Truist Park is quiet and empty just days before what would be Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves. MLB has yet to decide when, or if, the season will start. Stadium employees maintain the field despite the delay to the start of the season. (Video by Curtis Compton, Ryon Horne)

Ahead of Braves’ would-be home opener, Brian Snitker talks current landscape

Friday will hit even harder than Thursday of last week.

The Braves were scheduled to play their first game at the newly named Truist Park on Friday. They would be coming off their opening road trip, a seven-game swing in Phoenix and San Diego that would have begun on that Thursday. They would’ve left California after the 12:40 p.m. (Pacific time) Wednesday series finale, arriving in Atlanta with a Thursday off day to ready themselves for the home opener. 

“It’s going to be weird,” manager Brian Snitker said. “I was thinking (Wednesday) night how nice this would’ve been to have gotten home (Thursday) and be with the family. And what a nice, beautiful day it is heading into a really cool weekend. It would’ve been neat. I probably would’ve went to the ballpark today at some point just to get moved in a little bit for a couple hours before getting ready for opening day.”

Atlanta was sunny in the mid-60s on Thursday. Friday would be another lovely day for baseball, sporting a mid-to-low 70s temperature and clear skies. Perfect for Georgia’s favorite professional sports franchise to launch its most promising season in years.

Instead, Friday we’ll be under the governor’s shelter-in-place decree. The coronavirus pandemic has swept the world, creating issues far beyond the cancellation of sports. The United States is trying to stop the spread, a task that – best case – won’t be completed for months, according to numerous health professionals. 

>> Photos: Truist Park without baseball

Snitker, like almost everyone else, is sidelined at home during this uncertain time. He’s kept busy with small projects around the house. He’s done yard work. He still enjoys his routine walks around the neighborhood. He and his wife, Ronnie, moved into their home just over three years ago and have taken this time to unearth some stashed boxes. He and his son, Troy, who’s a hitting coach with the Astros and staying with the family in Atlanta, have gone fishing a couple of times.

But that void – baseball, which was set to begin March 26 – can’t be filled. And those digital calendar updates some of you receive regarding Braves game times? Snitker is aware.

“Every night, it seems like my wife gets a little blurb on her computer, ‘Oh, man. You guys are playing in 15 minutes,’” he said. “It’s been different. It’s different for everybody. I’ve been telling people, you walk the neighborhood and run into neighbors, it’s as weird for them as it is for us. Teachers, their systems are on go, and they don’t have any kids. People who are in companies that are laying people off. We’re just a small, small piece of the whole thing.”

Snitker stressed sports are among the smallest concerns in this ever-changing crisis. Still, there’s no getting around how strange it is for a baseball lifer to be sitting idle in early April. Snitker has been in the Braves organization for over 40 years. Baseball has been at the epicenter of his life, as a child and an adult.

He sympathized with players, knowing many of them are directionless without their greatest passion. He recalled the disappointed vibe in the room when he met with his team for the final time before they departed Florida. 

“I don’t want to make it bigger than what it is because there’s a lot of people who are feeling bad,” Snitker said. “But you had a bunch of guys, it was almost like they were running into each other ’cause they didn’t know what to do. I felt bad because they’re sitting there looking at each other like, ‘God, what do we do now?’ Some of the minor league guys, if they lived across the country, a couple of them had their families and had to drive back. They need to work, they need to get paid. Even some of the single guys, I mean, they play baseball. That’s what they do. They’re like lost souls. I felt bad for them cause all they want to do is play baseball. This time of year, when the systems are on go, that’s a hard adjustment to make. I feel bad for the guys, everybody.

“You have to deal with it. It can’t get you because if you let it get you, it will. We’re in it for the long haul pretty much.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker.
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

The Braves played their last game March 12, in Lakeland. MLB suspended operations that afternoon. The team initially planned to remain in Florida for workouts but would take the weekend off while the spring training facilities underwent a deep cleaning.

After conversations with the Players Association, players were granted the freedom to return home. The idea of any group workouts was vanquished. Snitker last addressed his team on that Saturday morning. Players began clearing out. Snitker and Ronnie left on the ensuing Tuesday.

“I get home (from Florida) and reality sets in my neighborhood,” he said. “I feel bad for everybody around here who has business and are having to lay people off. Or maybe they’re one of the people who’ve gotten laid off. I talked to a buddy of mine (Wednesday) from Louisiana, and his company has had to lay off a number of people because in an oil industry, the prices are what they are and they can’t take on jobs. It’s tough, man. Our situation is bad, but there’s a lot of people doing a lot worse than we are.”

Snitker touched base with his players Wednesday via text. He heard back from everyone, saying each player is doing well and trying to stay in shape. Some have even ordered home gyms. Snitker added he thinks the fathers are gaining further appreciation for their wives and for teachers.

The Braves’ training staff has stayed in constant communication with each player. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Marty Reed have developed a throwing program for the pitchers, so when they throw, they’re texting with that pair. Kranitz and Reed wanted to provide guidelines and track the pitchers’ work.

With players and coaches separated, each sheltered at the place they deem home, that’s the most structure fathomable.

“They’re dealing with it,” Snitker said. “They have to. They’re wired to deal with situations like this. None of them like it, but it’s what we’re doing right now. It was good to hear from everybody. There’s really nothing (I can say) other than be safe, take care of your family. But it’s good to reach out, and it was cool to hear from everybody and what they’re doing.”

Snitker won’t speculate if or when the season could return or how baseball would formulate its unconventional schedule. He said he hasn’t allowed himself to think about it.

“My thing is when they tell us to speed this thing back up, we will,” he said. “It doesn’t do me any good to speculate, what ifs. I don’t know the nuts and bolts of all that kind of stuff. Everybody is just waiting. People have asked me all these different questions.

“There’s a lot of people working on this every day. I know they’re agonizing over what ifs, whens and all that stuff. I just think whenever we get the go-ahead to play, that everyone will be really excited and ready to get back after it.”

Whenever that day comes, it can act as a healer for the nation. Live sports’ return would signal a recovering country, that hopefully the worst is behind us. Baseball last acted as a post-tragedy unifier in 2001, when 10 days after 9/11, the Braves and Mets came together to play the first game in New York City.

There’s no end in sight for the current pandemic. But Snitker, along with the rest of the sports universe, longs to hear the next on-field national anthem because of what it would represent.

“I thought this would be a great thing for our country if we can play baseball again,” he said. “That’s the underlying theme. When I’m walking the neighborhood, (people tell me) they miss it, too. I told somebody, ‘I don’t know that we’re going to be (complaining) about 4-1/2 hour Red Sox-Yankees games anymore.’ We might appreciate what we have a lot more and not take so many things for granted. 

“We’re seeing how fragile life – I’ve always preached that you’re never guaranteed tomorrow in anything. That’s why you live for today. Some of the things we took for granted, we won’t be taking for granted after going through this.

“I watched ‘Field of Dreams’ the other day, and you listen to what’s going on in that, it kind of hits home. I watched that movie a little differently. Baseball is good for our country. Hopefully, when and if we get playing again, people will have a sense that things are getting better and righting themselves. It’ll be good for all concerns if we can get back playing.”

In the meantime, everyone will try to make the best of a poor situation. Snitker has enjoyed watching old games. He reminisced about the 23-22 Phillies-Cubs shootout in 1979. He watched the legendary 16-inning affair between the Astros and Mets in the 1986 National League Championship Series.

Snitker gets a kick out of the little things from those days: the play styles, the uniforms, the bullpens. He laughed at broadcaster Jack Brickhouse’s comment about how hard a pitcher was throwing because there were no radar guns to track velocity.

The Braves will be streaming interviews at 5:30 p.m. Friday, part of their efforts to connect with fans on what would’ve been the beginning of their home slate. It will feature interviews with general manager Alex Anthopolous, first baseman Freddie Freeman and Snitker.

But it won’t be opening day at the yard. The Braves won’t be hosting the Marlins. The Battery Atlanta, which would’ve been so full of life, won’t even see a tumbleweed. Truist Park will remain what it will be indefinitely: empty.

“Opening days are really cool,” Snitker said. “They’re special. It’s going to be different knowing we should’ve been out there playing. It’s going to hit home more Friday than it even did last Thursday.”

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