|© MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.|
Path of the Pros: Erik Kratz10/19/2010 10:00 AM ET
By Josh Jackson / Special to MLB.com
At the end of the season in which Erik Kratz finally made it to the Major Leagues, the 30-year-old backstop didn't go surfing in Hawaii, skiing in the Alps or wine sipping in Paris.
He did go to Puerto Rico -- to play more baseball.
Kratz received word of his callup to the Pirates while he was playing in the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 14. The storybook moment came after 7 1/2 pro seasons and plenty of moments of doubt.
The same thing that kept Kratz in a sport that demanded great compromises from him for so long also explains why he spent his fall playing for Team USA's Pan American qualifying team -- he loves playing the game.
"We're having a blast," said Kratz. "We're winning, and that's what it's all about down here, so we're having a good time."
The Pirates sent Kratz back to Triple-A Indianapolis in August, and he was designated for assignment but cleared waivers in September. Shortly after, he got the call from USA Baseball, which finished the tournament tied for third with a 9-1 record.
To be still playing in October was "great. Obviously, I wish I got called up in September, but it didn't work out. So to get to come down here and still be playing baseball, that's great."
Many of Kratz's offseasons have been spent in a decidedly different fashion. Kratz, who's been married since his senior year of college and has two children, has supported his family by working construction when he's not on the ballfield.
"My boss was one of my buddies," Kratz explained. "He said, 'Man, you can't hurt yourself. I don't want to be the one that ruins your career.' I said, 'Look, man, I'm thankful to have a job. I need this.'"
(Not quite) glory days
Kratz was picked out of Eastern Mennonite University (Pa.) by Toronto in the 29th round of the 2002 Draft. He signed and was sent to play for the Rookie-level Pioneer League's Medicine Hat Blue Jays, a now-defunct team then stationed in Alberta, Canada. Although it was hardly a glamorous assignment, Kratz remembers being excited to be living the life of a pro ballplayer.
"You're [riding] 16 hours down to Provo, Utah, on a crowded bus, and everybody's doubled up in their seats, except, like, one guy. But when you're in it, you're like, 'This is what pro ball is.' You kind of roll with it."
Kratz hit .275, flashing some power by belting four homers and doubling five times over 44 games. He caught more games (33) than either of the team's other backstops. Kratz is most well known now for his defensive abilities, but his skills behind the plate weren't quite as developed then as his skills with a bat.
"My first two or three years, I think my defense was a little lacking. I needed to work on my defense. My hitting was decent. The velocity took some time, but that just takes a little bit to adjust to."
Over the next two seasons, Kratz continued to develop both at and behind the plate. He debuted in the Double-A Eastern League in just his second pro season.
"The first [couple] years, it was really all about learning the intricacies of the game," he said.
His defensive game continued to blossom under the tutelage of a number of coaches, including current Las Vegas 51s pitching coach Dave LaRoche, who was a pitching coach at Double-A New Hampshire when Kratz reached the level. But Kratz emphasized the most important thing he picked up from his early coaches was an enduring baseball philosophy.
"It's not, 'This person's out to get you, you gotta do this,'" he said. "It's more, 'Hey, look, it's a long season, you've got to prepare yourself.' Physically, I had no problem preparing myself. Mentally, they helped me prepare and improve a lot."
The more sophisticated approach helped Kratz to hit .316 with three doubles over eight games in the South Atlantic League and .312 with a .411 on-base percentage and .503 slugging percentage in 49 New York-Penn League games in 2003.
A frustrating roadblock
The 2004 season was filled with frustration. In what he felt should have been a key campaign in his development -- his third year as a pro -- Kratz's playing time was severely restricted by factors he had no control over. He was never hurt, but the Blue Jays put him on the disabled list repeatedly. Kratz got into just 29 games and was sometimes pinch-hit for after a few innings behind the plate.
"I was on the phantom DL every time," he said. "I [mostly] sat in extended [Spring Training]. Just because, the year before, I was up there in the top three or four on the team in almost every offensive category in short-season [ball]. It was a hard time."
He'd gone from feeling he would become a Major Leaguer through patience and hard work to being uncertain he'd get the chance to put that work in. He did the only thing he could think to do.
"I feel, if you have a problem with something that's going on, go to the people that are making decisions and talk to them face to face. I went to those people, and I let them know I was frustrated. I got the runaround, the baseball runaround. 'Well, we just need to see this guy for a little bit,' or things like that.
"So, do you sit there and hang around? Do you go home and try to get a real job? Or do you trust yourself and your ability to play the game? My wife and I prayed a lot. Ultimately we decided we had to trust that I could make the most of the chances I got."
Getting in the game
Kratz rose to new heights in 2005. He spent the season in Double-A and tallied 11 homers and caught 89 games. He split the next three years between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Syracuse, hitting consistently in the mid-.200s, showing power and developing into a fine defensive catcher.
It was around this time that the inevitable construction site injury hit.
"One offseason, about two weeks before Spring Training, I actually shot myself in the [catching] hand with a nail gun. That wasn't fun."
