It was two years ago Wednesday when, about an hour following a loss in Pittsburgh, Fredi Gonzalez received an inadvertent email from an airline notifying him that he had been booked on a flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta the next day. Strange. The Braves still had six games left in the road trip.
This was the clumsy way Gonzalez discovered he had been fired as the Braves’ manager. It was a rare exploding- clown-shoes moment for an organization that once prided itself on professionalism -- and that soon was dwarfed by the international signing scandal that cost John Coppolella and John Hart their jobs and their dignity.
But amid all that muck, there emerged a genuine and calming leader: Brian Snitker.
The Braves were 25-15 at the quarter-turn of the season, going into Tuesday’s game against Chicago. They were 10 games over .500 for the first time since 2014. They have the best record in the National League and trail only New York (28-12) and Boston (28-13) in the majors.
The Red Sox rank No. 1 payroll ($234.2 million), the Yankees rank seventh ($168.9 million) and the Braves are down at 21st ($119.9 million), right next door to Cincinnati and Dollar General.
There has been a lot of discussion about Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna and an offense that ranks first in team batting average (.269) and third in runs (219, or 5.47 per game). The Braves also have received some nice pitching of late and play an aggressive style (32 stolen bases) many have clamored for.
But nobody’s really talking about Snitker.
Why is that?
Baseball managers frequently leave themselves open to second-guessing on in-game decisions, including lineup, batting order and bullpen management. But most of what Snitker has done this season has worked, players love playing for him and there’s a positive vibe around the clubhouse that there hasn’t been in years.
The manager should get some credit for that.
“I hope I provide them with an atmosphere where they can go out and enjoy their job,” Snitker said Tuesday. “That’s my goal. I’ve always been one where I’ll let the talent go out there and ride.”
This may sound strange coming from a 62-year-old, but Snitker believes he’s growing into the job.
“I feel like I’m getting better. Bobby (Cox) told me when I came here it’s going to take a while, but you’ll learn the league. I’m starting to do that. I’m starting to see guys’ tendencies and how they manage games. The more you do it, the more you get comfortable. I feel more prepared to start a game than I did when I got here.”
There’s more than 120 games left in the season. But two years after taking over, Snitker deserves to be viewed as more than a glorified temp -- even if contractually that’s what he still looks like. He doesn’t have a contract for next season, nor do many in the organization.
The background: Snitker was named “interim” manager for the rest of the season following Gonzalez’s firing. Nobody realistically believed he would keep the job, least of all Coppolella and Hart, who were debating candidates. But the Braves went 59-65, including 20-10 down the stretch, after starting the season 9-28.
Coppolella and Hart decided to keep him, but they seemed reluctant to do so. Snitker was given a one-year contract with a one-year club option. In short, the Braves wouldn’t even guarantee the second year of a contract for a man who had been in the same organization for more than four decades. It was another example of how class and professionalism had left the organization.
With dreadful starting pitching and a relative “4A” roster, the Braves scrapped to a .500 record into July last year, before ultimately fizzling and finishing 72-90. Some players spoke up on Snitker’s behalf, including Freddie Freeman, who said in August, “I went to them a couple of weeks ago and expressed to them that we love Brian in here. (He has) put in all the time and done everything possible to help us win. He deserved the managerial job when he got it, and we all hope that he’s back.”
There’s no guarantee Snitker would’ve kept the job, given Coppolella’s unpredictability. But with those public comments and the forced resignations of Coppolella and Hart in October, a managerial change didn’t make sense. The Braves needed some sense of stability. So a few days after the signing scandal broke -- and before general manager Alex Anthopoulos was hired -- the Braves pick up the option on Snitker’s contract for 2018. But he does not have a contract for 2019.
Anthopoulos continues to evaluate the entire organization: roster, minor-league system, scouting, coaches, manager. Logic says he’ll let this play out for a while. But if somebody wants to make the case that Snitker is somehow holding the Braves back, I would love to hear it.
Asked if he feels like he’s trying to prove himself every day, Snitker said: “I feel like I want to prove myself. I don’t know that I feel I have to or it’s imperative. I just want to win.”
That, he’s doing.
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