How Erik Kratz's long journey took him back home

How Erik Kratz's long journey took him back home

February 25, 2013, 12:15 pm
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I’ve been covering sports for 20 years and I’ve interviewed thousands of athletes.

The great ones amaze me.

The rare ones inspire me.

Most just entertain me.

Plenty disappoint me.

Some disgust me.

Yet very few change me – or more precisely, change my rooting interest.

But Phillies catcher Erik Kratz did just that.

Kratz grew up in rural Telford, Pa. – less than an hour drive from Philadelphia – and he was your typical diehard Phillies fan. His dad and uncle were among the 62,502 rabid red-clad fans at Veterans Stadium when Mitch Williams finished off the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the 1993 NLCS.  Erik, then 13, was supposed to be sleeping, but instead, he was glued to the radio in his bedroom until he tempted trouble and ran downstairs to catch the ecstasy of the ninth inning as the Phillies reached the World Series.

“I wrote a paper in high school,” Kratz recounted last month when CSN visited his home. “You know, what do you want to be when you grow up?  All the kids I played baseball with probably in fifth grade stopped writing about being a baseball player. I handed in the rough draft and they were like, ‘Ahhh, you need to choose something different, that's not really a profession.’”

His boyhood idol was “Schmitty” - Mike Schmidt – so naturally he played third base for Christopher Dock High School in Lansdale, Pa. Kratz was good, but not special. He had a big arm – admittedly too big – and that meant too many errant throws across the diamond. One spot where the Pioneers were rather thin was catcher, so after two seasons, Kratz elected to crouch and made the move behind the plate. Just before the season opener in his junior year, however, the varsity team’s starting catcher was caught smoking. He was suspended from school and was forced to miss the next day’s game. Kratz caught his first big break.

In his first plate appearance as the newly-minted starter, Kratz says he smacked an opposite field home run and finished 2 for 3. The starting job was his to keep. It also wouldn’t be the last time another’s misfortune became his good fortune.

Kratz had his moments at Dock, but nationally - no notoriety – and that meant no Division I scholarships. He settled on and in a small Division III Christian college in Harrisonburg, Va. - Eastern Mennonite University. In 2002, Kratz graduated as the best player to ever wear an EMU uniform. He broke 21 school records and left as the NCAA all-time leader in career doubles with 75 – a mark that stood until just two years ago. Yet the most eye-popping statistic from Kratz's run with the Royals is 0. That’s the number of pitches caught by a catcher not named Kratz. Zero. Kratz handled every pitch, in every inning, in every game during his four-year college career.

His college success didn’t go unnoticed. The Blue Jays selected Kratz in the 29th round of the 2002 draft. Yet, his new employer was his old nemesis - the same Toronto team that squashed his 1993 dreams and beat his beloved Phillies in the World Series. Kratz was born in 1980, so he had no recollection of the Phils’ first championship run. For him, it was all about 1993.

“I hated the Blue Jays and I think they knew that when they drafted me,” Kratz half-heartedly joked.

Being drafted is every little leaguer’s dream. But Kratz’s next stop wasn’t. He started his pro career in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. A hockey hotbed yes, but for baseball an isolated outpost.

“I always built [the minors] up to be real glamorous and the more I got into it, I still loved playing baseball, but I had somebody back home,” Kratz admitted.

At home was Kratz's wife Sarah. The couple met and married in college. They vowed to spend the rest of their lives together – and as it turned out – wherever.

“I always said from the start when he got drafted, ‘Oh we'll never been one of those 10-year minor league deal kind of things,’” Sarah said. “We won't make it that long, but little did I know that year after year, one year at a time was basically our motto, one day at a time.”

His stop at Medicine Hat was Kratz's first major dose of minor league reality. Kratz’s 2003 travel log included three teams in three cities: Auburn, N.Y., Charleston, W.Va., and New Haven, Conn. Despite climbing up to Double A that year, Kratz was sent back to Auburn in the New York Penn League the following season. That demotion came on his 24th birthday.

“I picked him up that day as he came out of the clubhouse,” remembers his father, Floyd. “He threw his bag in the back of the car and just said, ‘Dad take me home.’ And I said, ‘OK, but let's go out to eat first and let's just talk about it.’”

“Would I have really quit?” Kratz now questions. “I don't know, but sitting there having that meal with him I realized I still like baseball. I realized I still loved playing. I realized that maybe I was getting the shaft, but it was maybe an opportunity for me to learn something else.”

So Kratz labored on – even when his wife was back home in labor. Erik and Sarah are now raising young boys and an infant daughter. Brayden and Ethan were born during a four-year stretch when Kratz yo-yoed between three states and four minor league cities in the Toronto organization. He was now your typical minor-league lifer with presumably no big-league potential and finally on Nov. 3, 2008, he was released.

In early 2009, Kratz was picked up by the Pirates. He was slated to play for Double-A Altoona, but an opening came at Triple-A Indianapolis and Kratz was off to the races. He earned all-star honors twice with the Indy Indians and was named MVP of the 2009 mid-summer showcase, but nothing topped a phone call he received from the Pirates in the fourth inning of the 2010 Triple-A All-Star Game. He was heading to “The Show.”

Kratz had two hits and an RBI in his debut, but after nine games and 34 at-bats he was shipped back to the minors and released at season’s end. Six days later, he signed with his hometown Phillies and appeared in two games as a September call-up in 2011.

“Looking back on it, I couldn't have handled somebody telling me you're going to spend eight years in the minor leagues before you get up to the big leagues and then they're going to release you and then you're going to sign with your boy-hood idolized team and you're not going to make that team until awhile down the road and you're going to do well, and it's like wait, what?” Kratz explained. “You couldn't handle that. You wouldn't be able to make it through those tough times and so those tough times put us where we are.”

Last season, Kratz bounced between Triple-A Lehigh Valley and the Phillies five times. Patience appears to have paid off. Filling in for an injured Brian Schneider, he got off to a hot start; his first three hits were homers, and he belted eight home runs and hit .290 before some September struggles. Now with starting catcher Carlos Ruiz facing a 25-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse program, Kratz is likely to get the nod on opening day.

“To say I believe it, I don't because baseball has calloused me to that kind of thing,” Kratz said. “I've never made a big league opening day roster. Now you're talking about 1 p.m. on April 1, I'm going to see my name on the lineup card? That's a whole new spectrum.”

Kratz has felt heartache before. Having suited up for 11 teams in the last 11 years will do that to you, but his passion and persistence are real. He has no false hopes and seems quite content to serve as a backup to Ruiz when he returns. He just wants some stability in his life. The day after last season ended, Erik and Sarah welcomed a daughter, Avery, into the world. His bumpy baseball ride has given him plenty of perspective.

“Baseball's fun, but it's not who I am, it's what I do,” he explained. “Who I am is a father, hopefully a good role model for them, other kids and who I am is not dictated by what I do.”

I’ve met many athletes in the past two decades covering sports. Erik Kratz is different – refreshingly different. I’m supposed to be unbiased covering Philadelphia sports teams, but I admit I’m rooting for Erik Kratz. It’s just too hard not to.

Reporter Gregg Murphy and producer Neal Slotkin spent a day with Erik Kratz and his family in his hometown of Telford, Pa., in January.  A 30-minute show documenting Kratz’s journey to the majors aired as an episode of Phillies Focus on Comcast SportsNet in mid-February.