And sure enough, there it is: The signature of former President George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States who once owned a stake in the Rangers.
On Tuesday, two balloons – a “1″ and a “0,” signifying 10 years of service time – sat next to Ozuna’s locker. The gifts were there, too. Prior to the game, the Braves – and, apparently, Bush – celebrated Ozuna’s accomplishment.
Minutes before the Braves left the clubhouse to stretch, Kevin Pillar spoke in front of the team and congratulated Ozuna. And sometime during the day, Bush spent a couple minutes with the players and signed Ozuna’s bottle of champagne.
“That means a lot,” Ozuna said of his team celebrating him. “That means my teammates care about me. I care about them. We’re a unit. We are one group.”
The players chipped in and bought Ozuna an exquisite bottle of LOUIS XIII Cognac, which is round with a golden cap. Snitker purchased Dom Pérignon champagne for Ozuna, and said he was excited to hand it to the player who had accomplished something rare. Both bottles featured signatures from Ozuna’s teammates.
“North of $4,000,” Pillar said of how much the LOUIS XIII cost. “It’ll never be drank.”
‘We all started out with a dream’
When Pillar addressed the team, he spoke about a statistic he had researched: Less than 10% of players who spend a day in the big leagues, he said, make it to 10 years. “I would guess it’s closer to zero than it is to 10,” Pillar said on Wednesday. But for context, 10% of a 26-man roster is between two and three players.
“So the message is simple, too: We all started out with a dream, at some point in our life, that we want to be big leaguers,” Pillar said of what he told the team. “Then that dream becomes a reality one day, and you try to figure out how to stay in the big leagues. And then when you figure out how to stay, there’s this gap where you kind of think you’re invincible, and that you’re gonna be in this game a long time, and as you start to become financially more valuable, the harder it is to stay in this game unless you’re consistently putting up numbers.
“To reach 10 years speaks a lot about obviously the talent he is, but also the way he goes about his work, the way the teammates embrace him, the teammate he is. He’s had some really good moments and years in his career. He’s been an All-Star. But without being a bonafide superstar, it’s incredibly difficult to reach 10 years.
“Just shining light on things that are important in this game if you want to continue to play this game for a long time. Especially with him this year, not getting off to a good start, just shining a light on the fact that he showed up every day, was a good teammate. It’s easy in this game to come in here with your chest out every single day when you’re playing well. But when things aren’t going well and you’re the same guy and you continue to work, you continue to be a good teammate, you continue to have fun with the guys – you know it’s probably killing him inside with the struggles he was going through – it just speaks a lot about who he is as a baseball player, who he is as a teammate.”
‘Dude, what are the chances he comes in here?’
At one point on Tuesday, Pillar saw Derek Holland, a former Rangers pitcher and still a fan favorite for the franchise. The two spent time together while playing in San Francisco, and Holland told Pillar that Bush would be at Globe Life Field that day.
“Dude, what are the chances he comes in here?” Pillar asked.
“Typically, when he comes to games, he likes to see the visiting team,” Holland said.
Reflecting on this conversation, Pillar says: “I was like a kid in a candy store when I found out.”
So Pillar asked a clubhouse employee how likely Bush would be to visit Atlanta’s clubhouse. There was a 50-50 chance, the staffer told Pillar.
“I started the rumor he was coming,” Pillar said. “I was glad it lived up to it.”
Earlier, the Braves presented Ozuna with the bottles of alcohol, then signed them for him.
And how did Bush come to sign it?
“George Bush was in the locker room,” A.J. Minter said, uttering words he’s never spoken.
That’s not something that happens every day.
“I think guys, regardless of your political affiliation, thought it was a really cool thing, and I think everyone was very impressed with his charisma, down-to-earthness,” Pillar said.
In the first inning of Tuesday’s game, Ron Washington – the Braves third base coach who formerly managed the Rangers – told Pillar stories about getting to know Bush. Washington used to go to barbecues at Bush’s house.
“If he invited us over to his house after this game, we all would’ve jumped at the opportunity to go,” Pillar said. “He told us some stories, he was super charismatic, shook everyone’s hand, joked with (Ozuna) about his 10 years. It was a cool experience.”
‘Just a great teammate’
Fans may never forgive Ozuna for his arrests – one for domestic violence, the other for DUI.
Inside the clubhouse, it seems like his teammates love him.
“Oh, absolutely,” Minter said. “He’s on the card table with us every flight. He just interacts with everyone. He’s a guy that is just a likable guy. Everyone can go to him. The whole thing is, people don’t get to see who we are as people, and we are people first, rather than baseball players. …I can’t speak enough good things about him. Just a great teammate. He’s a leader in the clubhouse.”
Ozuna began this season in somewhat of a historic slump. He has since started to turn it around.
Will he ever regain his old form and live up to his large contract? That remains to be seen.
But his teammates appear to enjoy his company and respect him.
“And he’s been just a great teammate,” Minter said. “That’s what people don’t see. That’s just a testament to who he is as a person.”
‘It’s by no accident you get to 10 years’
In the Braves’ clubhouse, Charlie Morton (over 14 years of service time), Jesse Chavez (over 12 years) and Ozuna have reached the 10-year milestone. Travis d’Arnaud will accomplish it this year. If he stays in the big leagues, Pillar can do it next year, as can Collin McHugh.
Everyone takes a different journey there.
“For some guys, maybe it’s smooth sailing for 10 years. Some guys, it’s a little bit more difficult,” Pillar said. “I know Charlie didn’t have the easiest go-round early in his career, kind of figured it out late, and he’s kind of been able to be on cruise control ever since. I know Jesse was a failed starter, reliever, kind of bounced around a little bit. But I think if you love this game and you enjoy playing this game and you’re willing to put in the work and understand that it’s not going to be a smooth journey all the way through, but if you persevere, (you can do it).
“It’s something that we all want to accomplish. It’s not just from the financial standpoint of maxing out your pension. I think that’s the cherry on top. Baseball is such a fraternity and a brotherhood, and when you get into that 10-year club, it’s like, even more so, people put a lot of respect on your career, what you’ve been able to do, because it’s not an easy thing to accomplish.”
In April, the Braves played in Kansas City. Then came quite the coincidence: It just so happened that the Texas Rangers followed Atlanta as the next visiting team to play at Kauffman Stadium. And who pitches for the Rangers? Former Braves closer Will Smith, who had just hit 10 years of service time before arriving in Kansas City.
His old Braves teammates left a bottle of alcohol in the visiting clubhouse for Smith, who found it when he arrived.
“Which is kind of what we do for guys with 10 years, because 10 years, it’s hard to do in this game,” Minter said. “It just speaks to you never quitting. This game, it’s a rollercoaster through the ups and downs. People that get to 10 years, it’s a true accomplishment.”
This is why the Braves celebrated Ozuna.
“It’s by no accident you get to 10 years,” Pillar said. “You got to do a lot of things right along the way, and that’s not just statistically, on the field. It’s being a good influence to the guys around you. And I know he’s a great bridge for the Latin guys and the American guys. And it was important to celebrate it (Tuesday).”