When Brian Snitker talked publicly for the first time about Charlie Culberson getting hit square in the face by a 90-mph fastball, a rather remarkable thing happened.
In the postgame news conference Saturday in Washington, the Braves manager, a lifelong resident of the tough, callused cult of the dugout, got all choked up. Eyes watered. Throat closed. What words came had to be squeezed through a very fine sieve of emotion.
There’s no crying in baseball, you say. And, truthfully, Snitker doesn’t make a habit of tearing up while he’s in his play clothes. But it was heartening to see that he’ll make an exception now and then.
This was not a defining moment of a season, not something anyone will look back on as a turning point. Not something anybody wants to look back on at all. “I did watch the replay once,” Snitker said Tuesday, when the Braves went back to work at home. “Just saw it in (the office) a little bit ago on a replay and had to turn away.”
But it was a meaningful, instructive moment. Here was visible, visceral proof that there is more to the manager-player dynamic in Atlanta than that of a cold, pragmatic hand moving pieces on a game board. Another reason that these Braves will repeat as division champion lies with the sexagenarian manager who got the job almost by default – wearing the title of an interim in 2016 – and who has kept it by continually connecting with a team on the rebuild and on the rise. Here was another reason to feel good about the story of a Braves lifer who bounced all around the organization before getting his due.
No big deal, the manager says: “With these guys it’s easy to feel that way about them. That collective group in (the clubhouse), we’ve been through a whole lot together in a short period of time.”
Culberson was hit in the seventh inning. Snitker was ejected for vehemently arguing the delayed call that the pitch was a strike. The Braves scored nine runs in the last three innings of that game and beat the Nationals 10-1. To anyone who might ever question the relationship between the Braves manager and his team, first baseman Freddie Freeman suggests you look at that sequence.
“It’s pretty evident how we care about Brian Snitker and how he cares about us. Just go to that game and how we responded to that,” Freeman said.
The 63-year-old Snitker has a son, Troy, a hitting coach with the Houston Astros, who is as old or older than most of the players his father manages. Rather than being a drawback, the age difference has served the Braves well.
“I feel like he has 25 kids, I really do. He treats us all the same way, he views us all as his kids. He’s shown it the last two years,” Freeman said.
“He cares so much about us. I think you see it all the time throughout the year with how he has guys’ backs,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “He’s almost parental to us. He loves us and protects us and obviously wants the best for us and would do anything to make sure he has our backs.
“You can just go play knowing he has your best interests at heart,” Swanson said.
It’s a delicate balance the manager strikes, between the practical need to win and the emotional attachments to his players. In a bottom-line business, make no mistake that Snitker is going to place the team first (and in first, as it so happens).
But the simple fact that he’s capable of showing how sincerely he cares about his guys’ well-being along the way should only make them bust it a little more for the guy perched along the dugout steps. This is not the kind of manager you’d want to disappoint.
Who wouldn’t want to work for a boss like that? How many are lucky enough to say that they do?
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