David Murphy: At 32, Kratz has arrived

Posted: August 08, 2012

YOU ASK Erik Kratz if he ever thought of giving it up. The 32-year-old catcher chuckles.

"How many times?" he asks.

The most recent time, you say.

He thinks for a moment, then settles on 2009.

He had spent the previous 8 years touring the North America that few people know, towns so anonymous that you struggle to match them to a state (or province). Towns like Medicine Hat (Alberta), Auburn (New York) and Charleston (W.Va.). He had played in New Hampshire, and in Syracuse, and, most recently, Indianapolis, all without a sniff of the major leagues. He was 29 going on 30, with two kids and a wife. His youngest son was born 10 days after he signed a minor league contract with the Pirates. Two weeks later, the Kratz family piled into the car and drove down to Florida for spring training. The Pirates told him they thought he had a future in their organization . . . as a coach.

"I was excited that they wanted to sign me, but I was like, man, that really doesn't sound too promising," he said.

Three years later, Kratz is standing in a near-empty major league clubhouse, a plastic placard bearing his name hanging above a spacious wooden locker. In the big-money world of professional sports, we sometimes forget about the Erik Kratzes, guys who have spent more than a decade chasing a dream, hoping for that chance to prove themselves and provide for their families.

Heading into 2012, Kratz had appeared in 11 major league games. He spent last season in the minors, watching teammate Dane Sardinha get the call whenever the Phillies needed help. The club ended up promoting Kratz in September after rosters expanded. He played in two games and knocked a couple of hits, but the most significant development came in the offseason, when the team let Sardinha walk as a free agent (he failed Baltimore's physical and is not with a team now) and elected to keep Kratz on the 40-man roster for 2012. That made him the likely candidate to fill in whenever injury struck.

"It means a lot," Kratz said. "Obviously, to most fans, it doesn't mean anything, but for me and my family, it means they have some interest in me."

In May and June, the Phillies recalled Kratz five times, optioning him back to the minors after the first four. On June 25, he received another call. This one was for good.

To understand what this season has meant for Kratz, you must understand the pay structure of a minor leaguer. The minimum salary for a player with big-league experience is less than $80,000. In the majors, that minimum salary is $480,000. Every day on the major league roster means about $2,600 in salary. Monday was Kratz's 70th day on the roster. You do the math.

"Even just this year has been amazing," Kratz said. "I've already surpassed everything. Financially, that's awesome."

Next year, it could get more awesome. In addition to his power production at the plate, the Phillies are 5-2 when Kratz starts behind the plate. In addition to developing a rapport with the team's starters, he has thrown out four of eight would-be basestealers.

With 35-year-old Brian Schneider scheduled to become a free agent at the end of the season, the Phillies should look hard at Kratz as their backup catcher for 2013.

"Matter of fact," Charlie Manuel said, "I think Kratz right now can be a good backup catcher."

So why has it taken so long?

"Just how it is sometimes in baseball," Manuel said. "Being in the right place at the right time. Some guys get tested on how much they want it and how willing they are to work. Kratz might be one of those guys."

Asked if he thought this could be Kratz' right place, right time, Manuel nodded.

Three years after he considered walking away, Kratz is making a strong argument for a contract that would guarantee him close to $500,000.

The game, of course, is the most important thing. Kratz's long trek through the minors proves that. But it is fascinating how a lost season can change the trajectory of a life, one person's obstacle becoming another's opportunity.

"Baseball is a game where you evaluate guys every day," Kratz said, "and hopefully what they see is enough to warrant a consideration."

Contact David Murphy at murphyd@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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