

After years of meandering, hospital stays, rehab, New Age guidance, homelessness, and personal discovery, Evan Gattis was a professional baseball player. His journey to get to the pros was more complicated than many’s lives ever get. That made the transition to professional baseball shockingly easy. He rose through the ranks with the Braves quickly. The first stop was a successful summer with the Danville Braves of the Rookie level Appalachian League right after being drafted in 2010. The next year, he went to extended spring training after not making any opening day roster for a minor league team in the Braves’ system. He was later added to the Rome Braves, a Class A team, and won the league’s batting title. Gattis continued to rise, reaching Double A in 2012 and impressing in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he earned the nickname “El Oso Blanco”, Spanish for “The White Bear”.

The grind that normally swallows minor leaguers was a welcome change of lifestyle for Gattis. The man had lived four lifetimes in his late teens and early twenties and was already a grown man mentally. He was invited to Spring Training in 2013 and with regular starter Brian McCann starting the year on the disabled list, Gattis was named to the opening day roster. He made his major league debut on April 3rd, 2013, three years after returning to the diamond at any level and only after two and a half years in minor league baseball. He hit a home run in his first major league game against future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. His contributions helped the Braves to the NL East Division Title that season.

Gattis became the primary catcher for the Braves the next season, but was traded the following offseason to the Houston Astros. Despite growing up a Rangers fan and not liking the Astros in his youth, the move back to Texas paid off. In three seasons as an Astro, Gattis has been a catcher and designated hitter for an Astros squad that reached the 2015 Playoffs as a Wild Card, won 101 games in 2017, and claim the American League West crown that season. In the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Gattis hit a solo home run in Game 7 to break a scoreless tie in the fourth. The Yankees never scored, so Gattis effectively drove in and scored the Series winning run on his homer. Eleven days later, the Astros beat the Dodgers for their first World Series.

Ten years prior, Gattis was on the verge of committing suicide. Now, he is happily married and at the top of his profession. No athlete I’ve ever watched has the winding road of Evan Gattis. If a writer pitched Gattis’s life to a studio as a movie script, it would be laughed out of the room for being too absurd. But it’s real. Gattis has lived a crazy life and is an inspiration to anyone struggling with mental illness, personal doubt, substance abuse, or troubled family life. I hope people read his story and walk away smiling. If he can live through what he did, keep going. You can make it through your trials. Just keep going. Gattis did and made it through. You can too.

Why Houston Reigns

The Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers gave us a classic World Series. These were the two best teams all year and they played like it in the Fall Classic. All baseball fans should be grateful for the series we got. It seems like they are, if the TV ratings are anything to go by. Ultimately, the Astros edged out the Dodgers in one of the best series we’ve ever had. How did they do it? Let’s take a look. 

Who are Yu?

Yu Darvish is one of the most talented pitchers in baseball. He’s been an All-Star, a Cy Young Award runner up, and a dominating force for the Texas Rangers. When he got traded to the Dodgers this summer, it signaled that LA was locking and loading for a postseason run. He started one game each in the NLDS against the Diamondbacks and the NLCS against the Cubs and won both. He looked good as the Dodgers lost only one game en route to the Fall Classic. So. Who wore his uniform in Games 3 and 7 of the World Series? 

Darvish looked AWFUL in his two starts against the Astros. He only went 1 & 2/3 innings in each start, for a total of 3 & 1/3 innings across two games. His ERA for the series was 21.60. He gave up nine runs, eight of them earned, nine hits, two home runs, walked two men, and struck out no one. Darvish did not show up on the biggest stage of his career. I hope the man gets another chance to pitch on a playoff team so he can turn this around. Because, sadly, Darvish deserves to be at the top of the list for blame for this series going poorly for LA. 

Dave Roberts’ Over-Managing

I love Dave Roberts. The man made the biggest play in Red Sox history, stealing 2nd base on Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. He helped to spark the greatest comeback in baseball history. He has also been a great manager since he took up the job with the Dodgers last season. He won the NL Manager of the Year award last year and led the Dodgers to the NLCS against the Cubs. After a slight retooling, the Dodgers won 104 games, the second most in franchise history and most in baseball. They won the division by 11 games over the Diamondbacks and lost only one game in the playoffs. Then the Fall Classic arrived and Roberts meddled a little too much. 

Game 2 is the worst example of this. Rich Hill started the game for LA and was dealing through four innings. He had only given up one run, three hits, struck out 7, and had only thrown 60 pitches. He had at least two more innings in his left arm. Yet for some reason, Roberts turned the game over to his bullpen from the 5th inning on. Hill responded appropriately. 

That decision to pull Hill put more stress on the bullpen to deliver against one of the best lineups in the game. And the gamble backfired. The Astros turned the game from a duel between Hill and Justin Verlander into an extra inning slugfest. That extra work Roberts put on his bullpen came back to haunt the Dodgers, as their relievers were not that sharp in Games 3 or 5 in Houston. I can’t look at that outcome and not think Roberts made a mistake with managing his staff. 

Houston Learned Clutch Play

The history of the Houston Astros is riddled with playoff disappointments. The 1980 and 1986 NLCS saw painful defeats to the Phillies and Mets respectively.

The late 90’s and early 2000’s saw the Astros reach the playoffs four out of five seasons and never make it out of the Division Series. They lost to the Braves and Padres in that those series.

2004 and 2005 were the glory years of the Stros. They played the NL Central rival St. Louis Cardinals in consecutive years for the Pennant. 2004 went a memorable seven games with the Cardinals edging out the Astros.

2005 was also an excellent series and the Astros finally broke through, winning the Pennant and reaching the World Series for the first time. They also closed out Busch Stadium in the process. Their first World Series trip went badly, as the Astros were swept by the Chicago White Sox. 

After that run, Houston fell on hard times. They did not make the playoffs for the rest of the decade. And after 2012, the Astros became the 2nd team to switch leagues, joining the American League’s West Division, to balance out the leagues at 15 teams a piece. In the AL, Houston struggled. They lost 111 games in their first year in the AL West, one of the worst records in the history of baseball. And yet, there were some positives to take. They picked up draft picks, drafted Carlos Correa and George Springer, picked up Jose Altuve, and built a title contender. They made the playoffs again in 2015 and held a 2 games to 1 lead over the Kansas City Royals and a 6-2 lead in the 8th inning of Game 4 in Minute Maid Park. They then choked the game away, giving up 7 runs over the final two innings and losing 9-6. The Stros then lost 7-2 in the final game of that series on the road. 

Going into the 2017 playoffs, the Astros had a franchise history of failure and recent slip ups. They had to stare down the best starter in the AL in Fenway in the ALDS and won in 4 games. They dueled the Yankees in a 7 game ALCS and won. And they had a legendary 7 game bout with the best team in baseball and made the defensive plays needed to win. They got the big hits, the timely pitching, and the playoff magic that has been absent from their franchise’s entire history. The Astros finally learned how to win. 

LA’s Game 7 Whimper

After all the mismanagement, Darvish disappointments, and Astros making big plays, the LA Dodgers had their fair share of offensive chances in Game 7. Clayton Kershaw pitched like his Hall of Fame self in relief, and the Dodgers had some chances to cut into the lead. Except they blew their chances. They left 10 men on base throughout the game and wasted prime offensive chances. After offensive outbursts throughout the series, Houston pitchers dodged bullets through the final game of the season and the Dodgers uncharictaristically went out quietly in the biggest game of the season. Give the Astros credit. They pitched their way into a Game 7 victory and earned the win. It was just surprising to see LA go so quietly after that series. 

All things considered, Baseball had a marvelous series. LA and Houston both had some goofs, but the teams entertained fans and I hope people become fans of this sport as a result of this series. Congratulations to the World Champion Houston Astros. Now begins the long offseason wait for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training. Only 103 days until February 13th! 

Game 7 Excitement

The calender now reads November. And we have even more baseball! Thank God the play has been outstanding and other people are joining me in my excitement. This is the last baseball day of the season and despite not really having a dog in the race, I am pumped for this game! 

The 2017 World Series has been among the best played in the history of the sport. It has surpassed all expectations and has given fans plenty to cheer about. It’s in part because no game has been the same. Games 1 and 6 were narrow pitching duel wins for LA with game 1 punctuating Clayton Kershaw’s hall of fame credentials and game 6 flaunting Kenley Jansen for the final six outs. Game 2 was an extra inning home run derby barely won by the Astros. Game 3 saw Houston blow up Yu Darvish and hold on for dear life late. Houston’s bullpen disintegrated in the 9th inning of Game 4. And Game 5 was a slugfest for the ages. We have been blessed with a masterful series between the two best teams in the sport. Best World Series ever? I’ll let you know after Game 7. 

As for that final game, we should be in for a classic. Last season’s Game 7 was one of the greatest games ever played. In part, the Cubs and Indians had their own demons to deal with and historical weight makes a game better. Also, the game was just plain wacky. 

Neither the Astros or Dodgers have that level of historical pain to wipe clean, but there are droughts to be addressed. Houston has never won a World Series. In fact, the Astros would only be the first championship team in America’s oil capital since Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to consecutive NBA Titles in 1994 and 1995. Their only trip to the Classic before this was a forgettable sweep by the Chicago White Sox in 2005. They would be the first Texas team to win the Fall Classic and they’d wipe their history of mediocrity off the board with a win. Also, they’d prove Sports Illustrated as clairvoyant with this 2014 cover. 

The Dodgers are one of the winningest teams in baseball, with 22 National League Pennants and 6 World Series crowns. Sadly, the Dodgers went cold after Kirk Gibson hit the most famous home run in baseball’s history in the 1988 World Series. They’ve not won a pennant since, let alone a World Series. They went through the Frank McCourt saga, failed in the late 2000’s with repurposed pieces like Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez, and spent the GDP of Granada to lose to the Cubs and Cardinals in the NLCS this decade. Now, they’re one win away from validating Magic Johnson’s investment in the team. 

The drought ending is there, but not the main draw. The caliber of play is the reason to watch. These teams are the best in baseball. Both won over 100 games, both are loaded with ace pitchers, and both have dynamic lineups. Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are future Hall of Famers who have validated those credentials this postseason. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Justin Turner are all legitimate MVP candidates and have given great offensive shows. It’s nice to see the ratings for this series have been higher than recent World Series. It deserves what we’ve been giving it. I hope people become baseball fans as a result of this series. 

It is also completely possible to get a wacky end to the year that might even surpass last year’s closing act. The teams are ready to go and the sport is ready for its fine display. 

So who wins? Beats me. I’ve just been along for the ride and have gotten an outstanding Fall Classic. I will watch this game tonight at a sports bar with another baseball addicted friend with baited breath and incredible anticipation.