Family comes first for Blue Jays catcher Kratz

Photo: Michelle Prata

TORONTO — The Kratzes are a tight-knit family. The kind that travels everywhere together, no matter where dad’s job as a professional baseball player takes him. So when Erik Kratz got an unexpected last-minute call up to the Toronto Blue Jays in late March, everyone packed up, hit the road and moved into the Renaissance Hotel at Rogers Centre.

In one room there was Erik along with his wife, Sarah, and their 18-month-old daughter, Avery. In another there was Sarah’s mother and Ethan, the couple’s five-year-old son. And in a third room there were Erik’s parents and the third of his children, seven-year-old son Brayden, sleeping on a pullout couch. The entire clan lived in the hotel for the first two days of Erik’s time in Toronto, while Sarah tried to find somewhere more livable, a considerable challenge seeing as the Kratzes lacked a Canadian bank account and would have to wait weeks for an American cheque to clear with a rental company.

While Erik was with the Blue Jays on Saturday afternoon, Sarah was finally able to get her hands on a cheque, care of Mike Bonanno, a Canadian at Erik’s agency. That allowed the Kratz family to move out of the hotel and into a more spacious 27th floor condo overlooking Lake Ontario, a short walk from Rogers Centre. “There was a lot of time spent with three young kids in a pretty tight space,” Kratz said Tuesday night as he leaned on a bat in the Blue Jays dugout, looking much more rested than he did on the weekend. “I was about to pull out the one hair I have left in my head.”

Such is life for a professional baseball player on the fringes of the major league roster. Having spent the first decade of his career in the minors, playing everywhere from Medicine Hat to New Hampshire, Kratz has an idea of how this works. Today you play baseball in one city; tomorrow you could be playing in another. It’s not exactly how you dream it as a kid, but it’s the reality you face if you want to live that dream.

After all, it was just two weeks ago that Kratz was looking for places to rent in Buffalo. The Blue Jays traded for the 33-year-old in December and staged a spring training competition between Kratz and Josh Thole for the club’s backup catcher job, which comes with the added responsibility of being behind the plate for knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s starts. It’s hard to quantify who did a better job working with Dickey, but Kratz had a much better spring offensively, going 10-for-25 with two doubles and two homers while Thole went 7-for-27 with just one extra base hit, a double. Most figured Kratz had won the competition easily.

But at the end of camp Kratz was called into the manager’s office where he was told he was being optioned to triple-A Buffalo. Kratz argued his case, asking why the team had bothered trading for him if he wasn’t going to be given a chance in the majors. He demanded to know what else he had to do to earn a job.

“It was really frustrating in that moment, because you want answers. You want them to have a good reason not to be taking you north,” Kratz says. “If I wasn’t good enough, I can take it. I just want to know that. Because I want to work to get better. Just tell me what it is. Tell me what I’m not doing well enough and then the ball’s in my court to work on that.”

Of course, being overlooked by Toronto brass was an unfortunately familiar feeling for the Pennsylvanian backstop. Kratz spent seven years in the Blue Jays system after the club drafted him as a 22-year-old in the 29th round of the 2002 draft out of Eastern Mennonite University (unsurprisingly, Kratz is the only player to ever be drafted from the school). He reached triple-A when he was 26 but a major league call-up never came his way and he wound up working construction jobs during the offseason, doing everything from general contract work to brick and block masonry to make ends meet. “I was never a priority. I was minor league depth. I wasn’t important,” Kratz says. “And that’s fine. My career took a different path.”

Kratz left the Blue Jays organization in 2009 to join the Pirates where he found regular playing time with the triple-A Indianapolis Indians and began to fulfill his potential, batting .273 with 30 doubles and 11 homers in 93 games. In 2010 the 30-year-old finally reached the majors and played nine games for the Pirates. He joined the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 2011 and hit .288/.372/.466 at triple-A Lehigh Valley before returning to the majors halfway into the 2012 season. He stayed there through 2013 as a backup catcher, even serving as the Phillies starter while incumbent Carlos Ruiz sat out with a 25-game suspension to start the year.

That’s what made his demotion by the Blue Jays so tough to take. Kratz had spent ten years working to make it as a major leaguer and just as he thought he had finally found his niche, he was being pushed back a step.

But things change quickly in this game and just four days after Kratz was told he didn’t made the roster, he was called back into that same office to be informed that, actually, he was on the team. Closer Casey Janssen was headed to the disabled list and the club wanted to fill his roster spot with a powerful right-handed bat off the bench. So, Kratz stopped looking for apartments in Buffalo and joined the team in Tampa where he made his debut with the Blue Jays 12 years after they drafted him. He entered the season opener as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning to face 2012 Cy Young award winner David Price, a pitcher he’d never faced before in his life. He swung at the first pitch he saw and sent it 424 feet over the wall in dead centre.

That, one would assume, must have been an awfully validating feeling. But Kratz is such a salt of the earth kind of guy, hardened to his core by the precariousness of this game, that he doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t like when people go ‘oh yeah, I showed you.’ If you’re going out there to prove other people wrong, you’re never going to succeed,” Kratz says. “You have to be grateful for every opportunity you get in this game. I just felt fortunate to get a ball out over the plate that I was able to drive. Nothing more than that.”

The man does not feel conceit, because the man does not know any other way. Raised in a Mennonite community in small town Pennsylvania, Kratz learned the value of hard work before playing baseball professionally was even a consideration. Neither of Kratz’s parents went to college—his father was a butcher, his mother stayed at home until the kids grew up and then took a job as a secretary. When he was in high school, Kratz manned a meat stand at a local farmers market on weekends, selling his father’s products to help support the family. When he made the Phillies he lent his name to Godshall’s Quality Meats—a company his father co-owns—appearing in three commercials for turkey bacon that became legendary among Phillies fans.

Everything Kratz has done, on the baseball diamond and off of it, has been for his family. It’s why he’s in the cage shortly after lunch for early batting practice; it’s why he brings his kids to as many of his games as he can; its why he bumps his fists together five times after every home run, once for God, once for his wife and once for each of his children. In Kratz’s life, there is nothing more important. And after 12 years in the game, the man is fairly confident he can handle the baseball part as it comes to him.

“All I know is right now I’m in the big leagues,” Kratz says, looking out over the Rogers Centre outfield at the hotel he and his family lived in for his first days in Toronto. “Today, I’m here. Tomorrow, who knows? Day after that, maybe I’m somewhere else. I’m used to it. But for now, I’m here. That’s all that matters.”

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