Emerging from darkness, Gattis grateful for new story
Despite memories of crippling depression, Braves catcher set to run with starting job
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Somewhere in his long search for spiritual guidance, Evan Gattis found the happiness he needed to return to a baseball world that not so long ago had fueled the depression he had felt dating back to his childhood.
Over the past two years, Gattis has repeatedly discussed the unique journey he experienced after he walked away from baseball in 2006 with the intention to never play again.
As he prepares to spend this upcoming season as the Braves' starting catcher, some have continued to marvel at the fact that he has reached his current position after spending his four years away from the game working odd jobs that included stints as a janitor and nights sleeping in a teepee at a ski resort in Taos, N.M.
Others, including Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez's wife, have cried when they have read or heard about the time he had to beg for food after running out of money while visiting a spiritual healer in New York City.
But Gattis is the only individual who truly understands the agony that consumed him and led him to experience this wayward journey that included stints at a drug rehab clinic and a mental ward that he was admitted to after being reintroduced to the suicidal thoughts that had truly started to consume him after he left his suburban Dallas residence to attend junior college.
"A lot of people say you're less likely to figure it out after a certain age or until you get closer to death," Gattis said. "Really young or really old. That's what a lot of people say. But that is [garbage]."
Though he remembers first being introduced to depressive thoughts as early as the fifth grade, Gattis does not truly remember being depressed until he graduated from high school. Fear of failure led him to reject opportunities to play for Rice University and Texas A&M. Instead, he was more interested in drinking beer and smoking marijuana with his friends.
"Looking back, what I think happened was I got so terrified -- it was also probably the dope making me paranoid -- that people would look at me and think, 'This kid has all this talent, and he's just blowing it,'" Gattis said. "I didn't want to fail. But you're not failing if you're not doing anything. I didn't even give myself a chance."
After a stint at a drug rehab facility essentially proved he did not have a serious chemical dependency, Gattis reluctantly gave baseball one more chance when he went to Oklahoma's Seminole Junior College in the fall of 2005. A knee injury and the fact that he was doing it more for his father than himself led him further away from baseball and closer to the desire to find happiness through drinking with his friends.
More than eight years later, Gattis still shudders when he reminisces about this dark period, during which he now realizes really never moved him closer toward the happiness he sought.
"It's just so sad looking in the mirror and just being OK with it," Gattis said. "It's been a while since I've thought about it. But just being able to look in the mirror and be happy thinking, 'OK. I'm doing OK because I've been happy for a couple of weeks,' it's so sad."
Gattis' cross-country search for guidance led him to Santa Cruz, Calif., where he was introduced to John Wheeler, a spiritual guide who delivered a message that Gattis comprehended but still has trouble explaining.
"I don't care how long he sits there and tries to tell me that feeling that he had, I can never put myself in his shoes," the Braves catcher's father, Jo Gattis, said. "I don't know what he felt and what he thought. But I know something happened, and I got the old Evan back, and that's all I really cared about."
While Gattis remembers "being blown away" by Wheeler's message, he still questions why he spent so many years searching for a spiritual message that essentially told him that he had to accept himself for who he is and realize riches, success or failure would never change him.
"It was so funny," Gattis said. "Everything I went through to try to be happy, it was just so unnecessary. It was almost embarrassing. I look around the world at all of those spiritual seekers, and it's the real thing. There are a lot of people in the world who are spiritual seekers who chase gurus around like I did. It happens, and it's just so sad to me how simple it can be. It's the disease of the mind."
While recently watching the acclaimed film Silver Linings Playbook, Gattis heard one of the characters rattle off a number of medications used to battle depression. He quickly realized he had been prescribed each of them at some point in his life. At the same time, he was reminded that none of these chemicals had completely rid him of his mental struggles.
A few days after visiting with Wheeler, Gattis decided to begin playing baseball again. Once he learned he still had eligibility left, he opted to join his step brother at the University of Texas-Permian Basin. Less than a year later, the Braves drafted him in the 23rd round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Energized by his new opportunity, Gattis lost nearly 40 pounds from the time he was drafted until the time he reported to Spring Training the following year. The Braves kept him at extended camp until a roster spot opened for him at Class A Rome in 2011.
Gattis hit 22 home runs in just 88 games and won the South Atlantic League batting title while playing for Rome. He extended his success the following year at Double-A Mississippi and then spent last season proving himself at the Major League level.
With a number of his family members in the stands at Turner Field last year, Gattis homered in his first career at-bat and then went deep 20 more times while recording 354 at-bats in an injury-tainted season. More importantly, while Brian McCann spent the season's first six weeks recovering from shoulder surgery, Gattis silenced his critics by proving he was capable of handling the catcher's position. Along with having a powerful 6-foot-3, 235-pound physique, he possesses the arm strength and athleticism necessary to prove valuable behind the plate.
"I've never been concerned about him being able to hit," former Braves catcher and current bullpen coach Eddie Perez said. "I was a little concerned about the catching. But he showed us he can play. He showed us he can help us."
Eight years after looking him in the eye and telling him he would never play again, Gattis told his father he is approaching this season with only one thing in mind.
"He told me, 'I think I had too many goals last year,'" Jo Gattis said. "I said, 'Is that right?' And he said, 'Yeah, I only have one goal this year.' I said, 'What's that, Evan?' He goes, 'That's to be the best catcher in baseball.'"
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.