Erik Kratz's long journey to Phillies finally starting to pay off

Erik Kratz bumps his fists together five times after every homer. He's done it nine times this year. RON CORTES / Staff
Erik Kratz bumps his fists together five times after every homer. He's done it nine times this year. RON CORTES / Staff
Posted: September 08, 2012

Eleven days ago, Erik Kratz pointed his white, 1998 Honda Accord toward Harrisonburg, Va., and started the 270-mile drive home. "It's still a good ride," Kratz said of the car, which has taken him about 190,000 miles to and from obscurity.

He thought about his wife, who is expecting the couple's third child in October. He thought about how he would spend the day away from baseball. He thought about how grateful he was, and then it hit him.

"I drove down some familiar roads," Kratz said. "I'm getting close to the house, and . . . it's normally the drive I make at the end of August or beginning of September. I've been disappointed on that drive quite a few times."

He paused.

"Now," Kratz said, "it was a different drive. It was definitely a different drive."

This is what validation feels like.

Erik Kratz rounded third base Wednesday, and a smattering of Phillies fans cheered at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. The 6-foot-4 catcher high-fived John Mayberry Jr. He locked arms with Domonic Brown. Then, after homering for the ninth time in 38 games, he looked skyward.

He bumped his two fists together five times - once for God, once for his wife, once for his 5-year-old son, once for his 3-year-old son, and once more for his unborn daughter.

Kratz has no idea when he started his subtle tribute. "It just happened," he said. Who, or what, is he staring at when he does it?

"Usually," Kratz said, "I would look up at the radio station, because that's the only way they can hear or see the game."

Everyone can see Kratz now. Earlier this season, at Chase Utley's charity event in Philadelphia, a fan posed with another Phillies player and asked Kratz to take the photo. Last month, at Jimmy Rollins' charity event, people wanted to see Kratz.

In a season turned sour, Phillies fans have embraced Kratz's story. It's impossible not to; the journeyman catcher has mashed an extra-base hit in 14.2 percent of his plate appearances. That is the highest ratio for any major-league player with at least 120 plate appearances.

Only Ted Williams (1953) and Mike Jacobs (2005) have finished seasons with more extra-base hits in fewer times at bat.

"If he keeps hitting home runs," manager Charlie Manuel said, "he might be Babe Ruth."

"He's shown he deserves to, and can, play at this level," Roy Halladay said.

"He's Thor," Kevin Frandsen said.

Careers are not made in 38-game sample sizes. Kratz has started 12 of the Phillies' last 15 games, and his superhuman numbers have leveled somewhat as the strain increases.

He is 32 years old and a veteran of 2,559 at-bats in 766 minor-league games over 11 seasons. Perspective, Kratz says, is paramount.

"There's no point where I'm like, 'See, I showed you!' That's not how I was raised," he said. "That's not how I think people should go about their business. Just as easily as I've gotten called up here, am I a better player now than I was at the end of last season? Or am I a better player now than I was halfway through this year? I choose to believe I'm not a better player but that I'm continuing to improve."

Rob Roeschley does not coach baseball anymore. He resigned from Eastern Mennonite University in 2005 after 12 seasons at the Harrisonburg school with an enrollment of about 1,500 students. Roeschley started there as a residence director, ascended to head coach in two years, and employed assistants "making hardly enough to pay for their gas money."

Typically, 20 players from Division III schools are selected in Major League Baseball's annual draft. Eastern Mennonite recently completed its 44th season of baseball. Kratz, the 866th player selected in 2002, is the school's lone draft pick and owns 21 school records.

"Guys go to college and still have the dream," Roeschley said. "Reality sets in for most sometime along the way."

Roeschley still drives through Eastern Mennonite's campus every morning en route to his job in real estate. Every summer - except for the time Kratz spent in Medicine Hat, Alberta - Roeschley makes a trip to see Kratz play. He watched Kratz at Nationals Park in August. The Kratzes and Roeschleys attend the same church in Harrisonburg, where Erik met his wife, Sarah, and settled down.

The first time Roeschley saw Kratz, he was not looking for him. The coach was scouting a pitcher from Christopher Dock High in Lansdale. Kratz was a junior there, had been catching for maybe a year, and impressed him.

"I remember coming back," Roeschley said, "and telling my assistant coaches, 'Christopher Dock has a real good catcher, but we would probably never get him with all the Division II schools in Pennsylvania.' "

There were no offers for Kratz, who grew up in Telford, Montgomery County. He made the decision to attend his church's school. Kratz, a devout Mennonite, says religion allows for perspective.

"Baseball is important," Kratz said. "Is it the most important thing? Family is awesome to me. I remember when I had my first kid, I felt like I saw the world completely different. I felt like I had never worn contacts before and it's like, 'Whoa.' "

Kratz will pack the white, 1998 Honda Accord shortly after the Phillies end their disappointing season Oct. 3. There will be panic and excitement for his third child's birth. He will be guaranteed nothing, although the Phillies retain his pre-arbitration rights and are likely to renew his contract near the 2013 major-league minimum of $490,000.

He will make the drive to Harrisonburg later than ever.

"I've been disappointed at the end of seasons where I haven't gotten called up and I thought I should be the guy," Kratz said. "You question yourself as a baseball player, and you question what you're putting your family through. People are sending you condolences. Parents call. They say, 'We're still supporting you.' All that stuff. 'We're still behind you.' My wife is trying to be supportive, but she knows it's disappointing."

He pauses again. This is what validation feels like.

"So at the end of this season," Kratz said, "it's maybe going to want me to come back more."


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @magelb.

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