How Braves superstar Ronald Acuña turned frustration into motivation during rehab

Braves fans applaude for outfielder Ronald Acuna as he prepares to bat leadoff warming for the first time since a knee injury with Matt Olson following during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs in a MLB baseball game on Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Atlanta.    “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Braves fans applaude for outfielder Ronald Acuna as he prepares to bat leadoff warming for the first time since a knee injury with Matt Olson following during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs in a MLB baseball game on Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ARLINGTON, TexasYou have to do the rehab. You’re going to come back stronger.

Right after his surgery, at the beginning of his rehab, Ronald Acuña’s support system flooded him with positive messages such as those. The young superstar understandably was upset and didn’t want to do the rehab after tearing his ACL.

“Ronald was a little frustrated in the beginning, of course, because he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to play again,” Alexander Salazar said through interpreter Génesis González, who works for REP1 Baseball, the agency that represents Acuña.

Salazar, an agent for REP1 Baseball who also runs an academy in Venezuela, walked with Acuña at every step during his road to recovery. In Los Angeles. In Venezuela. During surgery. After surgery. During the rehab. You name it, Salazar experienced it.

Following surgery, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the procedure, told Acuña the journey back to the field contained two components: 50% was the surgery, but the other half would be the work that Acuña put into his rehab. Acuña’s family and those around him continued trying to remind him of that daily.

“For a person like Ronald who’s very electric and likes to be playing all the time, it was very difficult for him in the beginning,” Salazar said. “But as more people spoke to him about how he could get back into the game, how the rehabilitation would help him, how he saw that the rehabilitation was helping him and how he was improving – if anything, feeling better than he was before – that started to motivate him a little bit more, and he just started getting better with it and less frustrated about it, just knowing that there was hope and there was the possibility of him coming back even stronger.”

‘There’s always a sense of gratitude’

Acuña is a five-tool outfielder who seemed to be the National League MVP favorite when he suffered the injury. So could he have used the past year to get even better? That’s unfathomable, but Salazar believes it’s the case.

He said this because he thinks Acuña’s rehab, which lasted around 10 months, made him stronger physically and mentally. “I think there’s always a sense of gratitude,” Acuña said Thursday at Truist Park, through interpreter Franco García. “I thank God for just putting me through that experience because I think it helped me to grow as a ballplayer and as a person.”

Acuña worked with tons of folks during the rehab process. He worked with Braves head physical therapist Nick Valencia and the team’s trainers. He saw some affiliated with Dr. ElAttrache. And when the outfielder left Los Angeles for Venezuela, his home, Salazar put together a team of trainers to work with Acuña.

Something that could benefit the Braves star: Instead of only strengthening his legs, or select parts of his body, he worked out his entire body. He had never done that. Many times over the past couple of months, Braves manager Brian Snitker applauded Acuña’s body entering spring training and said it served as a testament to the 24-year-old’s work ethic.

“Fans are going to see a better version of him because he’s stronger – not only physically, but mentally – and overall is going to show them not the same, but a way better version of what he was before,” Salazar said.

‘He just never seems to stop impressing’

Acuña had not swung a bat for a few months but in this moment, Salazar said, you couldn’t tell. At a field in Venezuela, Acuña, not far removed from surgery, was hitting balls that almost went out of the entire ballpark.

This is Ronald Acuña. He has the ‘wow’ factor, regularly leaving you in awe. He possesses rare talent.

“Every time you see him do something, it just keeps impressing you because you know it’s nonstop for him,” Salazar said. “It’s never-ending for him. He just never seems to stop impressing.”

Acuña is one of the game’s better players. He can hit, hit for power, run, field and throw. He does all of it well. Even at a young age, he’s equipped to be a superstar.

“Because he has all five tools,” Braves third-base coach Ron Washington said. “You don’t hear people talk about five tools no more. … In the past, you just needed to have three. Today, all you need to have is one. He still has five, and it can show up at any moment of a ballgame.”

Added third baseman Austin Riley: “To me, for him, it’s just the talent that he has, that does enough for it right there. His BP is different, everything is different about him. He’s a superstar, and it’s fun to watch.”

‘It’s something that he was definitely born with’

The only real challenge that Acuña faced in rehab was one he brought on himself: He began overworking. If a physical therapist told him to jump at 30%, he would want to give it 80%, and they would need to stop him from doing so.

“He wanted to keep pushing harder and harder,” Salazar said.

Acuña on Thursday was ready. More accurately: He’d been ready. He said he felt like he could play a nine-inning game during the second week of spring training. And when the Braves sent him on a rehab assignment to Triple-A Gwinnett, he looked to be playing as hard as he would have in a major-league game.

Now, he’s back.

Salazar and Washington both described Acuña as someone who is not the same on and off the field. Off the field, he is calm, quiet and a bit shy, Salazar said. And in the clubhouse, Washington said, Acuña sits with his thoughts and does his work throughout the day.

But once he runs onto the field, there is no one else like him. He has superstar talent.

“It’s something that he was definitely born with,” Salazar said. “It’s not something that you learn or you just pick up.”