THE GREAT Jim Valvano is known for the tremendous upset run his North Carolina State Wolfpack made to capture the NCAA championship in 1983. But his most enduring legacy will be the words he uttered while he was fighting against cancer: "Don't give up, don't ever give up."
I am often asked to give graduation speeches, and I deliver the same message - if you have a dream, go for it. Don't give up if you can't reach your goal right away.
That advice worked well for me. Many people forget that I had two crushing election defeats in 1986 for governor and in 1987 for mayor. The media and most political experts thought my career was over, that I could never win an election again. In fact, in 1989, a column in this paper derided me as a stone-cold loser. I never stopped believing that I could win again, and that I could help turn the city around, but it was tough and there were many times that I thought about giving up. I didn't and, as they say, the rest is history.
The same experience is often shared by athletes. Many face long uphill battles to realize their dream and, sadly, most don't. They never make it to the big show in the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL. But more than a few do. Danny Green, for example, who just recently set the NBA playoff record for most three-pointers in an NBA Finals for the San Antonio Spurs, was cut by the Cavaliers and Spurs. Kurt Warner, who was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV after leading the Rams to the NFL championship, went undrafted in the 1994 NFL draft and played in the Arena Football League for 3 years before he signed with the Rams. I bet there were many times when both of these accomplished pros thought about giving up.
The Phillies' own Erik Kratz may be an even better example of persistence and believing in oneself against all odds. Kratz went to high school in Lansdale and played his college ball at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. In 2002, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the 29th round. He spent 6 years in the Jays' system, and despite compiling good stats, was never called up to the show. In 2008 with Triple A Syracuse, Kratz led the team in home runs after his first 100 at-bats, but was sent down to Double A and told the team wanted to give a younger prospect playing time. He also was told that he wasn't going to be re-signed, and when he wasn't, he became a minor league free agent, despite hitting 16 homers in only 247 ABs that season in Double A and Triple A.
He didn't give up, though, and signed with the Pirates. In 2 years with the Bucs, he finally made it to the show - for a total of nine games! Once again, he became a free agent. But, again, he didn't give up.
The Phillies signed him, and, in 2011, he spent the year as an IronPig, playing only two games in the majors.
I asked Erik, who is currently rehabbing from a left knee injury in Florida, if during that time he ever thought about packing it in. He told me that he did several times, and that he and his wife talked about moving on. But he didn't give up.
I asked him whether he began to doubt that he could play at the major league level, to which he replied, "You can't stay in the minors that long without believing you can play in the big leagues."
Kratz was right, and in 2012 he got his chance to prove it. Despite starting the season at Lehigh Valley and going up to the Phillies and being sent back down five times, he hit nine home runs in only 141 at-bats and threw out 15 of 33 runners trying to steal. When Carlos Ruiz was suspended to begin this season, Erik became our starting catcher and performed well again before hurting his knee in early June. Throughout 2012 and the first half of this year, he had 17 HRs and 48 RBI in only 281 at-bats. If we extrapolate his numbers out as if he started 130 games, he would get around 480 at-bats, and, at his current pace, he would hit 29 HRs with 82 RBI - All-Star numbers!
Whatever happens during the remainder of the season, the Phils will have to make big decisions on many key players during free agency. If the dollars don't add up and it's not reasonable to re-sign Chooch, I think the team could install Kratz as the starter. I know Tommy Joseph is supposedly our catcher of the future, but if he continues to struggle in the minors, and Erik plays the way I think he can and the way the numbers suggest he might, the future may have to wait a few years.
Erik Kratz, who never stopped believing and who never gave up, has already realized one dream. Let's hope that if he gets the chance to play every day, he might be able to help us fans realize one, too!