By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The year was 2002.
Toronto Blue Jays evaluators Chip Lawrence and Bill Byckowski had finished watching, along with a host of others, B. J. Upton, a high schooler play for Greenbrier Christian Academy on an April Saturday morning tournament game in Chesapeake, Va.
Upton went second overall to the Tampa Bay Rays, behind Bryan Bullington, who was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Rays choice grew up to be known as Melvin Upton, Jr. in 2014 and played the final season of his 12-year career with the Jays in 2016.
But back to that day in the spring of 2002 ...
Lawrence, the area scout, and Byckowski, the cross-checker, were booked for another high school game that night, so after the morning game Byckowski asked “What now?”
Lawrence answered, “Well, there is this college catcher I wouldn’t mind you taking a look at. I like him, like him a lot. Let’s go over to Eastern Mennonite.”
Where? College or high school?
Off the pair went on a 45-minute drive to see the Eastern Mennonite University Royals in Harrisonburg, Va. an NCAA Division III school.
Byckowski liked what he saw in Erik Kratz too.
Yes, that would be the same Erik Kratz, who played 34 games for the 2014 Blue Jays and last week went 5-for-8, with a pair of doubles, to help the Milwaukee Brewers sweep the Colorado Rockies to advance to the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday.
“The day we saw him, he hit monster shots in batting practice, had a good infield throwing to the bases and hit a double his first time up,” Byckowski said. “I liked him. I thought that this guy could go out and help us at Medicine Hat.”
And then the pair moved on to the final game of their tripleheader day.
Kratz is the oldest player to make his postseason debut since 1905, when Lave Cross, 39, played third base for the Philadelphia A’s. He had been on postseason rosters before: With the Phillies in 2013 and last year with the Yankees. Both times he did not make the travel roster. He was with the 2015 Royals and had a chance to get in the game -- if Sal Perez reached base, KC would have used a pinch runner. The opportunity never came.
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Pre-draft: In 2002, the Jays scouting director was Chris Buckley. Now, he holds the same position for the Cincinnati Reds. Buckley recalls asking Lawrence and other scouts, on a pre-draft conference call:
“Name a couple of your best gut feel guys ... guys who were not expected to go real high, but players under the radar that he liked.”
Lawrence named Kratz.
Buckley did not see Kratz play but he trusted Lawrence.
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The EMU season: Eastern Mennonite went 29-13 in the spring of 2002, Kratz’s final spring at school. The EMU Royals -- as I am sure you knew -- played the Bridgewater College Eagles, Guillwood College Quakers, University of Lynchburg Hornets, Washington and Lee University Generals, Randolph-Macon College Yellow Jackets, Emory and Henry Wasps, the Roanoke College Maroons, Virginia Wesleyan University Marlins and the Hampton-Sydney College Tigers.
Not knowing then he would go on to play against the real Tigers or the real Marlins, Kratz knocked down some fences hitting .507 with 25 doubles, 14 homers and 59 RBIs. He had 72 hits, slugged .993, had an on-base mark of .585 and a 1.578 OPS.
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Draft day in the war room: Not every scout is invited to the war room. As Blue Jays architect Bobby Mattick used to say “We need people in the field to go sign these guys before the colleges sweet talk them.” Other Mattick’s criteria to qualify for an invite was a good pair of eyes able to project and not being afraid to express an opinion. Mattick and most scouting directors did not like fence sitters.
Byckowski could never be accused of that. Byckowski liked Kratz and pushed for the Jays to select him.
Buckley: “He comes to me in the ninth round ... ‘What about Kratz?’ I replied, ‘Bill you don’t have to take a guy in the ninth round when very few scouts have ever heard of his school.’”
Byckowski, who is relentless as umpires will tell you, said: “Chris kept saying we can get this guy any time. There’s no rush.”
Buckley: “Now, it is about the 14th round. Bill is pushing Kratz again. I tell him we don’t have to draft a guy who goes to a school most never veteran scouts have never heard of ... it’s not like he’s going to Florida State.”
Luckily for Buckley and the Jays, Kratz was still there in the 29th round and the Jays selected him. In those days the draft consisted of 50 rounds. Buckley estimates there were 750-800 names remaining on the board.
How was the 29th round for talent that year? Well, OF Steve Baker, from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., went ahead of Kratz and RP Timothy Didjurgis, a high schooler from Tucson was selected after him.
Baker was selected by the San Diego Padres -- where Lawrence now works as a cross checker -- and peaked at double-A Mobile in 2006. Three years later Didjurgis was chosen in the 31st by the Los Angeles Angels from Regis University. He pitched two seasons going 0-7 with the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2006.
The only other 29th rounder, besides Kratz, who made the majors was LHP Alex Hinshaw, who appeared in 90 games with the San Francisco Giants, who drafted him, the Padres and the Chicago Cubs.
Kratz, a senior with little leverage, was given a $5,000 US bonus the way Byckowski remembers. All Kratz wanted was a chance to play.
He is still playing.
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Minor-league life: Kratz, as Buckley said, “Hung around forever.” He signed days after the draft and was shipped to rookie-class Medicine Hat, where he suited up with future major leaguers Robinzon Diaz, eventually the Jays catcher of the future, dealt for Jose Bautista, Jason Perry, Jordan De Jong and Davis Romero.
The next year, he spent the majority of the season with the class-A Auburn Doubledays uniform, along with Aaron Hill, Ryan Roberts, Eugenio Velez, Josh Banks, Dewon Day, Justin James and Jamie Vermilyea.
