Brian Snitker: The baseball lifer who’s having the time of his life

102621 HOUSTON: Braves manager Brian Snitker watches over batting practice as his team prepares to play the Astros in game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Houston.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
102621 HOUSTON: Braves manager Brian Snitker watches over batting practice as his team prepares to play the Astros in game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Houston. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Brian Snitker has been a Brave in some capacity – many capacities – since 1977.

He began as a minor-league player. He became a minor-league manager. He worked for Bobby Cox and Fredi Gonzalez as a third-base coach. If you’ve followed the Braves, you’ve become familiar with Brian Gerald Snitker. But maybe, probably, you haven’t seen him like this.

At 66, he’s managing in the World Series. Before this week, the list of managers to take the Atlanta-era Braves to the Fall Classic numbered one. (Cox, duh.) Snitker manages in the sense that he’s watching from the dugout and making the occasional pitching change. He’s driving the narrative. The Braves made the World Series in large measure because of a Snitker decision involving Ian Anderson. They lead Houston 2-1 because Snitker made another choice, again regarding Anderson. It came up trumps, same as the first.

In September 2017, this correspondent offered a missive bearing the headline: “Why Brian Snitker isn’t the manager for the Braves’ future.” Not for the first time, this showed how little I know. My reasoning, such as it was: Snitker was – everyone agrees on this – a fine baseball man, but for an organization in rebuild mode, better choices were available. My ideal manager would be steeped in analytics. My ideal would be able to cite data, not just his gut. My ideal would be innovative, even audacious.

Which sounds, you’d have to say, like Brian Snitker in October 2021.

In a tied Game 6 against the Dodgers, Snitker pinch-hit for Anderson – who’d allowed one run – in the fourth inning. Ehire Adrianza’s broken-bat double put two on with two out. Eddie Rosario hit the home run that sent the Braves to the World Series.

On Friday night, with the Braves leading 1-0 and Anderson having completed five no-hit innings, Snitker did it again. He’d seen Anderson throw 76 pitches, with almost as many balls as strikes. (Astros manager Dusty Baker described him as “effectively wild.”) Even with bullpen games awaiting Saturday and Sunday, Snitker seized the moment at hand. AJ Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith each worked his designated inning. The Braves won 2-0.

ExploreAJC full coverage of the World Series 2021

We can’t say that Snitker has gone utterly New Age. He said Saturday what he has said a half-dozen times this postseason: “I’m a big fan of starting pitching,” starting pitching having long been The Braves Way. He also said he never thought he’d be a fan of the universal designated hitter – he’s a National League guy, accustomed to double switches and suchlike – but he is now. “Most pitchers can’t hit,” he said. “They don’t even want to hit.”

Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal wrote this week of the Braves’ plunge into infield shifts, to great effect, after previously resisting the notion. General manager Alex Anthopoulos was an advocate of shifts, but he wouldn’t impose his will if Snitker, third-base coach Ron Washington and the four starting infielders objected. Said Snitker: “Nobody was hard-lined to where they had to be right. There weren’t any egos. Everybody was in there for all the right reasons.”

We say again: Snitker is 66. He has had enough experience and success to be set in his ways, but he isn’t. He’s willing to try just about anything. On Saturday, he announced that Dylan Lee, who was cut by the Marlins and who hadn’t worked a big-league inning until Oct. 1, would start Game 4 against Zack Greinke, a Cy Young winner.

This marks the Braves’ fourth consecutive playoff run under Snitker. They’ve grown up under his stewardship. They’re closer to a World Series title than any band of Braves has been since 1996. In previous Octobers, Snitker was guarded. He has showed more emotion this time, these up-from-oblivion Braves having become his favorite of the bunch. Also: His son, Troy, is the Astros’ hitting coach; they’ve held joint press conferences and photo ops. He choked up after Game 3, not over his move to remove Anderson, but he recalled Hank Aaron, who hired him as a minor-league manager way back when.

“I got to hug Billye …,” Snitker said, speaking of Aaron’s wife, and he paused for 10 seconds, “… and tell her how much I missed Hank.”

In his younger days, Snitker would pop into Aaron’s office over the winter, just to talk baseball and pick the great man’s mind. He would do the same with Cox, spending a half-hour before games at Turner Field in what was known as the radar room – Cox loved the Weather Channel – but became Cox’s hideaway. (If you were allowed in the door, it meant he liked you.)

In 2016, Snitker was managing Triple-A Gwinnett. He was 60. He’d never been seriously considered to manage the Braves. He’d resigned himself to reaching retirement without having been handed a big-league team. The big-league Braves started 9-28, forcing John Hart and John Coppolella to fire Gonzalez and tap Snitker as interim manager. After his first partial season ended nicely, they extended his contract for a year, which was a sign of thanks more than a vote of confidence.

Had Coppolella not been forced out as GM a year later, Snitker might well have been out of a job. The MLB investigation into misdeeds in the international talent market swept Coppolella and eventually Hart aside. Snitker was the last man standing. His teams haven’t finished anywhere but first since.

On the day the World Series began, Snitker was asked if, had he never gotten to manage in the majors, would he have been OK with that? His response: “I thought in ‘16 it was probably off the table when I left that time in that last recycle (being removed from the big-league staff after the 2013 season and assigned to Gwinnett) like that. When (becoming interim manager) happened, it’s like, ‘Absolutely, I’ll try this.’ "

Then: “I couldn’t imagine how great this has been and what’s transpired since that time because I wasn’t looking for that. I wasn’t expecting it. When I got the call, that’s not what I was expecting to hear. I’ve been blessed to be able to be in this position.”

Then: “I think this happened to me at a really good time in my life. I’m probably better versed to handle this position later in my career than I would have been earlier.”

You didn’t hear it here first, but here it is now: Brian Snitker is the right man to manage the Braves – for as long as he wants.

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