Did Kratz consider telling the Blue Jays about it?
"No chance. No chance," he said. "I didn't report that to them at all. When you're on the bubble, you can't give them an excuse to get rid of you. If it affected my play, I'd have to deal with that. But it didn't."
He does admit the injury smarted when he was catching Major League-velocity fastballs for hours on end a couple of weeks later.
"The first two weeks of Spring Training, it did, and then it slowly got better and went away. Nobody ever knew about it."
Having moved beyond but not forgotten the frustration of the 2004 season, Kratz was handed another unfortunate surprise before what would be his final Spring Training with Toronto.
Leaving the Jays
"Going into the 2008 season, I had been invited to [the previous] two or three big league [Spring Training] camps. And then going into the 2008, I wasn't invited. That was kind of a slap in the face," he said.
To him, the lack of an invitation seemed to imply he didn't figure prominently into the organization's plans for the future. "I don't want to say I played to show them, but I definitely still felt like I could play."
He again split the year between the Eastern League and International League, amassing 33 extra-base hits and a .239 average over 73 games. The end of that season meant Kratz was a free agent, and he was eager to sign with an organization that would give him more playing time. Although he'd risen to the upper levels of the Minor Leagues, his limited playing time had hardly made him the hottest commodity on the hot-stove market.
"Going into free agency that winter, I didn't get any calls," he said. "Then in January, the Pirates were still looking for another catcher at their upper levels, Double- and Triple-A. They gave me a big league camp opening, and they said, 'You can come in and be our backup in Double-A.'"
Kratz thought he had the experience to deserve a chance to try out for a more active role, but he also knew he was in no position to turn down the offer.
"I went and I ended up staying in big league camp until the third-to-last day, and they ended up sending me to Triple-A as the backup. [Later] there was an injury in the big leagues, so I got to play in Triple-A."
Kratz played so well he was selected to represent his Indianapolis Indians on the IL's team in the Triple-A All-Star Game, and he homered and doubled in the showcase to win the Top Star Award. He played the whole season with one club -- the first time he'd done so since 2005 -- and finished the year with a .273 batting average, a career high he'd top in 2010. He also hit 11 homers and was second on the Indianapolis team with 30 doubles.
He remained dependable in 2010, again making the IL All-Star team, and it was during that game that Indianapolis Frank Kremblas alerted Kratz that the catcher's dream would soon come true. He was to report to the Pirates the next day.
At that point, among the many emotions Kratz was hit with, he felt grateful that he hadn't quit baseball years before. He admitted that several times, retiring had been a real, if unpleasant, temptation.
"It was a serious conversation. It wasn't something -- I didn't want to retire. But, oh yeah, I'd talked about it with my wife. ... I started wondering, 'Do I really have a shot?'
Somewhere along the way later on he noticed that, although he still felt young, some people in baseball obviously didn't think of him in the same terms.
"The older you get, the more skeptics you've got. ... Sometimes in baseball they say, 'Oh, he's gotten older. He can't last,' without anything to back that up coming from the player.
Nonetheless, the thought of retiring without making it to the Majors loomed.
"In '08, when they didn't invite me back to big league camp -- is it worth continuing? Then after the season, there are no jobs. I had one kid already and another one on the way. It's great to chase a dream. Yeah, go for it. That's one thing. I knew I could still play. But if there's no food on the tables or diapers on the butts ... you know?"
With the faith of himself and his wife, Kratz endured. His preparation between games, a routine that was constantly evolving but always rigorous, paved the way for his success.
"If you don't make yourself better," he asked, "what are you hoping for?"
A Major Leaguer
On the day of his first workout with the Pirates, Kratz was grateful he'd put in that work. He let his body take over during practice because his mind was too overwhelmed.
"It was awesome. I went into the stadium -- nobody's at the stadium -- and I've got my uniform on. ... I started throwing the ball just to warm up, and I was thinking, 'Man, I'm glad I've done this so many times before,' because my arm felt numb [from excitement]. I didn't know where I was going to throw the ball. Was it going to sail over the third baseman's head and one-hop over the left-field wall? Was it going to dribble two feet in front of me? I couldn't tell!"
The next night brought his first big league game, and the butterflies were mostly gone.
"It really did [feel just like a normal game]. I'm glad I'm a catcher. If I was a third baseman or an outfielder, my nerves would have been too much. Being a catcher, I'm there on defense all worked out before the game even starts."
It remains to be seen what the 2011 season will mean for Kratz, who may not be back with Pittsburgh.
"I'm looking for an opportunity to play for a spot on a big league roster out of camp. As for which team, I'd like to go to any organization that will give me that chance."
Having made it this far, Kratz is no longer weighing retirement. But should the possibility of hanging it up enter into his equation again, he knows what will be on his mind.
"If the day comes when I'm done playing, I want to say at the end that I've put everything I had into it. I want to say that I've worked hard to be in the best shape I can and to be prepared every day, whether I'm playing or not." This philosophy, he knows, "won't make you a big leaguer over night. But it is a mindset that will help you to improve."