Brian Snitker’s path from interim manager to Braves cornerstone

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The idea was to find a photo of Jason Heyward’s opening-day home run. The one I found in our archives was taken by Phil Skinner. It featured Heyward rounding third, about to shake hands with the Braves’ third-base coach, who looked familiar. Which got me thinking, always a dangerous thing.

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Six years, one month and 13 days later, that third-base coach would become the Braves’ manager. He had worked for the club since 1977, but not until he was 60 did anyone think to give Brian Snitker the biggest uniformed job in the organization. He all but had conceded that it wouldn’t happen. Then it happened.

For this observer, that photo triggered a sliding-doors moment. (Named after the film that shows what happens to Gwenyth Paltrow after she missed a train – and what could have happened had she caught it.) Had the Braves not fired general manager Frank Wren on Sept. 22, 2014; had the new administration not committed to a full rebuild; had Fredi Gonzalez’s sixth season as Braves manager not seen an overmatched team start 9-28 …

Had none of that happened, the faithful servant Brian Gerald Snitker might have retired without ever managing a big-league club. In 2013, he was bumped from coaching third base for Gonzalez to managing Triple-A Gwinnett.

During last year’s World Series, this correspondent asked if Snitker would have been OK if he’d retired without getting a chance at the big job. His response: “I thought after that last recycle (in 2013) it was probably off the table. When (becoming interim manager) happened, it’s like, ‘Absolutely. I’ll try this.’”

On the final day of the 2016 season, the Braves’ brass – John Hart and John Coppolella – hadn’t decided what to do with Snitker. The plan had been to let him finish the year, whereupon then they’d look elsewhere. But the Braves finished 20-10, stoking a players’ campaign to retain Snitker. By then, Hart felt indebted to the manager for keeping the season from being historically awful. The two Johns offered him a one-year extension with a club option for a second season.

Those terms came close to being an insult. Snitker swallowed any bile and agreed to stick around. As the 2017 season drew to its tepid close – the Braves finished 72-90 – the widespread belief was that he was a goner. In August, Hart yelled at him for using Jim Johnson in a game the Braves blew, and Snitker got along better with Hart than Coppolella.

On the next-to-last Saturday of the season, Snitker met with the Johns. Some air was cleared, but the odds of him being retained were no better than 50/50. Nine days later, Coppolella resigned ahead of MLB’s probe into violations regarding the international talent market. Hart departed the day after Alex Anthopoulos was named the new GM. With the front office in a frazzle, Snitker remained in place as a nod to continuity.

Over the next four seasons, his Braves finished first, first, first and first. They almost made the World Series in 2020. They won the World Series in 2021. He’s the sixth-longest-serving manager in the majors. His 505 wins are second-most among Atlanta-era Braves managers. The afterthought has become a franchise pillar.

In 2017, yours truly suggested that Snitker wasn’t the man to take the Braves forward. This season has highlighted why he has become the absolute right manager. Not until June did this gifted team nose above .500 to stay. Not until then did they win three games in succession, a curiosity that might have led other skippers to fling food. Snitker remained patient. Patience comes a bit easier when you’ve seen it all.

Over the two months it took for the Braves to get going, there was never a sense that the season was slipping away. Snitker didn’t stop believing, which was part of the reason his players didn’t, either. The Braves mightn’t catch the Mets in the NL East, but they’ll win 90 games and make the playoffs. They’ll have a chance to repeat as champs.

Bobby Cox was 69 when he retired. Snitker will turn 67 in October. The job is his for as long as he wants it. Yes, it would be tough to step away from a team that should stay good for several more seasons, but the grind never gets less grinding.

In September 2017, as rumors of Snitker’s exit were flying, Braves chairman Terry McGuirk told Mark Bowman of MLB.com: “If you’re ever going to build monuments of (good) people, he’d be a guy.” There’s a chance Snitker will get his statue, and not just for being a fine fellow. For being a manager whose teams just kept winning, same as Cox’s did.