Now when Brian Snitker shows up for work, he can’t know for certain who he’ll have to manage that day. He has no say in that anymore. That is up to what some swab comes back with after its visit inside a player’s nose.
He’s already had his best guy, Freddie Freeman, fall out with the coronavirus. He’s already had one of his favorite guys, Nick Markakis, take his glove and bat and go home, deciding that this cobbled-together compromise with a pandemic fit him like over-sized clown shoes.
Oh, and this season, just for kicks, let's have the lifelong National League guy pencil in a designated hitter on his lineup card – the one that won't be exchanged now before a game because of the coronavirus precautions.
And won’t the old-school part of Snitker just love the first time he sees an extra inning begin with a runner on second – another wrinkle added just for this season. Manage around that mutation, Snit.
This is a season that will present the 64-year-old Snitker, a Brave since before his general manager was born, with challenges unlike any other he has faced. Challenges he could never have pictured in a hundred fever dreams. And that’s saying a lot for someone who has ridden buses and held the hands of minor leaguers from Sumter to Durham and back.
This is no kind of season for old men. It is not the kind of constantly shifting experience that should suit a manager who has been around long enough to have had all his beliefs turn to bedrock. And yet, from what we know of Snitker, and what we have witnessed in just these first few days of the Braves restart, he is just the man for this job.
Snitker finds himself running a bizarro world July training camp in his empty big-league stadium to prepare for a season that may or may not happen. And that proposed season is 37% of what it normally is, meaning that the cadence of baseball is all off. You start slowly, there just may not be time to work back into contention. That steeplechase of a game is now running the 100 meters.
Snitker has this to say about that: “Somebody said you’re not afforded the luxury of a slow start. I’m like I’ve never managed a year, regardless of where it was, where I wanted to have a slow start. Tell me how to not do that and I’ll be glad to take all suggestions.
“You just got to hope you get off on a good note. I know the urgencies in the games, I’ve heard about all that. That being said, we’re not going to push anybody that we feel isn’t ready for what we have for him. We have to win under the constraint that we still have to get these guys stretched out and build up once the season starts.”
In other words, relax, he’ll handle it.
He has been a scapegoat – demoted from Fredi Gonzalez’s staff at the close of the 2013 season to manage Triple-A Gwinnett.
He has been a stopgap – brought back as interim Braves manager when Gonzalez was let go in mid-2016.
He has been the staunchest company man who’s ever been, a Braves minor league player of no impact who would spend 20 seasons managing down on the farm. As he told me during an interview in his Gwinnett office after suffering that last demotion: “I’m a Brave. You don’t like it, but you handle it. I feel like I’m professional enough that I can’t let that effect the job I was hired to do.”
The takeaway from all that is that Snitker has built a life around adjusting, adapting, overcoming – the exact same qualities that are so imperative now. He is an expert at getting back up after a setback, the Wes Unseld of real-life rebounding.
Another trait that should suit him well now is the same common, decent humanness that made him so popular with his players when he finally got his chance to manage in the majors. He is someone who can be trusted in a time when players are nervous and hold ownership in such contempt. He is, simply, someone you play for, regardless of the circumstances.
One little example of the honesty Snitker brings to the table now: The fact that he thought it important for players who tested positive to agree to go public demonstrated his grasp of life beyond the cloister of the clubhouse. He felt there was an important message to spread – this virus is serious, and all of us, even the most fit among us, are vulnerable. And if he takes it seriously, maybe his players will, too.
As for the playing ball part, everything about the tone he’s trying to set now seems pitch perfect. From the constant message that his team needs to shift quickly into a competitive mindset. To speaking sincerely to his guys about the excitement in simply putting on a uniform again – “get uni-ed up,” as he put it before the Braves simulated game Wednesday. They need to be reminded that joy can be found amid the chaos.
Nothing much has seemed capable of being managed lately. Baseball is no different. This season – if it happens – is going to try every manager in new and creatively weird ways. Come what may, Snitker will deal with it better than most, just as he’s always done.
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