In 2004, he was at double-A New Hampshire for four games, class-A Dunedin for 15 and Auburn for 10.
Then, in 2005 he was with New Hampshire for 91 games as the No. 1 catcher, along with Kevin Barker, Anthony Sanders and Curtis Thigpen. He was back the next year with Adam (“You’re my favourite”) Lind, Tim Olson, Jesse Litsch, David Purcey, Ricky Romero and Brian Wolfe. He also was at triple-A Syracuse -- one thumb injury from the majors -- for 12 games.
In 2007, he was at Syracuse for 35 games and New Hampshire for 49. Then, in 2008 he had 40 games at Syracuse and 33 at New Hampshire.
He spent parts of five seasons in Manchester, N.H. and three seasons in upstate New York at Syracuse.
With Gustavo Molina, Jhonatan Solano, Brian Jeroloman and Al Quintana set to catch at the Jays top two levels in 2009, the Jays released Kratz.
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Pack your bags: In all, Kratz was involved in 16 transactions
_ Being released nine times: by the Jays in 2008, by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009, by the Kansas City Royals, the Seattle Mariners and the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015, the Houston Astros and the Blue Jays in 2016, and the New York Yankees in 2017.
_ Claimed on waivers by the Boston Red Sox from Kansas City in 2015.
_ Had his contract sold twice: from the Los Angeles Angels to the Pirates in 2016 and from the Indians to the Yankees in 2017.
_ And he was traded four times from Philadelphia, with Rob Rasmussen, to Toronto for Brad Lincoln 2013, the next year with Liam Hendriks to KC for Danny Valencia, by the San Diego Padres to the Astros for Dan Straily and on May 25 from the Yankees to the Brewers for Wendell Rijo.
“What kind of makeup does he have to hang around that long?” Buckley asked. “He’s married with three kids ... it’s not an easy life.”
At 38 years, 114 days old, Kratz was the second-oldest catcher in postseason history with three hits in a game, 213 days younger than Bob Boone in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS for Anaheim against the Boston Red Sox.
“Erik has a great intangible, he kept getting better and better at what front offices are now looking for,” Buckley said. “He’s good at what people put a lot of stock in now. He’s one of the better pitch framers in the game. We used to hear about ERA for pitchers. What’s his ERA? Now the question is what is his ERA with Kratz catching? What is his ERA with Chris Buckley catching and so on.”
Kratz is very solid receiver/framer, according to one NL executive whose team reach post-season play saying “It’s a small sample, but he was top half in framing this year.”
Kratz has played parts of nine seasons but had four years and 26 days service time entering this season.
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Buckley has two catchers still alive: Yasmani Grandal is with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was drafted 12th overall in 2010.
Grandal was dealt by the Reds with Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger and Edinson Volquez to San Diego for Mat Latos. Reds GM Walt Jocetty sent Volquez and three former Reds first rounders to San Diego in 2011.
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Following Kratz: You can see the daily transactions in the newspaper, team by team. Buckley never has to worry where Kratz lands next. Byckowski will text his boss: “Kratz is with the Astros,” or “Kratz is with the Pirates,” or “Kratz is now with the Yankees.”
“This guy never goes away, he must be the most well liked guy in baseball,” Byckowski said. “Teams keep around.”
“In fairness Bill Byckowski and Chip Lawrence deserve all the credit for the Jays drafting Erik Kratz,” Buckley said.
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Comparisons: Buckley likened Kratz to Pat Borders.
“Pat had a better career but when Team USA went into those international competitions against Cuba or against Greg Hamilton’s Canada team, we wanted to win,” Buckley said. “We might have had young pitchers but we always tried to have a lot experience behind the plate.”
Borders won an Olympic gold medal with the Team USA at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Kratz was the oldest player with the US entry at the 2010 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, also a World Cup qualifier. Pan Am teams were composed of pro players not on the 40-man rosters. The USA went 9-1 thanks to arms like Chris Archer, Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, position players Mike Trout, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas ... and Kratz.
“Guiding that team was a good sign, by the time Pat Borders was with Team USA he had two World Series,” Buckley said.
Byckowski compared Kratz to former Ontario Blue Jay infielder Peter Orr (Richmond Hill, Ont.).
“Braves coaches loved him, a lot of times in the low minors he was the 25th guy on a roster, Peter was talented and versatile, but every coach he ever had loved him, coaches fought in meetings to have him on their teams,” said Byckowski, who said Reds farmhand Morgan Lofstrom (Kelowna, BC), a Langley Blaze grad and a 20th round pick of the Reds in 2013, reminds him of Kratz.
“Morgan will be the Sunday afternoon catcher, the Tuesday catcher, he gets sent to triple-A and back down to class-A,” Byckowski said. “His coaches all love him. The pitchers love him.”
Orr played parts of eight seasons with the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies and the Braves. He now scouts for Milwaukee after being hired by former Brewer Taylor Green (Comox, BC).
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Final wishes: Buckley, who lives in the Tampa area, said he has been told good things about Kratz by baseball people who say: “Down the road he’s going to be a big league manager. He’s a lot like (Tampa Bay Rays) manager) Kevin Cash.”
Byckowski: “I want to meet him. He’s such a good story. I’ve never met him but I know that he’s a good guy or he wouldn’t be around this long. And that’s a fact.”
Buckley: “I’ve never met him, but I hope he wins the World Series.”