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“I was smoking a lot of pot,” he recalls. “I knew I was talented. I knew a lot of people were rooting for me. I just didn’t want people to think I was a mess-up, basically. I was scared. … I was afraid of being looked at as a failure.”

His mother checked him into rehab, where he tackled some of his demons but not his longing for the meaning of life. He gave baseball another try, attending a junior college in Oklahoma, but his heart wasn’t in it. He hurt his knee and was redshirted, then left school midway through the next season.

It was time to go wandering.

He would drop everything and leave on a dime whenever he felt the urge. There was the visit to his sister in Colorado, where he found “the most intense peace I’ve ever felt in my life,” then felt it slip away. There was the time he drove one of his spiritual advisers to the airport, told her that he wished he could jump on the plane, too, then did just that a couple of days later _ even though it was Christmastime.

“I was like, `Sorry, folks, I’ve got to go.’ I just had to go.”

Some may view Gattis as selfish.

He sees it as something that was absolutely necessary to becoming a whole person.

Through a different prism, it even sounds courageous, the sort of self-discovery that most of us long for but never have the guts to actually follow through on.

“Some people find out that stuff when they’re 50,” he says. “Then they say, `… I forgot to live.’ So at least I got that out of me when I was young. People say in meditation groups, `You can find it out when you’re 25 or you can find it out later in life.’”

He finally found what he was looking for in California, where yet another spiritual mentor cracked a code that is still hard to understand.

“He kind of cleared up anything I had going on,” Gattis remembers. “I don’t know how to put it in words. I was just done looking for whatever it was I was looking for. I was done with it. It cleared up in kind of a final way where, without a shadow of a doubt, I just knew I didn’t have to do that anymore.”

Even at an age when most people are done with college, Gattis learned he was still eligible to play ball. In 2010, he enrolled at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. After batting over .400, he was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round.

An unorthodox prospect approaching his mid-20s, Gattis was hardly put on a fast-track to the majors, but he kept winning over the brass with his impressive hitting numbers. He batted .322 with 22 homers in the South Atlantic League. Last season, he split time between three minor-league teams and hit a cumulative .305 with 18 homers.

This year, he was invited to his first big-league camp _ albeit as a non-roster player. A catcher by trade, he’s now getting work in left field, trying to improve his versatility and maybe earn a spot on the team that heads north.

“He’s never been handed anything,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says. “Sometimes _ myself included _ we give too much to our kids and they don’t earn it. But this young man has earned everything he’s gotten so far.”

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