Anthopoulos and Snitker: A forced marriage grows into beautiful partnership

Brian Snitker (left) is back as manager and new GM Alex Anthopoulos is the new man in charge of baseball operations for the Braves. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

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Brian Snitker (left) is back as manager and new GM Alex Anthopoulos is the new man in charge of baseball operations for the Braves. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

They’ve won four division titles over four years. They’ve worked together in the way John Schuerholz did with Bobby Cox. One guy got the players; the other stitched together a first-place club every doggone year. When Schuerholz arrived from Kansas City, the new general manager didn’t get to hire his manager, Cox having been GM before team president Stan Kasten convinced him to return to the dugout in June 1990. Alex Anthopoulos likewise inherited Brian Snitker. Therein hangs a tale.

Snitker became the Braves’ manager May 17, 2016. He’d been summoned from Gwinnett, where he was managing the Triple-A club. He flew to Pittsburgh, where the Braves had lost to fall to 9-28 under Fredi Gonzalez, who had seen nearly all his good players sold in the rebuild launched by president John Hart and GM John Coppolella.

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Snitker has worked in the Braves’ organization since 1977. He was signed as a player, which didn’t last long. By 1982, he was managing the Anderson Braves in the Sally League. He became the classic company man, willing to go anywhere and do anything. He coached third base for Cox and Gonzalez. He managed Jeff Francoeur and Paul Byrd at Greenville. At 60, Snitker was still prepping minor-leaguers for their shot at the bigs.

Hart and Coppolella fired Gonzalez because the manager who led the Braves to the playoffs in 2012 and 2013 wasn’t fully invested in the concept of losing on purpose. (Managers never are. All those L’s go by their names.) The two Johns saw Snitker as a caretaker – he wouldn’t make anything worse, and he might make it a bit better. He wasn’t promised to keep his new job beyond the 2016 season.

It was assumed that the Johns would thank Snitker for his service and hire Bud Black, who was between jobs. (Black had been a pitcher. The Braves were rebuilding around pitching. 2+2=4.) On the morning of the final game at Turner Field, Hart floated the notion of a one-year extension for Snitker. The Braves entered September at 50-83. They went 18-10 thereafter. Julio Teheran beat Justin Verlander 1-0 in the team’s sign-off to downtown.

Hart felt Snitker deserved a reward for keeping his players interested — whenever asked, they’d say they loved the guy – but the front office wasn’t ready to make long-term commitment. Snitker was offered another year, which was almost an insult. Having no other jobs lined up and not ready to retire, he took it.

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Braves manager Brian Snitker sits in the dugout during the game against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Braves manager Brian Snitker sits in the dugout during the game against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Braves manager Brian Snitker sits in the dugout during the game against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The 2017 season was weird. The Braves opened SunTrust Park, now Truist Park. They shouldn’t have been very good, but they were 45-45 two weeks before the trade deadline. Snitker, believing his best chance to keep managing was to win even if upper management still expected him to lose, was trying everything.

When Freddie Freeman returned from a broken wrist July 4, he did so as a third baseman. Matt Adams had hit a ton while serving as Freeman’s stand-in, and Snitker wanted to get both bats in the lineup. That lasted 16 games. Dansby Swanson, the centerpiece of Coppolella’s greatest trade, had become the face of the franchise after a promising 2016 debut, but he was demoted to Gwinnett to clear a spot for Johan Camargo. The front office couldn’t grasp why Snitker gave journeyman Adonis Garcia so many starts at third base while Rio Ruiz, then considered a prospect of worth, sat idle.

On the next-to-last Saturday of the 2017 season, Snitker asked to meet with Hart/Coppolella early at the ballpark. Relations between the field manager and the men upstairs had frayed. A few weeks earlier, Hart stormed into the manager’s office to upbraid him for allowing Jim Johnson to blow a ninth-inning lead against Seattle. (Despite the Braves’ commitment to losing, Hart still took losses hard.)

Snitker figured he was about to get fired — full disclosure: this correspondent advocated such a move — but he had points he wanted to make. He made them so well that the meeting ended with Hart leaning toward giving Snitker yet another year, even though Black was still available. Everyone who meets the man says so, but that makes it no less true: It is impossible not to like Brian Snitker.

On the Monday after the season ended, MLB announced it was investigating the Braves for improprieties in the international talent market. Coppolella resigned that day. Amid the coast-to-coast embarrassment, Snitker’s status became a footnote. A week before MLB slapped the Braves with heavy sanctions — Coppolella was banned for life; Hart announced he was stepping down the next day – the Braves introduced Anthopoulos as GM. Snitker greeted him at the press conference. It was the first time the men had met.

We had no way of knowing it then, but chaos left the Braves with an ideal one-two punch. Anthopoulos proved himself as Toronto’s GM, and he proved he had standards by resigning — this after leading the Blue Jays to the 2015 AL East title — because he was uncomfortable with a rearranged front office. He spent two seasons as assistant GM under Andrew Friedman with the Dodgers, a time Anthopoulos saw as “grad school.”

Anthopoulos is a great talker without being a big talker. He inherited the top-ranked farm system that Coppolella assembled and felt no urge to tear it up just because it wasn’t of his making. He didn’t bat an eye at the Braves’ corporate ownership, having worked under the corporation Rogers Communications with Toronto. He made small moves trying to deepen the roster, a lesson he learned in L.A., and he could back away from a big move — a long-term contract for the 34-year-old Josh Donaldson, say — if it didn’t make financial sense.

Anthopoulos gets the players; Snitker puts them to work. A forced marriage has grown into a beautiful partnership. That this team kept fighting when the fight seemed lost had much to do with Snitker. The Braves of old couldn’t bear to let Cox down; the same applies to this manager and these men. That the Braves tore through August and September was a function of Anthopoulos’ many deadline buys.

The two don’t have much in common. Snitker is from Illinois, Anthopoulos from Montreal. Snitker turns 66 next week; Anthopoulos is 44. Anthopoulos isn’t one of those GMs who watches batting practice daily. He mostly leaves the on-field stuff to Snitker and his players. Much had to happen for these men to be working for this club, but here they are and how lucky are we?

As a tandem, Schuerholz and Cox oversaw 14 consecutive first-place finishes. Only 10 to go for AA and Snit.

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