Evan Gattis is a World Series champion. His long journey to the acme of the Major League Baseball world has been one of the more unique stories. It may have never happened if it weren't for his time with University of Texas of the Permian Basin.
The Texas native grew up on baseball, surrounded by some of today's greats playing for the Dallas Tigers, the premier amateur baseball team in Texas. Names like Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw were his teammates. Gattis was seemingly destined for big league stardom at an early age. He originally planned to attend Texas A&M, but life challenges got in his way. After years of wandering and soul searching, Gattis was ready to return to the sport he loved.
His step-brother Drew Kendrick was pitching for UTPB in 2010. Kendrick could be the one credited with the rebirth of Gattis' baseball career.
“I decided I was going to play again," Gattis said via phone call. "I didn’t know if I had any eligibility left being a 23-year-old. Academically I was a junior, but baseball-wise, I was just a sophomore. Drew gave me a call and said, ‘this is where I am, I’m at UTPB and I love it here. Maybe you should meet coach and see if you can get an opportunity to come out’. It was the only school I talked to. I felt good about it. We met at a restaurant in Dallas, and it was a good situation.”
What was next, Gattis didn't know. But he knew he was back in a familiar environment doing what he does best. Hitting baseballs a very long way.
“I didn’t know what to expect," Gattis said. "It had been so long since I had played. That was all icing on the cake. I was kind of in the, ‘why not go play college baseball?’ mode, because at least I go to college. You could do a lot worse than playing college baseball. My goal was to not quit that year, and just finish out my classes, do well in school, and finish the season. I started liking it, trying to get better, and then I got noticed by a couple of different teams.”
"He was older so I knew there would be organizations that would say no, but I also knew that his power was unmistakable and that someone would take the chance on him," UTPB head coach Brian Reinke told NCAA.com before the MLB playoffs started. "Gerald Turner was the guy who took him in the 23rd round. He was with the Braves at that time and is now with the Blue Jays. Gerald came to watch him hit BP one day. Our park is big and the wind blows in every day from left field. Evan proceeded to hit 13 of 15 balls out of the park with wood. I knew then that he would be drafted that year. The rest was up to him."
“I don’t know if those were the numbers, but we can go with that,” Gattis said with a laugh.
It would be Gattis' only season in Odessa, Texas. Gerald Turner liked what he saw and the Atlanta Braves took him in the 23rd round of the MLB Draft.
“I’m in the kitchen, and we were watching the draft tracker," Gattis recollected. "I thought I was going to go the next day in the way later rounds. Just out of the blue, my step-brother’s still watching the draft tracker and sees my name come up and you hear, ‘Evan!’ from the other side of the house. I was like, ‘What?!?’ My wife, she was my girlfriend at the time, but she was there, dad, step-mom, Drew and Brett my step-brothers, were there. Definitely a day that changed my life. I knew I could coach or give lessons and just the title of playing any kind of professional baseball, it just changed my life.”
Gattis built strong relationships during his time at UTPB. He and his former head coach are still very close.
“He was over at the house when he came to Game 5 of the World Series," Gattis said of Reinke. "We had an off day the next day to travel to [Los Angeles]. He came and stayed that night and hung out at the house and talked baseball. That we stay in touch is an understatement. [Our relationship] has just kind of grown. When you’re younger it’s a player-coach relationship, but then afterwards, it just grew. I know a lot of people would say the same thing from that team because a lot of us stay together and stay in touch.”
At the beginning of the 2013 season, Atlanta Braves all-star catcher Brian McCann hit the disable list. Gattis got his first call to the big leagues. He hit a monster home run in his first game against the legendary Roy Halladay and wouldn't relent. He won the National League Rookie of the Month in his first two months in the big leagues. In a matter of weeks, Gattis was an Atlanta icon.
“It could have gone way worse, couldn’t it have?," Gattis asked with a laugh. "I was so fortunate.
“I was nervous, shaking during that game when I hit that home run. I remember coming back in the dugout and Reed Johnson being like, ‘well, that should make it a lot easier.’ I was playing to possibly get sent back down in a month whenever [Brian] McCann got off the disabled list and I was just trying to have fun and enjoy it. It was a life goal. It’s a lot of people’s life goals that don’t get to achieve it. Looking back, of course I was very happy and very proud, but I was very fortunate.”
The Braves made the playoffs that year and Gattis continued to rake. Though the legendary El Oso Blanco home runs weren't there, but he still hit .357 in the four-game series.
“No damage, but I had a good average," Gattis said. "That was against [Clayton] Kershaw, [Zack] Greinke, [Hyun-Jin] Ryu, and Kershaw again. It was a tough series.”
Much like his road to the big leagues was an adventure, so was his journey to the World Series. But Gattis -- who's teammate Mike Fiers is also part of the DII baseball family -- finally made it, and after hitting .300 in his first career World Series, Gattis is a champion.
And after all he's been through, it was close to home, not far from where it all began.
“My phone was exploding. I took a couple of days, just didn’t answer anything. It was overwhelming, I just wanted to soak it all in," Gattis said. "It still hasn’t sunk in. I knew how badly I wanted it. Again, I'm lucky. Fortunate to be on a team this good. I don’t know that I’ll ever be on a team this good again. The whole month was a blur. Some of it felt like we were eight or nine years old playing travel ball again. You go to another city and if you keep winning, you go play someone else until you win the championship. That was one thing that was really cool earlier playing for the Dallas Tigers growing up. Nothing can prepare you for the big leagues postseason, but part of that was familiar.”
Through it all, Gattis holds tight to his DII roots. Those former Falcons aren't his old teammates, they're his lifelong friends.
“Man, there’s not one, there’s too much," Gattis said about the best part of playing DII baseball "It’s the relationships you make. I was texting today because they had the alumni game a couple of days ago. It’s the little things. Stupid inside jokes that we text each other on the regular. It’s not one person, it’s a lot of us. It’s kind of cool. Some people that lived in California or North Dakota, wherever, spending Thanksgivings with my family in Dallas. My friends are friends of the family now. Everybody stays close.”