By John Perrotto
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The torch was passed in a brief phone conversation last November.
Brian McCann's nine-year tenure as the Atlanta Braves catcher ended when he signed a five-year, $85-million free-agent contract with the New York Yankees. That left the Braves starting job to Evan Gattis following a rookie season in which he tried to learn how to be a left fielder on the fly and became a sensation because of a fast start and a fascinating back story.
Gattis called McCann a few days after he signed to wish his former teammate good luck. Before they hung up, McCann gave Gattis a small piece of advice.
"He told me just to be myself," Gattis said. "He said if I did that, then I'd be fine."
The one thing about that, though, is Gattis isn't a normal self as indicated by the oft-told story of his winding journey to the major leagues.
Gattis walked away from baseball for four years after injuring his knee during his freshman year at Texas A&M. He spent his time drifting across the United States and working odd jobs as a janitor, cook, valet and a ski lift operator. He returned to baseball for one year at the junior college level at Seminole State in Sanford, Fla., then again quit baseball, this time for three more years. During his second sabbatical, he spent time in a halfway house for alcohol and drug abuse and was treated for depression.
Gattis then took a third stab at college baseball by playing at Texas-Permian Basin, an NAIA school in 2010. He caught the eye of the Braves, who drafted him in the 23rd round of the amateur draft that June and signed him for a $1,000 bonus. Three years later, after being a sensation in the Venezuelan Winter League during the 2012-13 offseason and gaining the nickname "El Oso Blanco" -- The White Bear -- for his power-hitting feats, Gattis made the major-league club last spring and went on to hit .243 with 21 home runs in 105 games.
Now Gattis is the Braves' starter and he would rather be defined by his baseball ability from this point forward than his past.
"I know it's a great story, the stuff of movies and all that stuff, and I know people are interested in it but it's reached the point now where it's old news," Gattis said. "That was a different time in my life and it obviously helped shape me into the person I am today, but I want to be known for more than just having a good backstory."
What the 27-year-old Gattis wants to prove is he is capable of being an everyday major-league catcher. There are a number of doubters among executives and scouts from other clubs, who point out that he hit 12 of his 21 home runs in the first two months of last season. However, the Braves firmly believe Gattis can replace McCann and point out he bounced back by hitting six homers in September.
"There is no doubt in my mind he is going to be a very good No. 1 catcher," said Gerald Laird, who is entering his 12th season as a major-league catcher and will back up Gattis along with fellow veteran Ryan Doumit. "He has the pedigree. He has a good feel for the game, a good feel for working with pitchers and it's a plus that he caught all our guys last year. And there aren't many catchers with his kind of power. I think he's going to be outstanding. I'm excited to watch him develop."
Gattis made 47 starts at left field, 38 at catcher and three at first base last season. Catcher is Gattis' natural position and he said he feels "about 100 times more comfortable" behind the plate than he did in left field. The Braves had an outstanding 2.99 ERA when Gattis caught last season and he threw out 33 percent (8 of 24) of runners who attempted to steal against him.
"Our guys really like throwing to him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "That's a big part of the reason why we have no hesitation making him our No. 1 catcher. He's not just an offensive player who only cares about his hitting. He cares a lot about his defense, too. We feel he is going to be a very good two-way catcher."
Left-hander Mike Minor confirms the Braves' pitchers feel comfortable working with Gattis as their batterymate.
"He has a real good feel for all of us, what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are," Minor said. "I think what really sets him apart is the all the experiences he's been through in life. He's a lot more mature and a lot wiser than most people his age because of that. As good as Brian McCann was and as much he meant to this team, I don't think Evan is fazed one bit by being asked to replace him."
Gattis is indeed unfazed, especially since there was a time when being a starting major-league catcher seemed like the last job he would have ever hold.
"There were times in my life, especially when I was a kid, that I would have told you this is exactly what I was meant to be doing," Gattis said. "Then there were other times when it would have been the furthest thing from [my mind]. I guess you could say I've come full circle."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.