Ronald Acuna sat down at the table in a small interview room at Great American Ball Park, adjusted his cap and flashed what’s become his signature smile to the attending media.
He usually doesn’t need a reason to smile. But he had a pretty good excuse Wednesday.
The Braves promoted Acuna from Triple-A Gwinnett to make his major league debut. He was slated to start in left field and hit sixth in the third game of a four-game series in Cincinnati.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time,” Acuna said through team interpreter Franco Garcia. “So when I finally got the call, I was sort of in shock. I didn’t know what to think.”
The call came after Gwinnett’s game in Rochester on Tuesday night. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos called manager Brian Snitker asking for his opinion on bringing up baseball’s No. 1 prospect.
“I’m in,” Snitker said without hesitation.
Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill told Acuna the news around 11 p.m. The emotional 20-year-old was proud to alert his family, including his father Ronald Acuna Sr., after whom he’s modeled his play.
“It was an unforgettable,” he said. “It was great to be able to talk to my father, my mother, my friends and my family and everyone who’s been supporting me throughout the entire time. It was a great experience to be able to share that I’d been called up to the big leagues.”
Acuna arrived to the ballpark around 1:45 p.m. Surely the super prospect has had his share of surreal moments, but this one was different.
It represented the end of a historic minor-league run. In 2017, Acuna progressed through three levels, leading the minors with 181 hits, 557 at-bats and 139 games. He led the organization’s minor-league circuit with a .325 average, 88 runs, 31 doubles, 82 RBIs, an .896 OPS and 44 steals. He tied the organization lead with 21 homers and eight triples.
His efforts won him Baseball America’s minor league player of the year award. He entered the season their No. 1 overall prospect as the youngest player in the International League.
It also brought him unfathomable comparisons, from Hank Aaron to Roberto Clemente to Alex Rodriguez to Andruw Jones.
Name a Hall of Fame-caliber talent, and Acuna’s probably been compared with him. Ask the many Hall of Fame talents around the Braves organization, such as Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones, and they’ll justify why.
The man seen as the face of the team’s rebuild can take his mantle.
“I really don’t have words to describe what I’m feeling,” Acuna said. “It’s incredible. It’s something that every minor league player dreams of. It’s been incredible and I have no words for it.”
He’s now the youngest player in baseball, supplanting his teammate and former roommate Ozzie Albies.
Acuna and Albies have long been best friends. They first met during instructional league in 2014, when Albies recalled noticing Acuna’s exceptional talent on the spot.
“We stay in contact every day,” Albies said. “He’s part of my family. We talk all the time about baseball stuff, family stuff. We talk about everything. I’m a brother to him. For me, he’s like my little brother. I’m going to teach him what to do and treat him the right way.”
Acuna was equally enthusiastic about the reunion.
“It’s an incredible feeling, an incredible emotion to be able to basically play with someone you consider your brother like him,” Acuna said. “I hope he and I will be together for many years to come in Atlanta.”
While Albies was called up in August, much was made of the Braves’ decision to keep Acuna in the minors to start this season, especially after he ended his spring ranked second in the majors in average (.432), on-base percentage (.519), slugging percentage (.727) and OPS (1.247).
But the Braves gained an additional year of contractual control if they held off Acuna’s debut until April 13. They ended up waiting 12 days longer after Acuna got off to a slow start in his first seven Triple-A games.
“He’s a classy, very intelligent young man,” Snitker said. “He gets the whole thing, and probably in retrospect, he went through the last couple weeks and thought that was a pretty good idea.”
The Braves cited developmental reasons when Acuna was sent to minor league camp. Anthopoulos maintained Acuna wouldn’t join the club until he hit his stride, comparing the situation with what he experienced with top prospect Cody Bellinger while in the Dodgers’ front office last season.
Berryhill and Snitker said Acuna was pressing. He said Wednesday that wasn’t the case, he simply wasn’t getting the desired results. Acuna thanked his coaches for helping him, pointing out the helpfulness of having a third-party perspective.
Acuna came through over his final eight games, hitting .333 (11-for-33). The promotion topic stirred debate, and justifiably so, but Acuna looks back on it as a positive trial.
“It helped me to develop a little bit more throughout those couple weeks in the minor leagues,” he said. “It definitely helped me be more prepared than I thought I would be leaving spring training.”
Acuna isn’t coming up with any specific goals. He wants to continue his infectiously fun play that some of his teammates believe will benefit the clubhouse.
One of those is fellow Venezuelan outfielder Ender Inciarte. The Braves center fielder admired Acuna from afar as he ripped through the minors. He had the chance to get to know him in spring.
“He always has a smile on his face and that’s good for the team,” Inciarte said. “Anytime you can get a positive attitude and a positive guy on the team, that’s very good. Of course he’s got a long ways to learn and see how everything works here, but it’s day one. I told him already I’m here for you, whatever you need.”
Inciarte recently told Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez he’d never the ball jump off the bat as it does with Acuna. He saw Acuna Sr. play as a child in Venezuela, and said the younger version gets it from his father.
In fact, unbeknown to the Acuna family, the father had an impact on Inciarte’s eventual All-Star career.
“He was an opposite-field hitter. I remember him hitting a lot of balls to right-center gap and the right-field line,” Inciarte said of watching Acuna Sr. “I liked it though because my dad, when we used to go to the games, told me that’s what I’ve got to do, go to the opposite field often. It’s kind of funny that I get to play with his son.”
Acuna isn’t shy. His jubilant attitude stems from steadfast confidence. He often channels key advice from Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano: Always stay positive and never lose faith.
His faith brought him to Wednesday, the day he’s worked toward his entire life. And he’s well aware of the near-unparalleled fan excitement; it makes him even more eager.
The moment arrived in Cincinnati, a lowkey, quiet town that’s still no stranger to superstar ballplayers. Acuna wasted no time getting going, demolishing balls into the upper deck during batting practice, drawing oohs and awes from players and reporters.
Acuna admitted opening at SunTrust Park would’ve been entertaining, where he could feel the atmosphere and excitement with fans, but it didn’t exactly detract from his day.
“We’ll be home soon enough,” Acuna said with the same smile as his first big-league presser came to a close.