A mere two weeks ago, during a long conversation inside the manager’s office at the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves stadium, 60-year-old Brian Snitker was confessing to the same dreams as those spurring the 20-somethings dressing in the clubhouse across the hall.
“Like I’ve told them,” he said, nodding toward the players’ quarters, “I don’t feel I’m done in the big leagues yet. I want to go back. I think I can still be a part.
“If not, so what? Ain’t no big deal.” Snitker had dearly earned that mix of resignation and realism through 40 years of being moved up and down the Braves’ organizational chain.
If nothing else, he knew the time was drawing near when he could start tapping his major league pension. By holding onto a spot somewhere in the Braves’ minor league system, he might soon start double dipping. Pretty sweet deal, he figured.
Snitker did return to majors Tuesday, named the Braves’ interim manager following the dismissal of Fredi Gonzalez. It was far from the ideal scenario — taking over baseball’s only team not yet in double figures in the win column, replacing a friend, being shackled with the kind of temp worker uncertainty that the interim title conveys.
But, danged if he wasn’t now a major league manager after 40 years of occupying almost every other job a baseball man can have — managing at 10 minor league way stations, from Anderson, S.C. to Lawrenceville, coaching in the majors both from the bullpen and the third-base box, serving as an instructor roving from bush to bush in the Braves’ system. Not only was he back with the big club, but back with a big title. And it was just a little more than two years ago he was banished from Gonzalez’s staff, in a move that had hurt him to his baseball soul.
What kind of mad ride is this?
Only weeks ago, there was Snitker talking about how he could empathize with every player sent down from the majors back to Triple-A. Hey, I’ve been there, too, he’d tell them. Keep working hard, don’t get discouraged, be a pro, he’d advise each one kicked back to him in Gwinnett.
Work for any company for 40 years there are bound to be setbacks and bitter disappointments. There were several for Snitker, the most recent and most jarring coming at the close of the 2013 season, when then-general manager Frank Wren took Snitker down from Gonzalez’s staff and reassigned him to manage at Gwinnett.
“It hurt coming off that year that I thought we did really well,” Snitker remembered. “We had a really good year (winning 96 games, losing to the Dodgers in the Division Series). I felt like I had contributed and was a big part of it.
“It’s one of those things, you re-assess. At that point in my life I was too old to go somewhere else. I was at an age where I didn’t want to leave home and start over somewhere else. I’m a Brave. You don’t like it, but you handle it. I feel like I’m professional enough that I can’t let that effect the job I was hired to do.”
So, he swallowed hard, bit his lip, and kept hitting fungoes to prospects (his days of pitching batting practice ended a couple of shoulder surgeries ago).
That is the same man brought back Tuesday to try to keep baseball’s worst team afloat, to insure during the most drastic of remodels that some important heritage be preserved. In front office-speak that command comes down to instilling “The Braves Way,” whatever that means today.
Brian Snitker was a Brave two years before John Coppolella, the GM who promoted him, was born. In 1977, when the Braves signed Snitker as an undrafted free-agent catcher, team president John Schuerholz was an ambitious scouting director in Kansas City. President of baseball operations John Hart was a high school coach in Orlando. Gonzalez was a Miami middle-schooler.
Snitker came straight from the pages of a baseball fable, the horsehide version of “Hoosiers.”
“One Shot at Forever,” was the book written about early 1970s Macon (Ill.) Ironmen, a small-town high school team that challenged for a state championship behind its counter-culture head coach. Snitker was the bespectacled right fielder for the Ironmen.
Stop now to consider the varying baseball influences Snitker has had in his life. On one hand Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, who wore spikes in the dugout. On the other Macon’s Lynn Sweet, who pretty much let his kids look like they wanted to, practice when they wanted to and once told a sportswriter, “We don’t emphasize fundamentals, we just let them have fun.”
Catching at the University of New Orleans, Snitker was drafted in the 25th round by the Cubs in 1976, but decided to return to school to better his draft position. He went undrafted the next year. Not his most shining moment of baseball decision making.
The Braves took him on, and Snitker played until 1980, hitting .254 with 23 home runs through 236 games (only six of those at the Triple-A level).
At no time then did he ever dream of a lifelong commitment to one franchise. “I was living for the day,” Snitker recalled. His big moment that year: Getting a $350 bonus check for his team finishing above .500.
But baseball became a partner with the most important aspects of his life.
He met his wife, Veronica, on a blind date set up by former Brave, Cito Gaston.
His son Troy, once in the Braves’ system, just got a gig as a hitting instructor down in the Gulf Coast League for the Astros.
Snitker said he never had a job other than baseball, except for picking beans and baling hay in high school and driving a beer truck part-time while in college. Never really sat through a job interview, either, from the time in 1980 when Hank Aaron asked him if he wanted to coach to 2016, when he was informed he was the Braves’ interim manager.
Along the way, Snitker said he developed a minor league managing philosophy of keeping the expectations high and the volume relatively low.
“Everybody wants to do good and when they don’t, they know it. They don’t need me beating them over the head,” he recently said.
If Snitker has learned nothing else in 40 years, it’s that baseball is a business that will sort out its people in its own way. There is no use getting worked up about it in the meantime.
A franchise awaits to see what the approach will be now that Snitker has landed — overnight, after a 40-year wait — in a place where before only his dreams had taken him.