By Mike Barber, Daily News-Record
EMU alum Erik Kratz has been named an All-Star in his first season in the Pittsburgh farm system.
After seven years in the minor leagues, it would be easy to give up on the dream of playing major league baseball. For Erik Kratz – thanks, in part, to an understanding family – that hasn’t happened.
“Obviously, when you get drafted, you don’t say, ‘Man, I hope in seven years I’ll still be in the minor leagues,”‘ Kratz said Sunday by phone from Toledo, Ohio, where his Indianapolis Indians Triple-A team was preparing to play the Toledo Mudhens. “Everybody is looking to make the big leagues as soon as possible.”
“Soon” is a relative term, but Kratz at least is headed in the right direction. Read Erik’s roster and stats page with the Indians
July 15 AAA All-Star Game
The former Eastern Mennonite University standout is hitting .273 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 59 games for the Indians, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm club, and has earned a spot in the Class AAA All-Star Game, which pits the top players in the International League against those from the Pacific Coast League. The game is scheduled for Wednesday in Portland, Ore., and will be televised on ESPN2 (10 p.m. EST).
Kratz, a catcher, was selected in the 29th round of the 2002 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. He played in their system for six years, being assigned to teams in eight different cities. (While at EMU, Kratz set numerous school, conference and national records. He still holds the D-III mark for doubles in a career with 75.)
Life on the road
His wife Sarah – whom he met and married while at EMU – doesn’t mind the frequent moves, he said, and his eldest son – 2-year-old Brayden – seems to enjoy the games. In the offseason, the family lives in Harrisonburg, where – in a reminder of the difference between the minors and majors – Kratz works construction.
Kratz’s journey through the minors has included plenty of teams, but just two organizations. After six years in the Blue Jays’ system, Kratz became a minor-league free agent and – eager to stay in baseball – signed with the Pirates.
“I didn’t have a lot of job opportunities,” Kratz said. “It ended up being a place where they invited me to big-league camp and I felt like there could be an opportunity here. It was a fresh new start.”
A favorite of fans
Kratz got his big break with the Pirates this year when starting major league catcher Ryan Doumit went down with a fracture in his right wrist just 12 games into the season. AAA catcher Robinzon Diaz got the call to replace Doumit on the big-league club, making Kratz the AAA team’s starting catcher.
Obviously, the move has worked – and people have noticed. Participants in the Triple-A All-Star Game were voted on by fans, managers and media.
“I’m extremely excited about it,” said Kratz, who will be playing in his first professional all-star event. “It’s definitely an honor. I feel like I’ve had a pretty good season. For them to vote me in, it feels good. It’s almost some reassurance.”
For a while, anyway.
When Kratz gets back from the showcase – he flies to meet his teammates in Pawtucket, R.I., on Thursday – he’ll be thrust back into baseball uncertainty.
The Pirates activated Doumit on Friday and sent Diaz back down to Indianapolis. That could mean less playing time for Kratz or even a demotion to AA. Of course, since he’s played well enough to make the All-Star Game, he might earn a more equitable split with Diaz.
“What this means, I have no idea,” Kratz said. “Will I have the same amount of playing time? Most likely not. But, hopefully, my play has offered me the ability to still have a job and still get some playing time.”
At 29 and with his second son – Ethan – now just over 5 months old, Kratz is constantly balancing his love of the game with his love of being a family man. Sarah and the kids share an apartment with him in Indianapolis during the season; then they all move back to Harrisonburg in the offseason.
Half of the 144 games AAA teams play are on the road. Sarah will make the trip to Portland for Wednesday’s All-Star Game while grandparents watch the boys.
“I’d be lying if I said we never thought about giving it up,” the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Kratz, a Telford, Pa., native, said. “Even if I was in the big leagues, it would be tough because it’s away from family.”
A record breaker
At EMU, Kratz was the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002. As a senior, he set single-season school records with 72 hits, 48 runs, 25 doubles, 14 home runs, 59 RBIs and a .507 batting average, among other marks.
He is EMU’s all-time leader in career hits (220), home runs (33), doubles (77), RBIs (159), runs (147), batting average (.415), slugging percentage (.762) and total bases (404).
Despite that prowess at the plate in college, Kratz said his strength as a pro are his defensive skills and ability to call a strong game.
“I understand that I’m not 22 years old, I’m not a young, as they say, prospect,” Kratz said. “But there’s definitely a need for catchers in the game.”
Although he said he’s paid well as a minor leaguer, Kratz earns a baseball paycheck for only five months a year. In the offseason, when he returns to Harrisonburg, he works construction for friends’ companies and gives private baseball lessons in Broadway. Teaching baseball is something he said he might consider doing more of, when his playing days are over.
But in the middle of his best season as a professional, and with the support of his family, Kratz isn’t walking away just yet.
“One thing you have to remember in baseball, there’s no such thing as long-term plans,” Kratz said. “Nothing is guaranteed. Until you get a contract that’s a multi-year deal in the big leagues, nothing is guaranteed. It could be tomorrow’s my last day. It could be 10 years from now. The priority for us is our family.”