It doesn't take long for Syracuse Chiefs catcher Erik Kratz to be noticed by teammates and fans alike. Almost every person questioned by "On Board" for last week's story on the Chiefs' strongest man named Kratz without any hesitation.
His 6 ft., 4 in., 245 lbs., frame alone was a good reason for their quick decision, but once again "On Board" has discovered a story within the story.
While Kratz possesses all of the physical attributes to lay claim to the title of "Chiefs' Strongest Man", he also has the spiritual demeanor as well.
Kratz was born and raised Mennonite, although today he would rather be considered Christian than Mennonite.
"I don't and didn't have to grow a beard," Kratz said with a chuckle. "There's no hat and dark clothing. We're as different from the Amish as Lutherans from Catholics. If people ask if I'm Mennonite or not I prefer to tell them that I'm Christian."
Strong faith to go along with the strong body.
Kratz takes after his dad, Floyd, in body type and he gets his soft spiritual side from his mom, Deb.
"My dad is very competitive," Kratz said. "He's very strong and very hard working. I get my work ethic from him."
Floyd Kratz worked as a butcher and meat cutter and without a day of college is now a co-owner of a meat packing delivery company.
"We never went out to eat that much because we always had great food at home," Kratz said of the fringe benefits to be the son of a butcher. "One thing I got from my mom is my mild manner."
He met Sarah, his wife of five years, when he was a freshman in college at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia.
"The timing worked out real well having been drafted the next year," Kratz said of the wedding date. "I tell her every day 'I have no idea what attracted you to me.' I always tell her that I'm the one that married up, and she hates hearing it, but it's true."
The Blue Jays, who drafted Kratz in the 29th round of the 2002 draft, help Kratz stay in shape with weight room and daily workouts, but off the field Kratz stays busy by building homes in the off-season for Homestead Construction, which he and buddy Aaron Yoder own together.
"We started it up about three years ago," Kratz said of the construction company. "Aaron works it all year and has grown the business and I help out during the off-season."
Is building homes a good way to keep up on weight training?
"It doesn't hurt my overall training," Kratz said. "Most guys go to the gym, work out and then just lounge around and hang out. I work eight to 10 hours a day, then I go to the gym and get in my weight training work."
The Blue Jays discourage players from bench press workouts for fear of injury, but Kratz claims he has pressed 305 lbs., back in college.
Kratz has loved baseball for as long as he can remember, but didn't intend on it as a career.
|DID YOU KNOW?
|Kratz still holds the NCAA Division III record for doubles in a career with 77 from 1999-2002.|
"I would get an opportunity to play and a good education," Kratz said when asked why he chose to attend Division III Eastern Mennonite. "I didn't go just for baseball, baseball had a role in it, but I also knew I could get an education - Business Administration with a marketing focus."
Without a scholarship Kratz struggled financially through his college years.
"A lot of athletes go to school for four and a half years, but I could barely afford the four years," Kratz said. "I feel it was a great accomplishment to finish in four years. I had quite a few (Major League) teams come take a look at me my senior year. I hoped and prayed that I would get an opportunity and here I am five years later. I just love being around baseball. I don't want to get my hopes too high, but I just take it for what happens. Take every day for what it is."
And what it is, is a 27-year old guy, albeit a good defensive catcher, trying to crack a major league lineup.
"Baseball is a different sport," Kratz said. "(27) is definitely not the ideal age to still be in the Minors."
So will he be able to make the jump with Sarah and their new six-month old son anytime soon?
Kratz has a good arm and experience behind the plate, but suffers with inconsistent at-bats.
"He's doing a respectable job here in Triple-A," Toronto Blue Jays Director of Player Development Dick Scott said. "I expect that he will get a job, if not with the Blue Jays with another organization because he has incredible arm strength."
"He tends to get labeled as a backup catcher," Chiefs manager Doug Davis said. "I guess because the catching and throwing part of the game are his strengths. (The Toronto front office) sees some of the other guys as being more offensive and puts them in a better position. Whenever he gets an opportunity he ends up playing very well. His arm strength has never been a problem and he is getting more consistent at the plate. He has tremendous power to all fields. He's been able to make better contact because of some of the things he's done. He's the kind of guy who'll hang around until he gets that opportunity (to play in the majors)."
"The catching position is a little different," Kratz said. "If you're an outfielder who doesn't hit you're going to be getting an after school job. A catcher that doesn't hit might be able to stay around just because of his defensive skills. If I can continually improve my hitting I'll be around as well."
