* George Kottaras grew up wearing an Etobicoke Rangers uniform and then an Ontario Blue Jays jersey ... and he hopes come September he's wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform. ....
By Alexis Brudnicki
Since spring training, George Kottaras has been with four different organizations and has played in just 33 games for five teams.
The 31-year-old catcher started with the Chicago Cubs, was released just as the regular season was set to begin, signed with the Cleveland Indians and played for the triple-A Columbus Clippers before a call up to the majors in May.
He was designated for assignment and had his contract selected off waivers by the St. Louis Cardinals in July, was released at the end of that month and signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and reported to triple-A Buffalo in early August.
So, which move caught Kottaras off guard the most?
“Everything surprised me, how about that?” he said, laughing. “Each move, each decision made, it’s definitely shocking at first. You don’t want to be put in that situation, but you have to embrace it. If you put yourself down and dig yourself into a hole, it’s hard to get out of it.
“I try to stay positive and I’ve seen a lot of things happen over these last five or six years that I’ve been up in the big leagues. You see it happen to others and it sucks that it happens, but I understand why things happen. So there are a lot of surprises, but it’s how you deal with those surprises.”
In parts of seven years in the majors between the Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, Kansas City Royals, Indians and Cardinals, Kottaras owns a .216/.326/.414 slash line with 32 home runs and 101 RBIs in 718 at-bats. He’s played every role a backstop can, coming off the bench, catching knuckleballers, passing on his wisdom and more, but this year has been the biggest adventure.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster ride,” the Scarborough, Ont.-born catcher said. “A lot of ups and downs and dealing with the obstacles of playing baseball, so I don’t let those things get me down. I understand that it’s part of the game and it’s unfortunate, but whoever I’m playing for at the time, I’m going to give it my all and try and do my best to help the team in any way I can.”
After arranging an apartment in Chicago before the season started – that he never stepped foot in – and with a permanent residence in Arizona, Kottaras opted not to make attempts to settle anywhere else he landed this season.
“I’ve been living in the hotel of whatever city I’ve been in,” he said. “So that’s been kind of easy. I just check in and out. But it’s tough [for example] with my vehicle, I get it shipped from city to city eventually, and a bunch of my stuff is in my truck and you can only pack so much to take with you, especially having catcher’s gear and bats and all sorts of stuff.
“It’s a pain in the butt sometimes, but I just deal with it and you make it happen.”
It’s not easy.
“The difficult part has been definitely getting settled,” Kottaras said. “Just when you think you’re settled in one spot, in regards to having your stuff there or getting to know the guys, [you move].
“Getting to know the guys is the biggest part; you have to build trust. This game is about trusting your guys and I want the pitchers and position players to trust me behind the plate and at the plate. You build that and whatever happened in the past happened in the past, but as far as my playing goes, I’ve been around a lot of great players and I’ve learned a lot.
“If I can help others with little tidbits here and there – we could be talking about anything – and if they get one thing out of it then I’ve done my job. But as far as being able to get settled in one place and getting to know the guys has been really tough.”
Having started the year in the International League with the Columbus Clippers, Kottaras was familiar with some of the players on the Bisons roster before joining the organization. It helped a little bit, but he still has a long way to go.
“There are familiar faces,” Kottaras said. “I played with [Mike] Zagurski in Columbus so that was nice having him here. But you run into people, you see them, and it’s on the other side of the dugout so that’s tough, but I just go with the flow and [make] a little chatter here and there with each guy and watch how they go about things and just go from there.”
And it’s a good thing everyone has their names across their backs more often than not.
“I’m terrible at remembering names,” Kottaras said. “I’m great with faces. This is my fourth team, so you’ve got 25 guys plus staff, so you’re at 35, so I’ve had to learn  names. That’s a lot of names to try to remember quickly. It is what it is. You just try and do your best.”
Excited at the opportunity to join the Toronto Blue Jays, Kottaras quickly becomes the highest Canadian in the organization along with Bisons’ Vancouver-born Mike Nickeas, with Brett Lawrie (Langley, BC) on the disabled list.
Michael Crouse (Port Moody, B.C.) and Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) aren’t far behind in double-A New Hampshire, Marcus Knecht (North York, Ont.) is with the Dunedin Blue Jays, the Lansing Lugnuts have Justin Atkinson (North Surrey, B.C.), as well as injured pitchers Tom Robson (Ladner, B.C.) and Shane Dawson (Drayton Valley, Alta.), the Vancouver Canadians have Andrew Case (St. John, NB) and Mike Reeves (Peterborough, Ont.), while Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) is with the Bluefield Blue Jays, and Nathan DeSouza (Milton, Ont.) and Sean Ratcliffe (Ajax, Ont.) are in the Gulf Coast League.
“First and foremost, I’ve got to do what’s best for my career,” Kottaras said of joining the Jays. “And put myself in a good situation to succeed and help the organization. Secondly, being from Toronto was another factor. My family being up there wasn’t the reason I made the decision but it definitely helped.”
Kottaras chose the Blue Jays over the other offers on the table.
“There were a few other teams interested, all with different situations and different needs,” he said. “Not one stood out more than the other; they all had their specific different needs. So I put it into perspective and went with [Toronto].”
What made him opt to head to Buffalo?
“Opportunity,” Kottaras said. “And being a part of the Blue Jays, they’re in it to make the post-season. I’m not saying I didn’t have offers from other teams that were on the path to making the post-season, but they’re an organization I haven’t been with so I’m always up for new adventures.
“A couple of the other organizations I’ve had some time with, along with playing against or knowing some of the guys, but opportunity was the main decision-maker.”
Before baseball became his career path and Kottaras officially signed with the San Diego Padres out of Connors State Junior College in 2002, he was, of course, a supporter of the Blue Jays. He quickly lost his fandom as he delved deeper into the game, but seeing the team back in the hunt for the playoffs again makes it easy to get excited.
“I was really young when they were back-to-back champs in the early 90s,” Kottaras said. “I was a fan, but at the same time once I got going I understood that it’s business. When I first signed with San Diego and got traded to Boston, that was tough because it was my first team and it felt like they gave up on you. But at the same time, they’re not giving up on you, someone else is interested in you. So you’ve got to look at things in a positive way.
“Watching the Blue Jays playing well right now, it’s been great. I’m going to do whatever I can to help them win.”
-- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis