Snitker embraces another in long line of opening days

Brian Snitker strikes the manager's pose during an early-season Braves game in 2017. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

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Brian Snitker strikes the manager's pose during an early-season Braves game in 2017. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Up top, let’s specify that every baseball opening day is special.

Unlike almost any other day, opening day can bring out the excited rookie that lives deep inside even the baseball lifer.

“You look forward to it because you just never know what to expect with a season until you start the games,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said at the close of another spring in Fantasia, Fla., aka Orlando.

“You got a team you think you know, but until you get out there and start playing the games, you don’t really know where you’re at.

“Who’s going to pop, who’s going to be that guy who’s the surprise? Or the guy you’re really hoping for big things and it just doesn’t work out? There is so much uncertainty.

“You feel good about things but everybody else is doing the same thing, too. Everybody else feels good about things, they’re real positive. They’re making their team better and doing a lot of good things, also.”

In this case, the guy running the dugout and the one occupying the upper deck seat is not so different – both are hurtling into the great unknown at the beginning.

Opening day 2018 – Thursday afternoon vs. Philadelphia – is a markedly special one for Snitker. It’s his first at home as a major league manager. Even though he’s 62, with four decades’ experience coaching and managing throughout the Braves system – from Anderson (S.C.) to Danville (Va.) to Pearl (Miss.) and every other bus stop on the way to Atlanta – baseball remains capable of offering him something new again.

Last season, his first full one (finally) managing the mother ship, Snitker opened with an eight-game road trip as the new SunTrust Park was still getting ready for its closeup. The awe, at least, had not worn off by mid-April, when they got around to christening the new joint.

It still hasn’t. “Whenever I see the (2017) opening-day picture, I think, ‘Wow, that’s me there,’” Snitker said.

Snitker’s story is classically endearing and enduring – good soldier sticks with one franchise through fat times and lean, and just when it seems his time has passed, he gets a mid-season promotion to the Big Braves manager’s office.

He wears the interim title for the remainder of 2016, then gets another year and option for 2018. Still hanging in there. No telling for how long, so take no day , opening or otherwise, for granted.

His long, winding and colorful travels through the Braves system are reflected by his opening day memories.

Thursday certainly will be tamer than, say, opening day in 1983 with the Durham Bulls. In from Virginia then were the Peninsula Pilots, a pesky lot.

How about rolling into a new season with blood already boiling? “We got into the damndest fight on opening night,” Snitker said, recounting the familiar hit-by-pitch-turns-to-brawl scenario.

“It’s the first inning of the new season, this happens. The year’s not even an hour old and we’re in this bench brawl,” Snitker recalled. “We didn’t even know who was on our team. Guys slugging each other. I’m in there trying to break it up and I learned to not do that after a few years because I’d get my rear kicked.”

But that was only the undercard.

Come the sixth inning, Snitker coaching at third, he suddenly saw the entire Pilots dugout running in his general direction. He did not have a good feeling about that.

“I’m thinking what the hell? I turn around and their bullpen is in a fight with a biker gang in the stands. I don’t know what happened, but there are players going into the stands to fight,” he said.

There were no lasting wounds. And no report of the Braves running a Hell’s Angels Appreciation Night on Thursday.

After a four-year minor league catching career that peaked in Rookie League ball, Snitker took his first minor league managing position with Single-A Anderson (S.C.) in 1982. He can’t swear this lesson came to him on his first managerial opening day. Can’t swear that it didn’t. It was darn close, anyway:

That spring, in a role as roving instructor, former Braves (as in Boston Braves) pitcher Johnny Sain tried to help the kid with one piece of advice: “When things start getting hairy, just back off and let the players handle it.”

So, of course, right out of the gate, Snitker switches to genius mode and orders his pitcher to intentionally walk the bases loaded.

The next batter rattled one off the wall, and the Anderson Braves took the L.

“I’m in the shower in my hotel room after the game and I’m thinking, ‘You did exactly what (Sain) told you not to do. You got involved and tried to make it happen and it didn’t work.’” Let the learning begin.

No doubt one of the most difficult of opening days was 2014, Triple A Gwinnett. After having been the major league team’s third-base coach, Snitker was the one member of the ’13 staff not retained.

“Probably a good way to put it, I wasn’t real happy,” he said, “because we had won the division. I was third base coach. I had done my job. I was pretty good at what I did.”

Snitker took measure of where he was in life – too old to really start over anywhere else and deeply settled into metro Atlanta with his family. He bit his tongue, relating especially well to those disappointed players sent down from the majors because he had just lived it, too.

Knowing where he’ll be spending this opening day, Snitker can say now, “It ended up being good for me.”

The bulk of the preseason predictions puts the 2018 Braves at below .500 for a fifth consecutive year. Don’t ask a manager if he has ever gone into an opening day – no matter how many have come and gone – thinking, “We got no shot.”

“I’m kind of an optimistic person,” Snitker said. “I’m one of those guys when you got a bad streak, I don’t care how bad you’re going, that next day you go to the ballpark is the one something good really starts.”

“Last year, I felt really good about our club starting the year. The way we finished (in 2016), the pieces we added, who we had, I felt really good about what was going to happen.” That team finished 72-90.

You get one day, at least, to be a cockeyed optimist. Opening day.