Kratz was not always a catcher, however. The native of Telford, Pa., played third base at the start of his high school career, but changed positions after making the varsity team as a junior.
"In my junior year of high school, I was playing third base. I never made varsity before. I was a junior and the third baseman was a senior so I wasn't going to get to play there so I said, 'might as well try catching. I have a good arm and I'm not afraid of the ball,'" Kratz said about his decision to become a catcher.
"I wasn't going to start the first game of the year because there was a senior at that position as well. But he got in some trouble for smoking in school, so I was it."
Sometimes life gives you a gift and as Kratz explains it he took it and ran, "In that game I was 2-for-4 with an opposite field home run in my first at-bat. I played every game after that."
Telford, by the way, is about 90 minutes from Chiefs' centerfielder Wayne Lydon's hometown of Jessup, and is about 40 minutes north of Philadelphia. Being from that area, Kratz grew up a huge Phillies, Eagles and Flyers fan. Telford is also the hometown of current Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer.
"I met Moyer in second grade when he visited our school," Kratz said of the veteran Major League southpaw. "I have always loved baseball. I'm not good enough to beat any of Jamie's records. He went to a Division I school. People back home say 'Ah, Jamie Moyer is in the pros and then there's that other guy, what's his name?' I'm what's his name."
So, will Kratz realize his childhood dreams when he would get home from school and grab his bat and mitt and head to the ballpark for a pickup game and pretend to be in the big leagues?
"At the triple-A level you're a streak away from getting a call-up," Kratz said. "I have to do what I'm capable of doing. I can't control what those ahead of me do. I can control what I do and if that's not me I need to improve at the plate. You're playing for 30 teams every day. You always feel like you're better than somebody. If you didn't you'd be settling for not being the best."
Kratz helps himself out by improving on his mistakes.
"I truly believe I have learned from my past failures," he continued. "If you're going to fail it's best to do it in the Minor Leagues so you can learn from it. I know it's helped. If it's not good enough for the Blue Jays then there are other teams. I have had a much better year this year and hopefully I can continue to get better as the year goes on."
"The last two years my numbers haven't been spectacular at the plate," Kratz went onto say. "I'm told I need more at-bats and hopefully I can get them and show them I can do well. My strength is definitely defense. I control the game well from behind the plate. You are only as good as your biggest weakness and mine is my offense. If I can hit then I'm more of a total package."
"He'll do well as a serviceable backup," Scott said of Kratz's chance at a big league career. "He won't be there because of his bat, but because he can catch. He's like Ken Huckaby and Sal Fasano in that regard. They are able to go up and fill a need, which is to catch. Kratz can catch and throw in a couple of hits and he might get himself a couple of years of pension up in the Majors."
"He's been more consistent here then he has ever been throughout the organization," Scott said of Kratz's development. "He's not quite good enough to be a front line guy with some of the other kind of catchers we have had. He has had the opportunity to play here and has taken advantage of it. When you get the chance to play, no matter of how big or small it is you have to be ready. He's done a good job in the situation he's been presented."
And pitchers love to throw to him.
"You have to love the fact that he can throw guys out," Chiefs pitcher and Kratz' teammate since rookie ball Jordan DeJong said. "He and I are on the same page most of the time when it comes to pitch selection; I don't have to shake him very often."
"Kratz has the potential to hit the ball out of the park every time he steps up to the plate," DeJong said of Kratz' offensive talent. "If he keeps going his hitting will only improve. You can stay a long time in the big leagues if you can do a good job behind the plate. His bat isn't the greatest, but he handles the pitching staff well. As a pitcher those are the kind of catchers you like to have around. Kratz has the knack to know what every pitcher likes to throw and what works best for them. He knows how to push certain guys' buttons in order to have them perform the best and he gets the most out of the staff and in turn will be beneficial for the team."
Most of all Kratz just loves the game.
"I really, really love to play," Kratz said. "That's something that sometimes is lost in baseball, in the pro game especially, is the love of the game. Guys make fun of me in the locker room for it but everyone knows that's how I feel about the game."
"I always tell people that if I came to the ballpark and wished for a rainout I would quit," Kratz continued. "I don't think that's fair to the game or to my buddies back home that aren't able to have this opportunity. I just can't imagine wishing for a rainout or a day off. I wish I could play more than I do, so everyday I come to the ballpark I'm hoping I play. I love the competition, I love the competitive aspect of baseball and that I can come to the ballpark everyday and have the opportunity to play, to do something that I love and hopefully one day do it in the big leagues."
It takes a strong man to keep to his convictions and Erik Kratz is that man.
Next week "On Board" will check our bank statement.