Willie Mays was hitting .477 for the Minneapolis Millers when the New York Giants summoned to the majors. He began his big-league career 1-for-26. (The hit was a home run off Warren Spahn that cleared the roof of Boston’s Braves Field. According to Mays biographer Mary Kay Linge, Giants manager Leo Durocher said, “I’ve never seen a ball leave the park so fast in my life” – although Leo the Lip preceded every noun with an adjective NSFW.)
His batting average at .039, Mays wept at his locker and begged Durocher to send him down. “As long as I’m the manager of the Giants,” Durocher said, apparently eschewing his favorite word, “you’re my center fielder.”
This is not to suggest that Ronald Acuna Jr. will be the next Willie Howard Mays. Of the all-time best position players, Mays ranks among the top five. (The others: Ruth, Bonds, Cobb, Aaron.) As of this moment, Acuna hasn’t taken a big-league at-bat. That will change tonight in Cincinnati. Maybe he’ll hit a home run with his first swing. (Hey, Jason Heyward did.) Maybe he’ll go 1-for-26 and some among us will be wondering what the fuss was about. But it would take an awful lot for the Braves, who delayed Acuna’s arrival for contractual reasons, to send him down. He’s the future.
Dansby Swanson was the No. 1 player drafted in 2015, albeit not by the Braves, but he’s not the talent Acuna is. Neither is Ozzie Albies, who’ll be an All-Star very soon. For this franchise, the only two recent antecedents are Heyward, who became a very good big-league player if never quite a great one; Andruw Jones, who became the best center fielder of his era, and Chipper Jones, who’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame three months from now.
True story: The first time John Coppolella, then the Braves’ general manager, mentioned Acuna to me – this was in October 2015, when the 17-year-old was coming off his first professional season – he asked that I not write about him. “I don’t want other people to find out about him yet,” he said. Too late, alas. By the next spring, a goodly buzz had attached itself. Come 2017, when Acuna was going from Single-A to Double-A to Gwinnett in a summer, the buzz had become a roar.
He makes his debut, as you know, as the No. 1 prospect in baseball. That he struggled early at Gwinnett this year can be traced to a lot of things – disappointment at not making the big-league roster after tearing up spring training, the nine-day layoff after being sent to the minors and the start of the Triple-A season, a burning desire to prove himself yet again by swinging for the fences on every pitch. But he started to hit for the Stripers, and he’ll hit for the Braves.
Maybe not a home run every time up. (That’d be a record.) Maybe not tonight or this next week. But he’ll hit, and he’ll run fast and he’ll catch a lot of balls. If you haven’t seen him yet, you should. He’s really, really good.
At such a time, it’s fashionable for us professional journalists to harrumph, “Don’t expect too much too soon.” For me to say such a thing would be the height of hypocrisy. I expect a lot from Acuna, and I expect it now. If anyone among the Braves suggests otherwise, that person is being … er, less than candid.
This is not just another call-up. For this club, this is the biggest since Heyward, and here were that man’s rookie numbers – 18 homers, 72 RBIs, a .277 batting average, an .849 OPS and a 6.4 WAR. (Oh, and he made the All-Star team.)
I can’t guarantee that Acuna will do that well as a rookie. (This is baseball. There are no guarantees.) I’d be surprised if he doesn’t come close. I know many of you are excited today, and I’ll do nothing to temper that. Heck, I’m excited myself.