Through 30 games, Erik Kratz was hitting .291 with seven home runs, 17 RBI and has thrown out 10 of 21 base stealers, a 47.1 percent clip that exceeds Carlos Ruiz’s 37.2 percent before he got hurt. Photo by Miles Kennedy.

EMU Alum Kratz Hitting Everything But “Rock-Bottom”

Erik Kratz doesn’t like the phrase, “rock-bottom.” He finds it demoralizing – even morbid – and it implies that, as he put it, that he’s been “down and out.” But he’s never truly felt that way. Not even through 10 years of toiling in the minor leagues, often getting told – either through speech or through his lack of movement up the ladder – that he wasn’t good enough. He was still playing baseball, still getting paid – however little – and still had a family waiting for him in Harrisonburg.

But there were plenty of rocky moments. Like 2004, when he was put on the “phantom” disabled list for a season – meaning he was listed as injured even though he was healthy, only to clear roster space. Or the time he was demoted on his birthday. Or the spring training where he and his wife couldn’t pay next month’s rent.

Did he ever think about quitting? “How many times?” he said wryly, while driving to the Phillies’ stadium recently. “I think I’d be an idiot to not have thought about quitting.”

All that makes his first big splash in the majors this year – already made remarkable by his age, 32, and his background as a graduate of Division III Eastern Mennonite University – seem like a fairy tale.

Sure, he’s been called up to the big leagues before – for two weeks in 2010 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and again in 2011 for the Philadelphia Phillies. But he’s never stuck like this. With Philadelphia’s All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz put on the disabled list in July, Kratz has played almost every day and produced at an All-Star level. He has seven home runs in 79 at-bats – that’s a homer every 11.3 ABs – he’s hitting .291 and he’s slugging .646. Of his 23 hits, 14 have been for extra bases.

He’s also thrown out 10 of 21 base stealers – a 47.6-percent clip, far exceeding Ruiz’s 37.2 percent before he got hurt. He’s allowed just one passed ball and has made only one error.

Now, with fellow reserve catcher Brian Schneider joining Ruiz on the DL Friday, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Kratz is, for the first time in his life, an everyday major-league starter.

But after enduring the lifestyle most only know from the Crash Davis character in the movie “Bull Durham” for 10 years, Kratz still doesn’t believe he’s made it. He can’t afford to think that way. No matter how many home runs he hits today, he might get sent down tomorrow.

“If you don’t think that’s possible, then that’s when it’s going to blindside you,” he said. “You can always get sent down, you can always get released, and you can not find another team. That’s something that’s always very real, it’s always in front of me that it could always happen.”

He knows rejection all too well to forget it.

Kratz’s debut in varsity high school baseball was something of an omen.

As a junior – the first year he made the varsity squad at Christopher Dock High School in Lansdale, Pa. – he wasn’t supposed to be an everyday player. But one day, the team’s starting catcher was caught smoking a cigarette during school, resulting in a brief suspension. Kratz started in his place, hit an opposite-field homer in his first at-bat, and became a mainstay at catcher.

An injury opens up playing time, and Kratz fills in admirably…sound familiar?

Still, Kratz never became a hot-shot college prospect. He ended up at EMU because coach Rob Roeschley said he’d play every day there, and there weren’t many other schools interested.

“I matured late,” Kratz said.

When he did mature, he became the best player to ever play at EMU. His senior season (2002), he set single-season school records in nearly every major offensive category: batting average (.507), slugging (.993), on-base (.585), home runs (14), hits (72), RBIs (59) and runs scored (48, tied with Jimmy Pollard).

He is the only EMU athlete to be named the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year in baseball – he won it in 2001 and ’02 – and he led the Royals to two of the best seasons in their 44-year history: 23-16-1 in ’01, 29-13 in ’02. (The .690 winning percentage in ’02 is the school’s all-time best.)
“When I had him at EMU, I remember saying to assistant coaches, ‘If this guy can’t make it, what kind of talent level does it take to actually make it?’” Roeschley said.

After marrying his college sweetheart, Sarah – a graduate of Eastern Mennonite High School and EMU – in his senior year, he was selected in the 29th round of the MLB draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, and a long, tumultuous pro career began.

As you might imagine for a minor-league journeyman, Kratz has plenty of colorful anecdotes. The first, when he received his first professional assignment, reveals just how little Kratz knew about what was about to transpire.

The Rookie League team he was assigned to was listed as “Medicine Hat, AL”. That didn’t make Kratz or his wife very happy – he had no interest in going to Alabama.

“My wife said, ‘Alabama? How are we going to get down to Alabama?’” Kratz recalled.

It turned out he wasn’t going there at all; AL actually stood for Alberta, Canada.

But even when Kratz – who also played for the Valley League’s Harrisonburg Turks and the Rockingham County Baseball League’s Broadway Bruins during his college offseasons – didn’t know minor-league logistics, he could always hit. His first season with Medicine Hat, he hit .275 with four home runs in 44 games. By age 24, he had already been promoted to double-A New Hampshire.

“Twenty-four in double-A, that’s not bad,” Kratz said.

“But,” he added with a laugh, “then it was five years later, and I was 28, still bouncing back and forth in double-A.”

He finally made his MLB debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 30, but hit just .118 over nine games and was sent back down. At that point, Kratz, who had just turned 30, had already spent plenty of time wondering if he’d ever really stick in the majors.

“I always felt like I was good enough to move on to the next level – whatever that level would be,” he said. “But I see a lot of people that think they’re better than the next person, and it’s easy to see that on the outside and be like, ‘Hey, you’re not really better than that person.’ You think to yourself, ‘Could that be? Am I blind to what my real ability is?’”

Now, it certainly doesn’t appear that way.

Kratz’s teammates are beginning to notice the big, red-haired catcher from EMU.

After Roy Halladay pitched to Kratz for the first time Aug. 5, he said to the media of Kratz, “He’s very intelligent. He does a great job of calling a game.”

After Kratz hit his most recent home run Aug. 20 against the Reds, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was asked whether Kratz has become a “building block” for the organization.

“Kratzy’s doing a tremendous job,” Manuel responded. “Kratzy’s showing that not only can he handle big-league pitching, but he can catch and he can throw. And that’s good – that’s tremendous.”

With his big-league success and the praise, Kratz – who spends his offseasons with his wife and two children in Harrisonburg, and eventually with a third child who’s due in a month – still doesn’t feel comfortable saying that he’ll be with a big-league club next season. He said the Phillies’ management hasn’t given him any indication that it will keep him. And with Ruiz and Schneider expected to come off the DL in September, Philadelphia – hardly a contender at 61-67 – will eventually have one catcher too many.

But whether Kratz is released, or whether this is the start of a multi-year major-league career, he’ll be prepared.

“The one thing that I don’t have that I can’t go out and get in a hot second is years and years of experience in the big leagues,” he said. “…I don’t ever feel like I’ve done enough.”

Courtesy Daily News Record, August 27, 2012