Last March, Erik Kratz was in spring training with the New York Yankees catching All-Star pitchers before the pandemic shut down the sport.
Now a little bit over a year later — with Opening Day on Thursday — the former Eastern Mennonite University backstop is teaching the finer points of baseball to young boys not far from his boyhood home about 40 miles north of Philadelphia.
“It has been different but has been a really good different. There is always a lot of uncertainty” in pro baseball, said Kratz, 40, who is married with three children. “There are a lot of things that people don’t see. There is a lot of packing and stuff, and it is no nice not to be missing it.”
After four years of Division III ball at EMU and a pro career that lasted from 2002 to 2020, Kratz is the baseball coach for the middle-school team at Dock Mennonite Academy — which has campuses in Souderton and Lansdale, Penn.
“It is really cool; we have kids who have players who are really good to some who have never played baseball before and are learning the game from the grassroots,” Kratz told the News-Record in a telephone interview. “It is fun for me.”
One of the players on his team is his son Brayden, an eighth-grader who figures to be his shortstop when the team begins games next month.
“He is only 14 so I hope he plays all positions,” Kratz said. “On his travel team, he will probably be the shortstop there. He has caught, he has played third, he has played center field.”
After Kratz retired in November — he told the News-Record after the 2019 season that would be his intention — he spoke with Dock athletic director Tim Ehst about being the varsity baseball coach.
“But I don’t have any kids in high school,” pointed out Kratz, whose main reason for retiring as a player was to spend more time with his family.
For the same reason, he declined to be a varsity assistant since that would also take him away from his wife, Sarah (Troyer) Kratz, and children.
So Kratz asked Ehst about coaching the middle-school team. “For real? That would be great,” said Ehst, according to Kratz.
“We were really excited for him to coach at that level,” Ehst, a former EMU basketball player and 1976 graduate, said Tuesday of Kratz. “He is obviously well over-qualified.”
Kratz has one of the other fathers, Kyle Frank, assisting him and the mother of another player will also lend a hand. “She knows what she is doing and is someone that can help out,” Kratz said of EMU graduate Kara Derstine, one of the best softball players to come out of Dock.
Coaching youth may not be a long-term gig for Kratz, also a veteran of USA Baseball teams. Kratz has “put his name out there” for possible broadcasting jobs in the baseball industry though nothing has panned out.
He has also open to being a coach at the pro level, though he points out the pandemic has seen most Major League clubs cut back on their instructors in player development since there was no minor league season in 2020.
“We are using this year to seek out what is next,” Kratz said. “I think something great will come out of it. I want to make myself available for job opportunities in radio or television. I have talked to some networks, but no one is hiring. It is really about being home and being present; we will see what happens. At this point in my life, it is awesome to be at home. But at some point, I do need to be employed.”
Kratz was drafted out of EMU in the 29th round in 2002 by Toronto. While in college, he played for Waynesboro and Harrisonburg in the Valley Baseball League.
He toiled in the minor leagues before making his Major League debut with Pittsburgh in 2010. Kratz played at least two games in every Major League season for several teams through 2020, with a high of 68 games with his hometown Philadelphia Phillies in 2013.
He ended up playing in 332 Major League games and hitting .209 with 31 homers. Last year, he hit .321 for the Yankees in 28 at-bats over 16 regular-season games.
Kratz was a big part of the Brewers’ playoff success in 2018.
“If you’re 38 years old and still catching,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told USA Today in 2018 about Kratz, “it’s almost assured that you’re a very good receiver of the baseball, you have a very good handle on managing a game, you take fast at knowing hitters.”
Kratz spent part of 2019 with the Giants. “He has a great way about him,” former Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy, who grew up in Northern Virginia and won three World Series titles, told the News-Record that year about Kratz. “He does a great job handling the staff.”
The right-handed hitting catcher also played in 1,027 minor-league games, hitting .259 with 134 homers. He was also used for mop-up duty as a pitcher in the majors seven times.
“Baseball is awesome,” he said. “It is a lot of fun to play, to be able to do all that. But at the beginning of spring training, there was all of the packing up and settling in. There was the enjoyment of spring training but then it was back to work. With two weeks left in spring training, you are packing up again and uncertain where you are going to go.”
Kratz has been watching Major League games on television and stays in touch with some of his former teammates, ribbing them with good-natured texts. “I love watching them,” he said. “I don’t miss it at all.”
So these days, he doesn’t have to worry about calling pitches for veteran and rookie pitchers alike. “I never worried about calling pitches. For me, it was hitting them” that was the problem, he said, with a laugh.