NEWNAN, Ga. — The everyman’s legend was helped along by a fantastic backstory, at its core a wandering soul and a litany of odd jobs.
He’s no longer a ski lift operator, pizza cook or janitor, but he’s still adding lines to his resume.
It’s Evan Gattis, businessman.
The Braves’ power-hitting catcher arrived last season with a nickname already in tow, with El Oso Blanco (The White Bear) spawning T-shirts and fans wearing polar bear hats. Gattis, like any American success story, is getting in on the action, trademarking his moniker.
"It’s in the process," Gattis said Tuesday during the first stop of the Braves Country Caravan. "The government works slow. … We’ll see how it goes."
The changes in his life aren’t lost on Gattis. A year ago he was a 26-year-old, non-roster invitee to spring training fighting for a job and now he’ll return to Lake Buena Vista., Fla, as the expected heir to the spot Brian McCann vacated when he signed a free-agent deal with the Yankees.
It comes with pressure and expectations. But amid it all, Gattis is staying well, Evan Gattis.
"You’ve got your stresses and stuff like that you deal with, and little things. But nah, for the most part, it’s just kind of me," he said.
Happy-go-lucky as he might be, Gattis is faced with a daunting job. He’s stepping into the role of a cornerstone of the franchise in McCann, a seven-time All-Star, who hit at least 20 home runs in six consecutive seasons, who set the tone in the clubhouse and who helped foster a core of young pitchers.
Is he up to the task?
He should be able to live up to McCann’s production at the plate, where Gattis hit .243/.291/.480 with 21 home runs and 65 RBI in 105 games last season, a year that included National League Rookie of the Month honors in April and May — when he had a combined .952 OPS — and the season’s longest HR at 486 feet.
But he was also demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in late August after hitting .208 with two home runs in 108 plate appearances from June 10-Aug. 23 as pitchers stopped challenging him early in counts.
"People were less aggressive and a lot more off speed, runners on first especially," he said. "A lot of cutters and sliders and stuff like that first pitch because I was so aggressive at times."
He did rebound after being called up again Sept. 3, with a .255 average over his last 98 at-bats of the regular season.
Gattis followed that up by being one of the most consistent Braves in the division series against the Dodgers with a .357 average that, among Atlanta players, trailed only Chris Johnson’s .438.
"With Evan, he’s such a good hitter and I think he just needed to get a little bit more disciplined at the plate," said assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher. "They’re so aware of how good he is and his strength that they were trying to not give him pitches to hit hoping that he would get himself out.
"Once he started getting a bit more disciplined and making them get in the zone and giving him better pitches to hit, you saw him really do some damage."
Strikeouts remained an issue throughout the season — Gattis fanned 81 times, a 21.2 percent rate that was sixth-highest among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances — as was a BABIP of .255, well below the major-league average of .290-.310, and a below-average 14.5 line drive percentage. But Gattis’ game is power, and the latter two numbers were the byproduct of a 44.6 fly ball rate.
Consistency would be ideal, but Gattis doesn’t believe that’s the key to a strong second season in the majors.
"It would be nice. But if I’m not producing I won’t be consistently in the lineup," he said. "I want to produce and I want to do well and be a good piece for this team. Consistency might help, maybe it won’t but I want to go out and play as good as I can every day."
If there’s a place where Gattis has the most ground to make up in replicating McCann’s worth its behind the plate. In his nine years, McCann never had a RPP (Passed Pitch Runs) — which calculates a catcher’s ability to block pitches — of less than 2.1, and was as high as 7.1 in that department, coming in 2010.
Gattis had a minus-0.9 RPP along with 17 wild pitches, more than any other catcher with at least 349 2/3 innings. While McCann also had 17 wild pitches, he caught 806 1/3 innings.
Alex Wood saw enough of Gattis last season to believe he’ll bridge that gap, especially in the way that he worked with Wood and the other starters in preparation for their starts.
"I think the biggest thing as a pitcher, no matter who your catcher is, is their willingness to talk to you and get on the same gameplan," Wood said.
"He comes over to all the starters and talks to them before the game and gets on the same gameplan as them and tries to figure out the best way to call a game based on who we’re playing that day and whoever is pitching for us. From that standpoint, it gives us all the confidence in the world that he has that work ethic and wants to get smarter and learn more."
Gattis’ rookie season behind McCann — and Gerald Laird, who will now serve as Gattis’ backup — was, at its core, an apprenticeship. He watched and he learned. More than anything, he learned to "play with conviction and call your pitches and play your game," Gattis said.
It remains to be seen whether manager Fredi Gonzalez will follow a similar blueprint to last season, when the veteran catchers caught the Braves’ young starters (Gattis caught Wood in just one of his six starts and Julio Teheran in one of his 30). As Gattis put it "You’ve got 25 pieces on the team and you use 25 pieces. If they feel like somebody else should catch the younger pitchers that will be fine with me."
But the position, and the chore of following in McCann’s footsteps lie with Gattis. While his mentality isn’t changing, he’s preparations are. After missing 24 games with an oblique injury, he has one simple goal in 2014: stay on the field.
"I just want to be healthy the whole season," he said. "There’s certain things I don’t do anymore and there’s certain things I do more of now. I tweaked my workout and work on more skill work instead of trying to be a certain strength or something like that. I tweaked the way I prepare for this."