Evan Gattis stood in the MLB Fan Cave's basement room last Friday afternoon, being fitted with a long, curly wig. It was shortly after he had been fitted with a short curly wig, and about 15 minutes before he would be asked to dress in polar bear costume and pretend to attack a person in a gorilla outfit.
"'Hey, remember that guy who was good for, like, two weeks?'" he asked no one in particular, in the voice of an imaginary baseball fan of the future, as the long fake hair was adjusted and smoothed into place. "Whatever happened to him? He's playing in Venezuela now?'"
Gattis was kidding, but only sort of. In just a few months, he has shot from minor league obscurity to NL Rookie of the Month for April and Braves fan favorite, hitting more home runs per at bat than any other player in the NL as of this writing, often at dramatic moments.
He's also been an object of much fascination, and a source of inspiration to many fans, thanks to his long and winding road to professional baseball and his open discussion of dealing with depression. It's a story of extreme lows and, at the moment, extreme highs, and so from a background with some real darkness in it he's emerged to become the subject of Chuck Norris-style "Gattis Facts" and spoofy Paul Bunyan-esque tales, which Friday's video shoot took as inspiration.
This is all aided by his nickname, bestowed upon him during his time in Venezuela: "El Oso Blanco" -- the white bear, hence the polar bear suit. Gattis confirms that "a lot of people" really do call him that. "In Venezuela, everybody called me that," he says. "It kind of became my name. They didn't even know my real name -- 'Evans?' -- they all called me Oso."
Gattis' Baseball-Reference page is sponsored by a fan named Brian White, who writes:
"Evan Gattis is two things. He's a catcher who hits bombs, and he's a key piece in the war on bad baseball nicknames. Can you imagine an alternate universe where his nickname is 'Gatty' instead of 'El oso blanco'? That would be awful."
Gattis has seen the sponsorship and says he supports an increase in inventive baseball nicknames: "I think Juan Francisco could be Brown Bear."
Before leaving for spring training this year, Gattis says, he didn't know what to expect.
"I could see them sending me to AA or AAA or the big leagues. So I wanted to take advantage of the time I had in spring training -- I knew I had some time in spring training, they're not going to send me back down to the minors too soon. So I've got this time with all these people who've been around a while -- Tim Hudson, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Reed Johnson, Gerald Laird, [Brian] McCann -- and I just wanted to learn as much as I could."
"I didn't expect too much, honestly. I was happy I was playing, I made a little bit of money in Venezuela so I had at least a little bit of security knowing if anything happens I could at least play somewhere. So I had some confidence, going into spring training."
Gattis is focused on the practicalities -- you get the impression that he does find it very reassuring to have a career in Venezuela to fall back on, just in case things don't work out here -- and brings a refreshing sense of perspective rarely found among rookies. After being offered a scholarship at Texas A&M but never showing up to the school, Gattis entered rehab, played briefly at Oklahoma's Seminole State Junior College, and then worked as, per USA Today:
"A car valet in Dallas, a ski lift operator at the Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado and Taos, N.M; a pizza cook at Nick-N-Willy's in Boulder, Colo.; a housekeeper at the Abominable Snowmansion hostel in Taos, and another in Flagstaff, Ariz.; a machinery operator at Kimbrell's Kustom Machine Shop in Garland, Texas; a golf cart attendant at the Firewheel Golf Course in Garland and a janitor for Jan-Pro Cleaning Systems in Plano, Texas."
He also spent time in a mental hospital, fighting depression. So while people would be excited about any rookie backup catcher/outfielder with a .922 OPS (and an OPS+ of 147), they are especially excited for Gattis.
He says that already, he's noticed pitchers adjusting to him.
"My first few games, I did well but I was hitting in the seven- or eight-hole, and then when Freddie [Freeman] was out I started hitting in the four-hole some days. That's when people, I think, started adjusting to me, started pitching me a little different. Everyone has the report -- I know my own report, I know how they should be [pitching me]. It's stuff I work on, but you know, people are who they are -- I am what I am, everybody's got weaknesses. So now it's just me working to take care of that, working to minimize my holes."
So far, it looks like pitchers have a lot of adjustments yet to make. If Gattis has one major flaw at the plate, it's that he doesn't walk that much -- eleven times this year, compared to 39 strikeouts, for a .329 OBP -- but one can hardly complain much about that when the man is slugging .593 with 12 homers and 11 doubles.
If Gattis found it odd to be doing caricatures of his old jobs -- a pizza cook, a ski instructor, a janitor -- in Manhattan's carefully designed Fan Cave, while a couple dozen people looked on and a director asked him for multiple takes, he did not let on.
"Don't even say 'ninja,' just give a RAWRR and throw," the director instructs him. "If it feels stupid, that's what we're going for."
"You're going for stupid -- and you picked me," says Gattis gamely, before RAWRRing and hurling pizza dough at a Fan Cave contestant in a ninja suit. He's then asked to post for a "hero shot."
"I hope I'm not anyone's hero," he says, striking the pose.
"No, I don't know," he said after the shoot, asked if the experience had been strange. "This is the first time I've ever done anything silly on purpose on camera. It was a lot of fun."
At the end of the video shoot, Gattis takes off the polar bear head and puts on a Braves jersey -- the real thing, though the unintended effect of the shoot is that it now seems like just another costume. At least until he swings the bat. It's not full-strength, just a few cuts for the camera, but the bat whips through the air with a sizzle and produces a breeze that can be felt ten feet away. Gattis is 6'4", 230-some pounds and, well, bearish. Whatever happens this season or next, and wherever Gattis goes from here, his power is real, an actual Gattis Fact.