If not for Hank Aaron, Braves manager Brian Snitker wouldn’t be in his fourth decade with the organization.
Aaron, a Hall of Famer, civil-rights activist and the best player in Braves history, died Friday at age 86. It was a difficult day for everyone in the Braves organization and throughout metro Atlanta. Snitker, on a Zoom call with reporters Friday afternoon, paused for a moment and fought off tears before reflecting on Aaron – the man who hired him.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here on this call if it wasn’t for Hank Aaron, plain and simple,” Snitker said. “He’s the reason I’m here. I’ve said many times, I’ve been blessed to be raised (by) and around Hall of Famers my entire career, none more important to my career, my family, my life than Hank Aaron. I was excited this year, too – we were going to spring training. I talked to Hank last year that I wanted him around. I said, ‘I’ll keep people off you. I want you at the cage. I want you to have a cup of coffee. I want these players to know who you are and what you’re about. I want you to be there.’
“I hate that for them that they’re not going to be able to experience Hank Aaron. He’s the epitome of grace, professionalism, just the man he was. He never called me when I was a minor-league manager and the first thing out of his mouth wasn’t, ‘How’s your family?’ and ‘Can I do anything for you?’ It was all about that.
“It’s exactly what the Braves embody and who we are as an organization, and why we are different. I tell employees that in April and May. We are different. I tell our players that every year, and I’ve been fortunate in the last three or four years since I’ve had this job to get Hank to come the first time I address the team. I wanted them to see that this is what it’s about, and this is why we’re different. It’s the people who make your organization, men like Hank Aaron.”
As a minor leaguer, Snitker first met Aaron, then the Braves’ farm director, at DeKalb Junior College during a first-year players workout. In 1981, when it was evident Snitker wasn’t going to cut it as a player, Aaron, who’d become the organization’s senior vice president, offered another opportunity.
“I didn’t really interview,” Snitker said in 2017. “He just released me and offered me a coaching job.”
A long-time coaching career, and more important a close friendship, began. The two developed a tight bond, from playing racquetball in Florida during Snitker’s days as a minor-league manager to their relaxed chats at Truist Park in recent years.
On the racquetball experience, Snitker said: “We’d go to the YMCA in Sarasota. I probably still have (marks) on the back of my legs because if you got in front of him – you talk about wrists and hands, that freaking racquetball would go right through you, and he didn’t care. After a while I learned to stay the hell out of his way.”
Their friendship was invaluable during most of Snitker’s adult life. Aaron was a stable presence throughout Snitker’s 40-year coaching career that’s culminated with him managing the big-league club for the past several seasons. Under Snitker, the Braves have won three consecutive National League East titles and appear to be positioned for another era of sustainable success.
Snitker always turned to Aaron for support and insight. Aaron was there for Snitker during all his milestones. The Hall of Famer was among the first people to call Snitker when he became the Braves’ full-time manager in 2016. Aaron was among the first to congratulate him on winning manager of the year in 2018. Aaron called to congratulate Snitker after each of the team’s recent division titles.
“I’m very blessed to have had that friendship with him,” Snitker said. “Hank is the reason I’m here. He was one of those guys like Bobby (Cox). If I called, he answered. Never went to voicemail. If I had a problem or needed some advice, I’d call Hank Aaron, and he’d answer the phone every time.”
Since becoming a major-league manager, Snitker asked Aaron to speak with individual players – he always would. Aaron visited North Port, Florida, in February to see the team’s new spring training home and the naming of “Hank Aaron Way,” an entry point into the property. Aaron was one of the team’s biggest fans and like any supporter, he was glued to his TV during the Braves’ latest October run.
Recently, Snitker recalled running into Aaron at the ballpark. The two just sat in his office and chatted for a while.
“I pinch myself then thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m sitting here talking to Hank Aaron,’” Snitker said. “Just a man of grace. What a person. I wish our team would look at the back of that baseball card because it’s stupid. … Just the times together and the time he took with us guys, the managers, the coaches. This was Hank Aaron and he was doing everything he could for us to help make us better. Just a sad day.
“The friend, the man, the person, that’s the reason for the sadness. He did everything the right way. … We lost a really, really good man. Someone we all loved and adored.”
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Credit: Doug Roberson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution