A story of Ronald Acuña Jr.’s love of fatherhood and his MVP season

Braves outfielder has two young sons
Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) celebrates after hitting a solo home run during the Atlanta Braves post season workouts in preparation for the MLB Playoff at Truist Park, Wednesday, October 4, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) celebrates after hitting a solo home run during the Atlanta Braves post season workouts in preparation for the MLB Playoff at Truist Park, Wednesday, October 4, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

One September night in 2020, Ronald Acuña Jr. was at a hospital in New York with his girlfriend, Maria Laborde, as they awaited the birth of their first child. Acuña was trying to stay awake.

It was 1 a.m.

Then 2 a.m.

And 3 a.m.

Then 4 a.m.

And 5 a.m.

The Braves had a day game later, and Acuña eventually fell asleep. Around 10 minutes after he closed his eyes, his son – also named Ronald – was born.

“When the first one was born, it changed my life completely,” Acuña said through interpreter Franco García. “It was a completely, totally new feeling, just being a father and seeing him for the first time.”

On the field, Acuña is a five-tool superstar for the Braves and a face of Venezuelan baseball. He was one of the main reasons the Braves were baseball’s best team in the regular season. He almost certainly will win the National League MVP award for his record-setting season.

Off of it, he’s a father. His kids bring him immense joy. He smiles big when he talks about his sons. His eyes light up. Ronald is now 3 years old, and Jamal is 1 year old.

As much as Acuña loves baseball, it’s clear fatherhood is equally as important.

“It’s something incredible,” he said of being a father. “For me, my kids are everything. Those boys are everything.”

‘I think it just gives me a sense of joy as well’

Ronald and Maria met in Venezuela in February 2019. They spent a lot of time talking to one another. They frequently would have video chats. Later that year, Maria traveled to Atlanta to see Ronald play in the postseason.

This January, they got engaged. On Aug. 31 this year, they married one another. (The date is easy to remember: Hours after his private wedding ceremony, Acuña became the first player in MLB history to hit at least 30 homers while stealing at least 60 bases in the same season.)

And now, they have two kids.

“They’re both super alike,” Acuña said of his sons.

His firstborn, Ronald, is named after him. And Jamal? Acuña is a big Jamal Crawford fan, and loved watching Crawford play for the Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers and others. So he named his second son Jamal.

Jamal’s middle name is “Mitchell” – after Donovan Mitchell, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard. Mitchell’s father – also named Donovan Mitchell – works for the Mets, and started there as a minor-league coach years ago. In the Mets’ system, the elder Mitchell coached Acuña’s father. When the younger Acuña saw the elder Mitchell in New York one time, he told Mitchell he would name Jamal after him.

Baseball is grueling. In a 162-game season, there are ups and downs. Last year, Acuña struggled because his knee didn’t feel fully healthy. This season, Acuña has been on a six-month heater. But regardless of what he encounters in the game, his sons are always back at home.

“It’s incredible,” Acuña said. “I feel like they’re both always waiting for me at the door to come home, with open arms, just a joy about them. They’re always really excited to see me. I think it just gives me a sense of joy as well. Regardless of how bad of a day it was, to be able to just go there and enjoy that time with your sons is just something really special.

“And the oldest one (Ronald), all he cares about is hitting. He’s not worried about doing anything else. He’s not worried about playing out in the field or anything. He just wants to hit.”

‘I always wanted to have kids early’

When Eddie Pérez, a Braves coach who also is from Venezuela, learned that Acuña was having a child, he didn’t know what to expect.

“Man, how is he gonna raise this kid?” Pérez remembers thinking. “I don’t know if it’s gonna be good or not.”

After all, Acuña was only 22 years old. He had debuted two years before that, in 2018. He still was so young, with so much to learn.

But this is what Acuña always desired.

“For me, I always wanted to have kids early, and I always thought it was important,” he said. “I always had this vision of just having my kids at an early age, just so that we could sort of grow at the same time. Honestly, the way I looked at it was, ‘The sooner I had kids, the more time I would get to spend with them.’ And so I always had this idea of just having kids that early on, and then as we continue to grow together and maybe even at some point be able to play together. I always thought that was sort of the way my dad and I did it, where he was young and then we would play (softball or baseball games in Venezuela together), and I always hoped it would be something like that.”

Acuña has tried to teach his children the values his father shared with him, like respect and discipline. And over the years, Acuña has grown into a role model – and not only for his kids.

“I think he wants to teach (his) kids the right thing,” Pérez, who played for the Braves, said. “And not only them. There’s a lot of people in La Sabana, where he lives, a lot of kids in Venezuela watching him. People get mad because kids are doing his dancing and all this stuff. I said, ‘Why do you wanna be mad at something like that?’ He’s one of the best players in the big leagues. You want your kid to be like him.’

“And I think he knows that. I think he wants to do it the right way, and I think he wants to put (up) those numbers for those kids, for Venezuela, for everybody on this team.”

‘I think it’s a lot of changes, a lot of differences’

Asked what the difference is between now and when he entered the big leagues, Acuña said this:

“I think it’s a lot of changes, a lot of differences. I spent two and a half years, three years in the minor leagues, and so I think once you reach the big leagues, all you’re really relying on is your ability. And so I think the longer time I’ve been here, the more experience you gain, the more you can mature from that experience, and the more you can learn from it. So it’s just all really about the experience that I’ve gained through the years.”

