His name was listed 13th among the Major League home run leaders, tied with the likes of Bryce Harper and ahead of Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz before Tuesday night. No team is getting more bang for its buck than the Braves are from Evan Gattis, who is making $490,000 and is worth every penny.

Gattis was batting .269 with 12 homers and 32 RBIs in his first 45 games after taking, well, let’s say a circuitous route to the big leagues. He has 32 RBIs, the same number Albert Pujols had in 56 games. His on-base plus slugging percentage, the most telling batting statistic, was better than that of Mike Trout, Joe Mauer and Buster Posey.

Who in the heck is Evan Gattis?

He’s a 26-year-old rookie whom the Braves threw behind the plate after Brian McCann started the season on the disabled list. He was so productive that he forced the Braves to play him in the outfield when McCann returned. The Braves are trying to figure out how to keep his bat in the lineup.

Now there’s talk he might make McCann, a six-time all-star who is making $12 million in the final year of his contract, expendable after this season. Gattis had hit the dozen homers in just 145 at-bats, best in the big leagues. Twenty-three of his first 39 hits, or nearly 59 percent, were for extra bases.

It’s only part of the story. Gattis’ story is too good to make up, a reminder that fact beats fiction any day. Burned out by baseball and bummed out by life, he quit the game. His lowest of low points came in 2007, when he considered suicide before seeking treatment for depression. He also had a brief stint in drug rehab. He discovered his inner spirit during a four-year hiatus, rediscovered his passion for baseball and gave it another whirl.

“I couldn’t sleep for an entire week, and I knew something was wrong with me. So I got admitted. I was so depressed, all I could think about was killing myself,” Gattis told USA TODAY Sports earlier this season. “I wanted to kill myself for a long time.”

Gattis spent years living a nomadic lifestyle that took him to California, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico in search of inner peace. Forget baseball. He put the game behind him while working as a janitor and ski-lift operator, making pizzas, parking cars and living in hostels.

But he didn’t play a single inning.

If anything, he had become a cautionary tale. He was a high school star in Texas but was passed over in the draft. The disappointment was overwhelming even though he still had a scholarship waiting for him at Texas A&M. Instead, he took the junior college route, suffered a knee injury and walked away from the game, he thought, for good.

The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Gattis was talked into playing again by his stepbrother, himself a college pitcher. In 2009, Gattis played for the University of Texas-Permian, a Division II school, for no other reason than having fun. Ten months later, after batting .403, he was a 23rd-round selection of the Braves.

All he has done since getting drafted is mash. He played three seasons in the minors, never getting higher than Double A, before this year. He made the Braves out of spring training while McCann was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

Hitting without batting gloves, emblematic of his no-nonsense approach, Gattis was named National League rookie of the month for May.

His has been a road worth traveling.

“You have to remember where you came from,” he told The New York Times. “If I had to say something to kids about my experience, it’s don’t let people tell you who you are and don’t be too cautious. Don’t be afraid to fail.”

Great advice.

Open for debate

Bruce Smith ended his career with 200 sacks, the most on record in NFL history and two more than the late Reggie White. Deacon Jones retired before the statistic was kept, but the Rams repeatedly claimed he had 173½ in his career.

Jones died late Monday at age 74. His passing leaves the question: Who was the best defensive end in NFL history? And like most other best-ever questions including players from different eras, it will forever remain open to debate.

For what it’s worth, the Bleacher Report listed White over Jones and Smith among the best. Yahoo! had Smith, White and Jones. USA TODAY had White first and Jones and Smith tied for second.

White had the second-most sacks in history, made 13 Pro Bowls, was twice named Defensive Player of the Year and won a Super Bowl. Jones counted 20 or more sacks three times while playing 14-game seasons. He perfected the head slap (now a penalty) and was the man behind the word “sack,” a statistic that wasn’t kept until 1982.

At the risk of sounding like a homer, Smith was the best in my book. He was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, was named Defensive Player of the Year and reached four Super Bowls. He’s known for his sack total, but he was terrific against the run and the most versatile of the three. He had more forced fumbles (43) and tackles (1,078) than White did.

OK, who was the best player in Bills’ history – Smith, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas or O.J. Simpson? I’ll hang up and listen.

Heat meet their match

Miami is making its third straight trip to the NBA Finals, but let’s not hand the Heat their second straight title just yet. LeBron James might be 50 times better than he was in 2007, or so he said, but San Antonio is deeper, better inside and smarter than Miami.

The Heat have matchup problems against Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, who are playing their best basketball in years. The Spurs are very difficult to defend, particularly when Parker is penetrating the lane. He’s averaging 23 points and seven assists.

Duncan, healthy and rested at age 37, is a major headache for Miami because the Heat don’t have anyone who can guard him in the low post. Chris Bosh has a tendency to disappear against players who are bigger, stronger or more skilled. Duncan has an advantage in all three areas and is among the best passers among big men in the NBA.

If the Spurs can split the first two games in Miami in the 2-3-2 format, which is within reason, they can win the series in five games.


Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, after watching his team lose both games at home to open the conference finals against the Bruins: “We’ve gotten away from our game. We’ve gotten off our game plan. We’ve deviated.”

Stats Inc.

41 – Shots on goal in 14 postseason games for Bruins winger Jaromir Jagr, who was still looking for his first playoff goal.

58 – Shots on goal by the Penguins, who scored one goal in the first two games against Boston in the conference finals.

1,837 – Victories for Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson, second most in Division I history, before he reportedly was given the choice to resign or be fired after 36 seasons.

Quick Hits

• Nobody should be surprised that Hal Steinbrenner admitted being disappointed in Alex Rodriguez. It would have been a shock if Steinbrenner said he was satisfied with A-Rod given his play and off-field distractions during his tenure. If anything, he should be disappointed in himself and Brian Cashman for handing A-Rod a contract extension.

• Who knew Jim Harbaugh is a big fan of Judge Judy? The Niners coach and his father were in the audience for an episode that aired Tuesday. “When you lie in Judge Judy’s courtroom, it’s over,” Harbaugh told the team’s website during the NFL Scouting Combine. “Your credibility is completely lost. You have no chance of winning that case.”

• The NCAA baseball tournament has become must-watch television, but it would be better if Division I players were forced to use wooden bats. The bats they use today have been toned down, making them safer than the titanium models used years ago. At that level, wood bats make for a better game.