KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — Spring training is all about those on the fringes.
The phenoms looking to make their mark. The geezers trying desperately to hang on. The never-heard-ofs attempting to pull off the camp of their lives. For some reason, that warm Florida sun (Arizona sun works, too) makes all things seem possible.
Then there's Evan Gattis, who is so compelling that everyone else pales in comparison.
"This is my story," the 26-year-old says nonchalantly, sitting at his locker in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. "Hey, it's the only one I've got."
He walked away from the game not long after high school, absolutely terrified of being a failure and figuring there must be something better out there. There were bouts with depression and drugs, a series of menial jobs ranging from valet to janitor to cart boy at a golf course. He traveled throughout the West, seeking out wandering souls such as himself and spiritual advisers who could help make sense of it all.
Finally, something clicked.
Baseball, the sport he once fled from, was what he needed all along.
"I mean, this is a pastime," Gattis says, a sense of wonderment in his voice. "Honestly, what would you rather be doing right now than this? You know what I mean? I hate to say it like, 'Oh, there's nothing better to do.' But, really, there is nothing ... better ... to do," drawing out the words for effect.
In a way, he's come to the right place. The Braves conduct spring training on the sprawling grounds of Walt Disney World, just down the road from the Magic Kingdom, a place that turned make believe into a very profitable business.
Now we have a player who uses the ID tag from his days as a janitor as the avatar on his Twitter account trying to make it to the big leagues.
Sure, he's a longshot. But ol' Walt would've loved this tale.
"It's kind of a bummer that I never even gave myself a chance to fail before," Gattis says. "Now, I'm not really afraid to fail."
He pauses for a bit of a course correction, then carries on.
"Sure, everybody is afraid of failure a little bit. But I'm not going to let it keep me from success."
Gattis was initially offered a scholarship to play baseball at Texas A&M. He never made it.
"I was smoking a lot of pot," he recalls. "I knew I was talented. I knew a lot of people were rooting for me. I just didn't want people to think I was a mess-up, basically. I was scared. ... I was afraid of being looked at as a failure."
His mother checked him into rehab, where he tackled some of his demons but not his longing for the meaning of life. He gave baseball another try, attending a junior college in Oklahoma, but his heart wasn't in it. He hurt his knee and was redshirted, then left school midway through the next season.
It was time to go wandering.
He would drop everything and leave on a dime whenever he felt the urge. There was the visit to his sister in Colorado, where he found "the most intense peace I've ever felt in my life," then felt it slip away. There was the time he drove one of his spiritual advisers to the airport, told her that he wished he could jump on the plane, too, then did just that a couple of days later — even though it was Christmastime.
"I was like, 'Sorry, folks, I've got to go.' I just had to go."
Some may view Gattis as selfish.
He sees it as something that was absolutely necessary to becoming a whole person.
Through a different prism, it even sounds courageous, the sort of self-discovery that most of us long for but never have the guts to actually follow through on.
"Some people find out that stuff when they're 50," he says. "Then they say, '... I forgot to live.' So at least I got that out of me when I was young. People say in meditation groups, 'You can find it out when you're 25 or you can find it out later in life.'"
He finally found what he was looking for in California, where yet another spiritual mentor cracked a code that is still hard to understand.
"He kind of cleared up anything I had going on," Gattis remembers. "I don't know how to put it in words. I was just done looking for whatever it was I was looking for. I was done with it. It cleared up in kind of a final way where, without a shadow of a doubt, I just knew I didn't have to do that anymore."
Even at an age when most people are done with college, Gattis learned he was still eligible to play ball. In 2010, he enrolled at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. After batting over .400, he was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round.
An unorthodox prospect approaching his mid-20s, Gattis was hardly put on a fast-track to the majors, but he kept winning over the brass with his impressive hitting numbers. He batted .322 with 22 homers in the South Atlantic League. Last season, he split time between three minor-league teams and hit a cumulative .305 with 18 homers.
This year, he was invited to his first big-league camp — albeit as a non-roster player. A catcher by trade, he's now getting work in left field, trying to improve his versatility and maybe earn a spot on the team that heads north.
"He's never been handed anything," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says. "Sometimes — myself included — we give too much to our kids and they don't earn it. But this young man has earned everything he's gotten so far."
The Braves certainly aren't giving Gattis any special treatment. If anything, he's got to be even more impressive than those he's battling for a job, most of whom have played in the big leagues and have more gravitas with Gonzalez and the coaching staff.
"His story is nice. But that story isn't going to get him to the big leagues," the manager says. "Fifteen years from now, when he's an established major leaguer, that will be a nice book. But what's impressive about him now are his numbers."
If Gattis had chosen a more traditional course, he might already be an established big leaguer.
But he has absolutely no regrets about his journey and, really, that's what we all should be striving for.
"Did I miss out?" Gattis asks.
He knows the answer now.
"No, not at all."
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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