At the other end of the awards spectrum from where Ronald Acuna and his Rookie of the Year plaque reside, there you’ll find Brian Snitker, the overnight sensation 40 years in the making.
This baseball awards season the Braves certainly had it all covered, from the 20-year-old Acuna to the 63-year-old Snitker, with a trove of Gold Gloves in between. From the first blush of a phenom to the long overdue reward for a lifetime of mostly thankless service, the stories from the Braves’ 90-win 2017 already are a treasured collection.
You would think all this achievement might add up to something meaningful in Octobers to come, spinning forward. Especially if a few of these postseason awards start going to Braves who throw the ball as well as those who hit and catch. The new National League Manager of the Year seems optimistic: “I kind of feel like the best is yet to come,” Snitker said Tuesday night, as he was accepting his award.
“Everything we went through (in 2018) is going to do nothing but feed us into a good spot going into the 2019 season,” he said.
How could you ever tire of the story of the Braves lifer, bounced around and scapegoated – recycled as he put it, just about as much as the plot of “A Star is Born – who rises most unexpectedly to Manager of the Year?
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What’s more endearing that the story of the common man who does uncommon things? Things, Snitker said Tuesday night, “you dream about but you don’t think happen to guys like me.”
When the last demotion came – he was cast off from coaching third base for the major league team to manage Triple-A Gwinnett in 2014 – Snitker “thought the window had closed, and I was OK with it.
“I was proud of everything I’d done, the effort, the job that I had done for our organization.”
He had been with the Braves since 1977, when as a minor league catcher, he never sipped coffee in the majors. In 1981, Hank Aaron, then overseeing the team’s minor leagues, lured him into coaching a Single-A outfit in Anderson, S.C. He would survive 11 different minor league postings at all levels, and three different stints with the big club. Baseball’s kind of big on the concept of three-strikes-and-you’re-out. So, naturally, the baseball guy saw his window closed.
And, yet, another door opened. He was rushed to the front as interim manager when Fredi Gonzalez was fired in May 2016, with the Braves a 9-28 mess. Funny thing happened. The temp worker at the top just wouldn’t trip up. The players loved playing for him. He had this way of keeping everyone’s oars in the water. Come a new GM and a bunch of fancy new metrics in 2018, the old dog adapted. He put the rookie Acuna at leadoff last season and watched as the Braves feasted off that energy at the top. A 90-loss team the three seasons earlier decided it would win 90 this year; and win a division by eight games.
“When you look at what people thought of the team coming into the season – the youth, the inexperience, the (low) expectations – we had our ups and downs,” that new GM, Alex Anthopoulos, said. “The way he kept it all together, he really managed.
“It’s not just from 7:30 to 10: 30 (game time). There’s a lot more to that job. There were personalities and egos and and things we’re bringing – a lot that goes on, and he kept it all together. And he did it with a smile on his face.”
As expected, given his regular-guy approach, Snitker couldn’t get the attention off himself quickly enough Tuesday night.
“While I’m honored and blessed to have the award, it’s an organization award. It’s all about what we’ve done as an organization, a combination of a lot of hard work.”
When asked if he could come up with one or two highlights from this year, darn if Snitker didn’t get around to mentioning every starter at every position, the bullpen and four of the starters.
Of his players, he said, “I’m all about those guys. They’re the ones who make it fun to come to the ballpark, they’re why I’m here.”
He gave all due credit to those who ushered him through the decades of baseball, those who taught him how to run a team, most notably former Braves manager Bobby Cox. Appropriately, Cox was right there nearby when Snitker learned he had won Manager of the Year. “He’s raised me in this game. I’ve been raised by Hall of Famers,” Snitker said.
Somewhere, packed away in a box from his last move, are the last two manager of the year awards Snitker had won. Both when he was with Single-A Myrtle Beach, in 1999 and 2000.
“There were some really good memories in those,” he said. “I remember when I got those, I felt the same way as now – I’m doing this because of the players.”
Between Toronto and the Braves, Cox has four Manager of the Year awards of the major league variety. The 63-year-old Snitker was asked if he’d like to try to catch his mentor. Just three more, and it only took better than 35 years on the bench to win his first.
“I’d like to try,” he laughed. “I hope I have that opportunity to do that. ... If you’re getting these that means things are happening the way you want them to happen. Your organization is growing, your players are progressing, you’re doing all things right.”
Snitker has a Kansas bird-hunting trip coming up, but his mind is already on Florida. “Get a couple more good nights of sleep and I’m ready for spring training,” he said.
“I’m going to go as long as I can.”