Gattis a barehanded throwback at the plate
Braves rookie catcher one of the few to eschew batting gloves
ATLANTA -- So there I was talking to all 6-foot-4, 240 pounds of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, and he couldn't say enough about somebody who is exactly the same height and nearly the same weight.
Still, to hear Howard tell it, there is a difference between himself and most of his peers when compared to the growing legend that is the third-string rookie catcher of the Atlanta Braves.
"Oh, man. Gattis is ox strong," Howard said. "He's that guy. He's a gamer who just seems like he's going to go out there and gut it out every night. To me -- watching him play in Spring Training and now during the season -- it could be snowing, it could be 20 degrees, and Gattis is that guy who would be out there with short sleeves."
And no batting gloves, of course. This column is about batting gloves, because Gattis doesn't wear them. He never has.
Not in Little League, not in high school back home in Dallas, not during his stint with the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, not after three years in the Braves' Minor League system. Not even this week in Atlanta, where Gattis made his Major League debut on Wednesday night at Turner Field against the Phillies.
The night was raw, with chilly temperatures and a nagging rain. It was enough to make hitters not named Gattis … wear batting gloves.
"My mom says I sort of lost them [when I was growing up], but I don't think that's true," said Gattis, 26, with only a hint of a smile as he sat at his locker in the home clubhouse at Turner Field. "I just never liked batting gloves. I've always liked the way the bat feels."
Whatever works. Despite Wednesday night's ugly conditions, the glove-less Gattis continued his torrid offensive stretch from Spring Training with a homer against Phillies veteran Roy Halladay. It was his first Major League hit in his second Major League at-bat. The ball barely cleared the left-field wall as a television reporter did a live interview with his parents in the stands -- which only figured.
There are so many unique angles to the Gattis story. They range from his nearly four years out of baseball working odd jobs, to his explosive power in the Venezuelan League leading to his nickname of El Oso Blanco (The White Bear), to his recovery from drug issues.
As for the batting-glove thing, Gattis is a rarity. In fact, with the retirements of Moises Alou and Jorge Posada five and two years ago, respectively, and with Vladimir Guerrero preparing to play for the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic League, there are no prominent hitters in the Major Leagues without batting gloves.
Not long ago, it was the opposite.
Thirty-nine years ago this month, Hank Aaron was "sitting on 714," as former Braves announcer Milo Hamilton said at the time. Then Aaron roared by Babe Ruth with a shot into the left-field bullpen at old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium along the way to 755 career home runs.
You know where I'm going. Aaron didn't wear batting gloves that night, and he didn't during his career. Neither did Willie Stargell nor Roberto Clemente, because they preferred using only skin to wood at the plate with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Harmon Killebrew? Please. I won't even insult you by mentioning sluggers of yore such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle and Frank Howard.
Then there were the two Willies -- Mays and McCovey, both teammates racing toward Cooperstown for the San Francisco Giants.
Despite starting in the glove-less tradition of the late 1950s, McCovey wore them down the stretch of his career, but Mays mostly stayed away.
"Even when I first started, you didn't see a lot of gloves, but we eventually got into it, because the weather was so cold in San Francisco," said Phillies announcer Gary Matthews, who began his 16-year career in the Major Leagues in 1972 with the Giants of Mays and McCovey. "It was a grip factor for us, which is why you used a little pine tar [on the glove], and you also used the gloves to take the sting out. But you could get your hands tough enough where you didn't need to use gloves."
Take Gattis, for instance. Imagine wrapping your fingers around a brick and squeezing until it hurts.
That's shaking hands with this guy.
Here's the strangest thing about Gattis, though: While growing up, his favorite player was Albert Belle, and he also was a fan of Ken Griffey Jr. Not only did both players wear batting gloves, they wore two of them, which caused Gattis to nod and say, "Yeah, they did, but Albert is the only guy I ever tried to copy his stance from. And Griffey. I just loved Griffey, because he had that sweet swing, man.
"I also loved Guerrero, and he didn't wear batting gloves."
Anyway, inquiring minds wish to know: When a hitter goes without batting gloves, what is his strategy for controlling the bat?
"Yeah, well. Sometimes I pick up some dirt and a little resin, and I might use some tar," Gattis said. "I actually don't like it if [my hands are] too sticky, because my skin will stick [to the bat]."
Surely there is more.
Baseball players are superstitious. So surely Gattis puts the same amount of dirt, resin and pine tar on his hands every time he stands in the dugout, around the on-deck circle or at the plate.
Surely he rubs that mixture on a section of his palm or fingers before continuing in a specific order elsewhere.
"Nah," Gattis said without expression.
I mean, what? You expect a guy without batting gloves to giggle like crazy all the time?