Pirates' Kratz: From masonry to the majors

Journeyman catcher, family live a dream with first day at PNC

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Could Erik Kratz have lost hope, even if no one would have blamed him?


Could he have been a career minor-league catcher at age 30, and his two sons -- Brayden, 3, and Ethan, 18 months -- would have loved him just the same?


Could Kratz's college sweetheart, Sarah, their nine-year anniversary on its way in December, never had seen him in the Pirates' dugout Friday night and felt the same way about that big guy with the eternal smile?

No question.

But this isn't a tale of a near-miss.

This is a study in perseverance and resolve, of determination and grit.

"There are only a few things we can control," Kratz said. "And that's how we treat other people and how hard we work at what we are trying to accomplish."

Kratz did not play Friday, but his arrival in Pittsburgh brought the culimination of his career after bouncing around the minor leagues for nine seasons.

Every player who started for the Pirates against the Houston Astros was younger than Kratz. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, more than six years younger than Kratz, was wearing the Pirates' jersey for the 196th time while Kratz pulled it over his head for the very first time.

"It's a good story," manager John Russell said. "He's worked really hard to get here, a lot of years to get here. ... It doesn't matter if you are 21 or 30, the opportunity to play in the major leagues is what you play for."

It all came to be for Kratz after catcher Jason Jaramillo was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis in what amounted to a flip-flopping of catchers, forcing Kratz, who was hitting .296 (56 for 189) with nine home runs and 37 RBIs, up to the big club.

Kratz, who is from eastern Pennsylvania and played the first seven seasons of his career in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, was notified of his call-up Wednesday at the Class AAA All-Star Game in which he was playing.

In a live television interview soon thereafter, the soft-spoken, 6-foot-4, 255-pound Kratz who went to a Mennonite high school and college, began to choke up a bit.

Standing in the Pirates dugout Friday during batting practice, Kratz still seemed a bit confounded by all that had happened to him the past 48 hours.

So did his wife, as she stood in the concourse of PNC Park behind section 114 during the game last night, after driving across Pennsylvania in the morning -- with the two kids in the car -- to get here in time for the game. The family had been in Allentown for that Class AAA All-Star game.

"It has all been such a blur, it really has," Sarah Kratz said. "We are taking this one day at a time, it is God's plan for us. I just can't tell you how much I admire and respect my husband for never getting negative about things and for always staying so positive."

She isn't the only one.

Kratz -- who many of the younger Pirates played with in Indianapolis either this season or last -- commanded an immediate respect in the clubhouse.

"Kratzy is very deserving of the opportunity, he's a guy you have to feel good for, you just have to," said Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who played with Kratz in Indianapolis and is almost seven years younger than him. "He's a hard worker, a resilient guy. He's a great human being and a family person, and people like that truly deserve an opportunity like this. I can't find a better person who is more deserving of an opportunity like this."

Especially because of all Kratz did -- and not just on the field. In every winter offseason but this past one, Kratz worked construction where he and his family have settled, in Harrisonburg, Va.

"Home construction, framing, remodeling a little bit, masonry," he said of his seasonal labor. "Anything 40 hours a week that was putting food on our plates."

Such a job helped supplement Kratz's minor league income, in a sport where most minor leaguers never see their pay leap above five figures for a season.

Now though, with the Pirates, Kratz will make substantially more -- a prorated salary of the major league minimum of $400,000.

That, though, wasn't what was on Sarah Kratz's mind.

"To see my husband in that major league uniform right now, I just can't explain it," she said softly, her voice trailing off as emotions rose. "Even if this is the only game, even if it is just one game, Erik can say he was a major-leaguer."

She then paused for a moment before finishing: "He did it."

Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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