By JOE McFARLAND
“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
Christopher Reeve might not have been thinking about baseball when he was dreaming up this quote. But it might help explain why some of the headlines around Major League Baseball speak about Erik Kratz as being the “hero we need.”
For the better part of 17 years, Kratz has lived out of a suitcase. His resume reads as a case study for being a journeyman: a total of 25 teams including seven teams in nine MLB seasons. The catcher has done everything it’s taken to stay in the majors, including pitching on occasion.
So it comes as no surprise that Kratz’s story garnered attention when he became the backstop of choice for the Milwaukee Brewers as they embarked on their 2018 playoff run. The unlikely star came up with big hits for the Brewers, hitting .292 in his playoff debut.
The stories went much deeper though. As his squad pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to a seventh-and-deciding game in the National League Championship Series, more storylines around the smiley veteran emerged.
From a high-profile bet as a Houston Astro…
Heard a classic story about the highly respected and greatly appreciated Erik Kratz today: When the Astros went through Opening Day intros in 2016, an Astro offered $1,000 to anybody who would do a face plant. Kratz: I'll do it. And this is what followed: pic.twitter.com/jDzct3iMWj
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 19, 2018
To buddies showing up in all of his old jerseys like the National Hockey League’s “Travelling Jagrs”…
Erik Kratz's college buddies surprised him at the game tonight 💙💛
They're all wearing jerseys from throughout Kratz's career! pic.twitter.com/02vdlCTEwi
— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) October 20, 2018
Kratz’s name was quickly elevated to folk hero status in Milwaukee and across the baseball world.
As it turns out, Kratz also represents the last of an Alberta era. He is the final former member of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays to still be playing professional baseball.
FIRST STOP: GAS CITY
It’s not like Kratz wasn’t productive early in his baseball career. He was named the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year twice in three seasons at Eastern Mennonite University. But it didn’t have scouts clamouring.
Maybe it was the feeling that he was the big fish in a little pond that had teams turning the other cheek. The Toronto Blue Jays finally took a shot on him, drafting him in the 29th round of the June 2002 Draft.
Before he knew it, Kratz found himself on the road to the club’s Pioneer League affiliate – the Medicine Hat Blue Jays.
He didn’t disappoint, belting a home run in his first pro at-bat against Billings on June 20th. We went on to hit a respectable .275 with four home runs and 11 runs batted in 44 games for the Baby Jays.
“It didn’t matter where you were,” Kratz said in a 2010 MiLB article. “You were playing pro ball. But now, well, looking back on Medicine Hat, it was quite an adventure.”
What stood out most coming north of the border?
“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,” Kratz laughed in that interview. “But when you’re in it, you’re like, ‘This is what pro ball is.’ You kind of roll with it.”
REFLECTIONS OF THE SKIP
Even Kratz admits that early on, it was his catching he needed to work on. He knew he could swing the bat, but running the game from behind the plate was another issue.
The fact that he was able to turn it around to become a big leaguer isn’t lost on his first pro manager.
“He always worked hard and tried to out-work everyone,” Rolando Pino told Alberta Dugout Stories. “He was always there on a mission, at the park early and he was always the last one to leave.”
Pino, who managed Kratz and the Hat Jays to a 37-38 record in 2002, was quick to offer praise for his former pupil.
“I always told the kids to keep their uniforms on for as long as possible because you never know who is watching you in the stands, especially in mid-June with all the scouts out,” Pino recalled. “You just never know what could happen, so wear a uniform until someone doesn’t want you, and man, he (Kratz) is a guy like that.”
Calling Kratz a “tremendous person and worker,” Pino gives him a lot of credit for keeping his nose clean and never giving up on the dream.
Involved in his own World Series run as Coordinator of Latin American Scouting with the Boston Red Sox, Pino also had a good laugh thinking about who Kratz was splitting time with behind the plate in Medicine Hat: current Brewers bullpen catcher Robinzon Diaz.
“He could always hit and didn’t swing-and-miss much,” Pino remembered. “That’s one of the reasons he made it to the big leagues.”
For the trivia junkies out there: why does the name Robinzon Diaz ring a bell? He was the player Toronto traded to acquire Jose Bautista.
TIP OF THE ‘HAT
Pino’s name will forever be etched in Baby Jays history as he won the Pioneer League’s Manager of the Year in his first stint in 1998. He returned in 2002, the club’s final year in Medicine Hat.
READ MORE: Blue Jays Fly Away From Medicine Hat
But he claims the community had an equally great impact on him as a manager and as a person simply involved in the game.
“I always liked how all the families brought the players into their houses,” he said of the billets. “Taking one or two or sometimes three, taking care of them, cooking for them. That was the first time I had ever experienced that in all my years.”
Pino’s focus is now on the World Series, which starts Tuesday. It will also have some Medicine Hat Blue Jays flavour. The Red Sox have Tim Hyers (1990) as hitting coach while Chris Woodward (1995) is calling the shots as third base coach for the Dodgers.
As for the final Medicine Hat alumni still suiting up as a player in the big leagues, we will have to wait until next year to see where the now 38-year-old Kratz ends up.
"Everybody is themselves, but everybody is a Brewer."@ErikKratz31 on what made this @Brewers team so special and what made this ride so memorable for him: pic.twitter.com/TSsdBQzc7d
— Stephen Watson (@WISN_Watson) October 21, 2018
It’s certainly something we will be keeping an eye on as he represents the end of an Alberta era.
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