When Acuña debuted, he was 20 years old. None of us are the same at 20 as we are five years after. We learn. We grow. We mature.

To those who have been around Acuña for years, this transformation is evident.

“He hit the scene at 18, he got to the big leagues at (20), and he played a lot of baseball on his ability,” said Ron Washington, the Braves’ third base coach. “And once you start playing the game of baseball, you start figuring things out. You could see the maturity this year when he came into spring training – the way he was going about his business, how he was out there taking his work serious. Before, you go up until 18, 19, 20 years old, he was just relying on his talent. Now, he’s learned how to save his talent, and work. And that is maturity.”

To Washington, examples of this maturity come in Acuña’s early work – which has increased from previous seasons.

“Well, I’ve never seen him go out there and work on his defense. He’s been doing that this year,” Washington said. “I’ve never seen him go out there and throw balls to the bases. He’s doing that this year. I’ve never seen him run the bases. He’s running them this year. The past couple of days, he’s taken off from taking (batting practice), but he’s usually out there hitting every day. … You can just see the growth, that’s all. You can just see the growth in the way he goes about his business. The fundamentals of the game, right now, are important to him.”

Asked why this has been an emphasis, Acuña said: “I think the daily work is just sort of one of those things where you can feel the rewards after it. So you put in that daily work and you continue to get better. With that said, putting in that daily work, I’m hoping that next year will be better.”

Pérez said everyone must ask themselves a question: What was I doing when I was 20? Acuña was in the big leagues, counted on by an organization that looked to come out of its rebuild better for it.

“And he’s still learning,” Pérez said. “He loves to learn. He loves to play the game. And that’s one of the things that I love about Ronald: He loves to play the game. And he wants to win. When he steps in between these lines, he wants to win. He doesn’t like to lose, and that’s what makes him so good.”

‘You gotta represent our country’

An unknown subplot to Acuña’s dominant season: In the Venezuelan Winter League last season, fans were brutal to Acuña. They booed. They said mean things. When he homered and paraded around the bases, fans were mad. He even posted on Instagram one night that he retired from baseball in that league.

It got to the point where Acuña didn’t want to play for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, Pérez said.

“Why not?” Pérez asked him. “You gotta go, you gotta represent our country.’

Perez says now: “And he was afraid, I think – this is my opinion – I think he was afraid to face those people again. And he did. He went and played, and he did OK. I think that made him a better player. You have to go through a lot of stuff in baseball so you learn. I think that made a big difference, and that’s why he’s playing so good this year. He wanted to prove that he’s one of the best players out of Venezuela.”

Acuña has quieted his critics, one highlight play and victory at a time.

“People are always going to talk, and people are always going to say good things and bad things,” Acuña said. “I really try not to pay any attention to it. But like I’ve said before, and I’m being honest, last year was a frustrating year. And I know it’s not an excuse, and that’s not what I’m saying. But I was obviously trying to recover and battle back from an injury. And so really, it was always about getting back to this point as far as being healthy and being able to showcase what I can do. I know that some people said that I wouldn’t be able to do this, and luckily we were able to prove that I can.”

MVP candidate

In the middle of an answer to a question, Pérez pauses. A thought pops into his head. He has something else to say.

“Everybody’s talking about other people (winning) MVP. I want to be part of that, making sure I’m saying that he’s gonna be the MVP,” Pérez said. “I want other people to know that he’s the MVP – because I see a lot of news and a lot of stuff for other players, but I don’t see too many about him from Venezuelan reporters. And that’s what I want to say: I want to say to make sure we tell everybody he’s gonna be the MVP.”

For months, Acuña was the front-runner for NL MVP. In August, the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts heated up and started making his own case. But Acuña never stopped. From opening day through the end of the regular season, he starred.

In the meantime, he broke records with his rare combination of power and speed. He established the 30-60, 40-50, 40-60 and 40-70 clubs. He set a Braves franchise record with 73 stolen bases. He finished with 41 home runs.

His 1.012 OPS led the NL, as did his .416 on-base percentage. His .337 batting average ranked second. He tallied 106 RBIs.

“Unbelievable,” Pérez said.

Pérez remembers legendary Braves manager Bobby Cox saying the best player he ever witnessed was Willie Mays. Pérez never saw Mays play, but he considered Barry Bonds to be the best he ever watched.

“This guy was hard to pitch, ran hard, played good defense,” Pérez said. “I always compared (Acuña) to him, but (Acuña) went over that now. He went over Barry Bonds’ numbers now.”

Pérez takes nothing away from Betts.

But to him, Acuña is the NL MVP.

“You can see the other team watching him play the game, and they’re going, ‘Wow, how good this kid is,’” Pérez said. “He makes the difference when he steps on the field, and I think everybody has to see it.”

There’s no reason to believe Acuña, if healthy, will slow. And maybe, just maybe, he can play long enough to one day be on a team with one of his sons.

“I mean, God willing that I have a long enough and successful career that it gets to the point where we can be on a team together,” Acuña said. “But even if not, I’m gonna enjoy watching them from the stands.”