MIAMI – Most observers figured Brian Snitker was a 40-year company man the Braves tabbed to take the wheel of a skidding 9-28 team in May and merely keep it from careening off a cliff and bursting into flames, figuratively speaking.
But instead of just getting the Braves through a season that started out like a nightmare, interim manager Snitker has them playing respectable ball as the season winds down. Actually, he’s had them playing even better than respectable of late, with a 44-45 record since June 15 and 18 wins in their past 30 games before Friday.
The turnaround, and the energy and enthusiasm that his players have shown even back when they still had the majors’ worst record, have increased the chances Snitker will be retained and “interim” dropped from his title for 2017.
If the players have much say in the decision, the likelihood of his keeping the position seems to be growing.
“I think he’s done a great job,” said Braves right fielder Nick Markakis, an 11-year veteran who is as intense and serious as they come about preparing for and playing baseball, and expects those around him to do the same. “(Snitker) was put in a position early in the year that he’s never been in. It’s a learning process for him.”
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Snitker spent decades as a minor league player, coach and manager, and served as a major league coach, but had never managed at the big-league level until he was promoted from Triple-A to replace fired manager Fredi Gonzalez. He said the first month on the job was a blur, so hectic were the duties of the position compared to managing at lower levels.
“He came up here knowing guys, but not knowing his team from the playing aspect, and he had to learn it,” Markakis said. “He had to learn lineup, bullpen, starting pitching. There was a lot to learn. Over time it’s shown what a great job he’s been doing with managing his players, his bullpen, getting guys in. Most of all, just being positive and strong. He’s come a long ways.”
Hot-hitting first baseman Freddie Freeman, having the best season of his career despite his worst first two months, said that playing for Snitker has been everything he hoped it would be.
“I enjoy him,” Freeman said. “I loved him when he was here as a third-base coach. He’s just a calm guy. He goes out there, puts the lineup down and lets guys go to work. His presence is something that just makes you want to run through walls for. I think everybody in this clubhouse has responded to him, because he’s such a good guy, he treats everybody the right way. I love him, so you just want to go out there and do as good as you can for him….
“He comes out there and gets on the umpires when he needs to. He’s always there for you, making sure everything’s going the right way, and if there’s something he doesn’t like he’s going to go out there and let the people know about it. It’s nice to see that the manager has your back.”
Center fielder Ender Inciarte said recently, “Having the confidence and the opportunity that Snitker has given me the whole year has been huge for me, and I cannot say anything but good stuff about him.”
Snitker has shown an ability to get along with and motivate players from various cultures and of all ages, from prospects to grizzled veterans. That’s something Freeman’s first manager, Bobby Cox, was always known for.
“Because he knows how to communicate,” Freeman said of Snitker. “That’s a big thing with players and coaching staff and the manager. To have a relationship with open communication, that’s what we have with him. It’s a lot more comfortable feeling when you have a manager like that. Things have been going great around here lately and it’s awesome to see, hopefully that carries over (to 2017).”
Markakis said, “The younger guys, as far as the pitching, are starting to figure it out. The first couple months of the season was rough. We had a tough schedule. At the beginning of the season against those types of teams that we were playing, all of them are in the playoff hunt now, all those pitchers that we were facing – it was tough. We were all knew playing to each other, because we had a lot of new guys in and out. We’re kind of on the same page now, we’re figuring out how to win together and we’re pulling for each other.
“It’s a long season. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish up, and we’re finishing up like we want to finish up.”
Snitker has been a big part of that, they say. Markakis, like Freeman, said that Snitker’s communication skills have gone a long way in helping the 60-year-old first-time major league manager succeed in a difficult situation.
“If you’re a manager and you don’t have the respect from your players, it’s going to be hard for that manager,” Markakis said. “I think we have an understanding here and that he respects us and we respect him, and he communicates with us. The lineup’s always up early, he lets guys know when they’re playing, when they’re off – he does everything to help his players any way he can.
“A manager can only do so much, and for him to make it easy for us to go out there and do our job, it’s appreciated and I know guys like it.”