The trouble with being able to do everything on a baseball field is that you can fall into the trap of believing you’re allowed to do anything you want. Ronald Acuna, the greatest talent east of Trout, blurred his lines Sunday. He didn’t run hard — or, for a few fateful seconds, run at all — when he should have.
Brian Snitker, a baseball lifer without ever being a big-league player, reminded Acuna of his professional obligations by benching him. Snitker didn’t pull Acuna from the bases, but he didn’t wait long. He did it between innings.
Twenty-one years earlier, a different Braves manager pulled a different center fielder in mid-inning. The Braves were facing the Cubs. The teams would meet in Round 1 of the playoffs, the Braves sweeping. On this Tuesday night in July, Kerry Wood outpitched Greg Maddux. That matchup was why a crowd of 47,993 gathered at Turner Field, but nobody went home talking about Wood or Maddux.
Lance Johnson led off the eighth with a soft single to center off John Rocker. It was the kind of ball Andruw Jones would catch 100 times of 100. This time, alas, he didn’t move. (“I lost my concentration,” he told us afterward.) The next movement from a Brave was by Gerald Williams, bursting from the dugout to go play center field. Jones pointed to his chest: “Me?” Yes, you.
We pause to note that Bobby Cox wasn’t the only one who’d noted Jones’ absence of effort. The Turner Field crowd booed when Johnson’s ball went untended, and we also note that this might have been the worst game of a splendid career.
Jones dallied at second base on Ozzie Guillen’s third-inning single and ran through Bobby Dews’ stop sign to be thrown out at home. He took a called third strike with the bases loaded in the fourth. He whiffed in the seventh and made no attempt to run to first when catcher Scott Servais fumbled the third strike. Now this.
Jones walked to the far end of the dugout, the one where Cox wasn’t. Cox gestured toward the steps leading to the clubhouse. They had their meeting there. Cox was asked what he said. “A lot,” was his response. He was asked what Jones said. “Not much.”
Then: “You’ve got to respect the game. He did not try for the ball. … He’s only 21. I have to remember that, I guess. But I didn’t act that way when I was 21, and neither did Willie Mays or Hank Aaron.”
Then: “Either go home or play. Mistakes (of commission) are nothing. But it’s a mistake not to try.”
Apologies for this ancient history, but it seems germane. As noted, Jones was 21 on the night of his benching. He was having a shining season. That 106-win team included four future Hall of Famers — Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and C. Jones — plus Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez. A. Jones led it in WAR (7.4).
Acuna is 21. He leads a team on pace to win 95 games in WAR (5.2 with six weeks to go). He was benched by a manager who’s 63. Jones was disciplined by a manager who was 56.
This isn’t, however, about demographics. A manager is charged with getting the best from his players. On two demonstrable occasions, a hugely talented player hadn’t given his best. Left uncorrected, it would have sent a bad message to his teammates (“How does he get away with that?”) but also to the player (“Guess I really can get away with anything”).
Lest anyone think that Snitker has it in for Acuna, we remind you of the manager’s reaction when the Marlins’ Jose Urena plunked Acuna, then on one of his lead-off-with-a-home-run jags, with the first pitch of the first inning last August. Snitker got ejected for his remonstrations. Afterward he was near tears.
Snitker that night: “He’s my kid. I’m going to protect him.”
Then: “I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that in a baseball game. That was just my emotion. That kid didn’t deserve that.”
Then: “I couldn’t care if they left me in the game, threw me out. I’m just thinking this young kid got hit, and it was obviously intentional. Like I say, he’s one of mine.”
Then: “There was just no reason for a young man to be hit like that when all he’s doing is just playing the game. He’s not doing anything to show anybody up. He’s playing the game.”
Then: “He’s a young, talented kid. That’s a shame that that happened. What happens if they hit him here and it breaks his elbow and he’s done for the year? And what we’re trying to accomplish here, and where we’re at – there’s no reason for that. Heck, this is a game. My God. I had three hours to calm down and now I’m getting worked up.”
There can be no doubting that this manager has a player’s best interests at heart, same as Cox did with A. Jones. (On the night after his benching, Jones started in center field. Went 0-for-5, but he started.) A guy can get away with admiring a home run and even flipping the bat so long as it’s a home run, but the ball Acuna hit Sunday wasn’t. It struck the top of the right-field wall and became the loudest single he’ll ever hit. Acuna failing to reach second base cost his team, just as Max Fried not scoring from second on that same hit cost it.
Difference is, Fried is a pitcher. Acuna is a real player, a great one. He should know better. Pretty sure he does now.
And if you’re wondering how Jones and Cox got along after that Tuesday night in 1998, the answer is, “Famously.” When the great skipper suffered a stroke in April, Jones tweeted: “Please pray for my second dad #BobbyCox.”
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