Before he was Evan Gattis, power-hitting catcher for the Atlanta Braves, he was "Evan From Heaven," a sweet, modest young man with a sincere passion for spiritual exploration.
That's the nickname Jeannie Zandi, a poet and self-described "spiritual warrior," used to describe the hulking, 6-foot-4 Gattis back in those days when he would attend her meditations while living at a youth hostel in Taos, N.M.
Gattis was looking for internal answers long before the Braves began employing him as their answer to Brian McCann's injury. And Zandi is certainly pleased that Gattis, whose five April homers have only added to the allure of his odyssey, appears to have found the inner peace he was searching for when they first crossed paths in 2008.
"Sometimes folks with that sort of quest need to ask the questions and do the searching and take it to the end, where it burns itself out," Zandi wrote in an e-mail. "Then the questions fade and you find yourself in your life, more at peace with who and how you are. I think in his quest he found that simplicity of being, and he's where he belongs."
Does he belong in the heart of the Braves' order, even after McCann makes it back from the shoulder strain that has sidelined him?
We'll leave that one up to the Braves, who could have a difficult decision on their hands if the bare-handed Gattis keeps coming up with big blasts, like the one he hit on Stephen Strasburg's 96-mph, neck-high fastball earlier this month.
For now, much of the intrigue surrounding the 26-year-old Gattis revolves around his past as much as his present or future. Because whether or not he sticks at this level over the long haul (opposing pitchers have certainly adjusted to him in recent days), the fact that Gattis got here at all after abandoning the game for his spiritual quest and a series of odd jobs that included janitor, ski-lift operator and valet is amazing enough.
"I think he's lying," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez joked. "I don't think he did any of that stuff."
Oh, but he did, and he did it by giving up the game that had come so naturally to him.
"I think [my past] has made me appreciate [being in the big leagues] more," Gattis said. "It's hard not to."
Gattis was 19 when he first pulled the plug on his baseball career. By that point, he had already been passed over in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft after posting standout numbers in high school in the Dallas area. Gatti had already reneged on a decision to attend Texas A&M because of what he describes as a "fear of failure" as well as a fear of failing a drug test, and he had already done 30 days of in-patient drug rehab and three months of outpatient treatment.
Though he was given a chance to revive his baseball pursuit with Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma, Gattis battled a knee injury and depression during the year or so he spent there. He walked away from the game and went off the grid.
Gattis' first job post-baseball was as a valet in downtown Dallas.
"Drove some pretty sweet cars," he said. "Drove some old Ferraris."
The next stop on Gattis' voyage of discovery was Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado, where he got a job as a lift operator and lived in an apartment building loaded with 20-somethings. He describes it as a good time in his life, living on his own for the first time and earning his keep. And though the job wasn't quite like what some might think (Gonzalez joked that he could imagine the muscle-bound Gattis physically pulling on the cables of a broken-down lift to save stranded skiers), it was enjoyable.
"You had to make sure the chair didn't hit people in the butt or, if a little kid doesn't get off the lift, you've got to stop the lift," Gattis said. "Stuff like that. People fall and you get to watch them wipe out. I liked it because it was easy. I was getting paid and didn't have to do anything, and I got to ski all the time."
But Gattis couldn't seem to stand still. He ventured back home and got a job with his brother, Chase, as a janitor in an office building at a Plano, Texas, meter reading company. His Jan-Pro cleaning systems I.D. badge now serves as his Twitter avatar.
"Our boss was like 78 or something," Gattis said. "He just didn't want to die. He said to us, 'If I quit working, I'm going to die.' So he didn't care what we did. So we'd just go in there and do whatever. It was all right."
Then Gattis and his brother started playing regularly at Firewheel Golf Course in nearby Garland, Texas, where Gattis eventually found work as a cart boy.
"We made some friends up there, so we could play for free," Gattis said. "I told Aaron, one of the guys that worked up there, 'Yeah, man, give me a job whenever you can. Some guy didn't show up one day, so I kind of fell into that job."
When he wasn't cleaning carts, Gattis was working toward his associate's degree. But his philosophical pursuit trumped his educational one, and that's why he found himself drawn to spiritual guides like Zandi. After listening to Zandi speak in Dallas one night, Gattis decided to move to Taos, where he thought he could live for free at a youth hostel called the Abominable Snow Mansion.
"There was a miscommunication," Gattis said. "I thought I was living there for free but ended up having to work there. I ended up working eight hours a week on weekends, cleaning up the place, and I got another ski-lift job."
The only difficulty was commuting to work. Gattis had a car, you see, but he didn't have the keys to the car. He had to hitchhike the 15 miles back and forth from the ski resort every day.
"I lost my keys for a couple months," he said. "Then the snow melted and I found them."
If it sounds like Gattis was just making up his life's path as it went along, well, he was. One day in Taos, with his keys back in hand, he suddenly got the urge to just get in the car and drive. So that's what he did. Gattis drove to Flagstaff, Ariz., and stayed at a friend's hostel, then headed to Santa Barbara, Calif., and, finally, to Santa Cruz, where he met another spiritual teacher named John Wheeler and, finally, made the decision to return to baseball. He enrolled at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, wound up getting drafted by the Braves and now serves as arguably the best story in baseball from the first month of the 2013 season.
Indeed, "Evan From Heaven" has come a long way.
"I got the feeling that he was good at baseball, and that's where a good portion of his heart was, but that some personal things inside needed resolving," Zandi said. "He certainly looked like he would be a powerful player, but was overall very modest about his abilities."
Gattis is modest about his story, too.
"I don't think it's all that crazy," he said.
One man's opinion.