All this talk about the Braves just “getting better” isn’t playing well with the new manager. It’s like a financial planner telling a retiree over the early-bird special at Denny’s, “So if you put away $50 a week for the next 30 years, you’ll have yourself a nice little nest egg one day.”
Brian Snitker laughed that Wilford Brimley-kind-of-laugh as he sat in the dugout and looked out onto a baseball diamond, where several young members of the Braves’ future went through drills.
“I’m too old to get better,” he said. “I’m starting this thing at 61. I’m not some 45- or 50-year-old kid. I got put here at the back end of my journey.”
This will be Season 3 since the Braves pushed the plunger on the Acme dynamite and blew themselves up. Nobody could have anticipated that as the team was preparing to move into a new stadium with a radically made-over roster and so much young blood that Snitker would be their manager — least of all him.
“I stopped thinking about that possibility after the 2013 season. I was, ‘OK, I’m done with that,’” he said.
Of course he was. It was only three years ago when Snitker was scapegoated by the front office for the Braves’ quick postseason exit. He went from Braves third base coach to Triple-A manager.
Snitker, pure class and an organizational lifer, neither squawked or walked. He reported to Gwinnett as ordered and went about the business of teaching young men how to play baseball.
“I’ve been recycled three times now — big leagues, minor leagues, big leagues, minor leagues. Here I am again.”
He was summoned from the farm in May after the Braves started 9-28 and fired Fredi Gonzalez. He calmed some nerves, was given some new pieces to work with and oversaw such an implausible finish (20-10) that management felt compelled to remove the “interim” tag from his title.
So here he is in 2017, one year before he can collect social security, 40 years after he joined the Braves as a minor-league catcher, having finally achieved his career dream.
The proximity to Braves spring training is appropriate. It’s a Disney movie.
Snitker’s first game as a non-temp manager came Saturday. He won. Bartolo Colon was in spring-like form (two innings: one run, three hits, two doubles), but the Braves rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat Toronto 7-4.
So Snitker is 1-0 after his first spring game.
“Yeah. Take it north,” he said.
When Snitker took it south recently during the long drive from his Atlanta home, a number of things rolled through his mind. But one thought played on an endless loop.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m the manager of the Braves.’ I’m driving the road and thinking, ‘I’m actually going down here in that capacity.’ It’s unbelievable. I mean, I’m going to Chick-fil-A and the grocery store and people are looking at you, talking to you. I was walking around Kroger with my cart and some lady just kept looking at me. Finally, I said, ‘How are you doing?’ and she said, ‘You look an awful lot like that guy.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’”
Snitker eventually introduced himself. Any lingering anonymity is about to dissipate.
We’re about to find out if last year’s finish was an aberration for him or the team. The Braves expect significant improvement after losing 95 and 93 games, respectively, in the past two seasons. They’re not likely to contend for a postseason berth, but Snitker isn’t thinking that way. It’s not in his makeup and, with only a one-year guaranteed contract (plus an option), it’s not like his bosses are giving him a lot of rope. But those who’ve been recycled aren’t apt to quibble.
Asked about pressure, he said, “Sure, it’s there. But you just tell yourself there’s only so much I can control and handle. I don’t dwell on that.”
He deserved this shot, even if he remains somewhat of an unknown commodity. He had some advantages last season over Gonzalez, not having to deal with the initial fallout of the Hector Olivera fiasco, benefiting from the acquisition of a rejuvenated Matt Kemp and the call-up of Dansby Swanson, being the man in charge when Freddie Freeman caught fire in June and when the bullpen improved.
But all that said, getting a bunch of players to pull together amid horrible circumstances is the epitome of coaching. Snitker showed a Bobby Cox-like touch in easing frayed nerves and getting players to play loose and have fun.
“Bringing him into that situation, you don’t wish that on anybody,” Freeman said. “Things were going a little haywire. But he came in and just talked about how happy he was to be there, how we should just go out and play and we’ve got nothing to lose. He gave a five-minute pep talk. After that we all just wanted to go out and have fun. The whole room had changed. We were 9-28, but suddenly it felt like we were 28-9.”
Snitker is still learning on the job. His offseason time used to be filled with vacations and time with his family and painting rooms in his house.
“I’d even read a book,” he said.
But this offseason, there were organizational meetings. (He hadn’t been to one since 2006 when “I just went to hang around Bobby for two or three days.”) There were winter meetings and discussions about players. This week, he found himself laying out player and pitcher schedules for the first several spring games, and he encountered other daily demands on his time.
Gone are the days of just hitting fungos.
His objective now is the same as it was in May: get players to just worry about today. Listening to him talk is like listening to somebody give a dissertation on the 12 Steps.
“I’ve been with teams before when I heard players talk about trying to win a division or getting into the wild card, and they say, ‘We have to win eight of 11.’ No, you don’t. What if you lose three in a row? Then you have to win eight in a row. Don’t do that to yourself. What’s gonna happen when you blow a tire?
“This season is a grind. There’s going to be ups and downs. The best teams in baseball are going to have ruts. If you do that to yourself, just win today. Don’t worry about tomorrow or yesterday. Just live today.”