The Yankees’ 39-year-old baseball lifer is not done yet
On the morning of what turned out to be the final Grapefruit League game at George M. Steinbrenner Field before our world changed forever, Ken Singleton watched Erik Kratz take batting practice and marveled.
“He played with my son,” Singleton, the popular and venerable YES Network analyst, said of the catcher. “And my son has been retired for a long time.”
Justin Singleton, an outfielder who climbed as high as the Blue Jays’ Triple-A Syracuse team (in 2005 and 2006), last played affiliated ball in ’06, followed by one season in the independent Atlantic League; he and Kratz first played together on the 2003 New Haven Ravens, then the Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate. On the phone, Singleton sounded just like his dad (in words, not as much sound).
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Justin Singleton, 40, who lives in southern New Jersey and works for a paper and supply company, “because personally, I feel like my career was a lifetime ago. Before I had kids. Before I was married, for the most part [he got married in ’07]. To think that [Kratz] is still doing it, it’s hard to fathom.”
Hard to fathom, easy to appreciate. Kratz, who turns 40 in June, is a non-roster, minor league invitee with the Yankees, in his third tour of duty with the organization. He has totaled 316 major league games with nine teams and 1,027 minor league games with seven clubs, not to mention time clocked in the Arizona Fall League and Dominican Winter League. His big-league service time totals five years and 54 days out of 18 professional campaigns.
And he entered this season with a rather unique agenda befitting his rather unique career.
“Winning a World Series is a goal of mine,” Kratz said on March 11 at The George. “The goal of winning a gold medal this year is a goal of mine.”
The latter goal is lost with the Olympics postponed. The Major League Baseball season of course remains indefinitely suspended.
Reached by phone earlier this month, from his Telford, Penn., home, Kratz — who played for Team USA in November as it fell short of clinching an Olympics slot — said he hadn’t spoken with any national team officials. He expressed zero concern about his ambitions, instead addressing the overall state of things: “It’s more than me. It’s more than my opinion of anything. It’s a tough situation, for sure.”
You can’t build a profile like Kratz’s without being selfless.
“People have to like having you around,” said Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns, who acquired Kratz from the Yankees in 2018 and saw him start seven of Milwaukee’s 10 postseason games. Even in most of his Triple-A seasons, he hasn’t been the primary catcher on the roster. “You have to be able to contribute when you’re not playing.”
Justin Singleton recalled Kratz pitching during blowout games — “He had a good knuckleball” — and he in fact has pitched in five big-league games and five minor league games. Added Singleton: “He really does seem like the same guy. Catching is the fastest way to the big leagues, and in his case, it’ll keep you there, too. With all the analytics that go on, his ability to get strikes called and handle a pitching staff is keeping him around even more.”
Asked what keeps him playing, Kratz, who didn’t make his major-league debut until 2010, at age 30, said with a smile, “I can’t give you all the answers. You’ll have to read the book.”
Free of charge, however, he added, “I know what keeps me doing it. I think the whole ‘unique career’ part of it is probably what keeps me doing it. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to play. I think a lot of guys say that, but for me, I know that it’s a gift to play.
“I’ve been very close plenty of times in my career where teams didn’t want me anymore, or there wasn’t an opportunity. Whatever the situation. I can’t get super deep into it without making it long. But it’s something that, I enjoy playing. And every year, my wife and I, we always pray about it to open the door to play.”
This past offseason, the door opened to the Yankees, who let their respected backup Austin Romine go to the Tigers with the intention of installing Kyle Higashioka as Gary Sanchez’s backup. Caddying for the injury-prone Sanchez usually results in considerable playing time — Romine accrued 229 games and 757 plate appearances over the three prior seasons — and as insurance for the Sanchez/Higashioka duo, the Yankees brought in veteran receivers Chris Iannetta and Josh Thole, in addition to Kratz, on non-roster deals. Remember, too, that teams already were set to go with 26-man rosters this season and that count could increase if a condensed schedule becomes reality.
Not that Kratz professes any interest in going there. “I think guys who sign in free agency, minor league free agency especially, if you sit there and say, ‘Well, this guy is injury-prone,’ that’s not even a slippery slope,” he said. “That’s just a terrible way to live.”
He took a similar tact when I tried to talk through how playing in the Olympics would work. He had intended to play in the April qualifier assuming he hadn’t made the Yankees, as Team USA was going to build its club with players not on 40-man rosters. Yet he wasn’t sweating any of the logistics.
“I just think it’s such a cool opportunity to be involved in something,” Kratz said. “If I don’t play in the Olympics, I may never get a medal, but I know maybe, at some point, I put a ripple out there that helped that get accomplished, you feel like you’re a part of something.”
Eventually, even if the opportunities don’t arise until next year, Kratz intends to be a part of something for a third decade. To make his career even more unique, which in turn will elevate the respect he receives by the respected. Shoot, as Stearns said of Kratz, “He was the right fit on our  team, and for that, he’s going to be a guy who’s going to be remembered for a long time in Milwaukee Brewers history.”
Sounds like a pretty great way to live, doesn’t it?
Source : Ken Davidoff Link