17/12/2021 By RuneLite
Of the many, many times when Brian Snitker could and perhaps should have given up on baseball, the first came in 1980.
By that fall, Snitker, then 24, had hit his ceiling as a player: four years in high school, three in college and now four in the Braves’ minor league system, playing in Southern outposts like Kinston, N.C.; Savannah; and, most recently, Durham, N.C.; where he’d made $750 for the season as a Class A catcher and first baseman.
In that moment, he could have avoided all that followed: the life of 12-hour bus rides, missing entire seasons of a child’s school sports, working on one-year contracts—the nights sleeping on a training table, the decades chasing his big league dream, only to have it snatched away over and over.
Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves
Snitker could have gone back to school, earned his degree and lived a normal life, one where he knew where he’d be in 12 months’ time. Instead, for better or worse, he chose to push on—to keep grinding, believing in a destination that seemed more and more unreachable the older he got. Meanwhile, the game evolved, becoming the province of analysts and MBAs until a man like Snitker—an old-school baseball lifer, lacking in artifice and terrible at self-promotion—felt like someone from another age.
But the world works in mysterious ways, and now, to the surprise of most everyone in baseball, Snitker is in his sixth year as manager of the Braves, having led them to three consecutive NL East titles and, last season, to within one game of the World Series. At 65 he is currently the fourth-oldest manager in MLB and the one initially hired to the job at the oldest age. “I’m not sure I could have gone through what he did,” says Mark Lemke, the former Atlanta second baseman who came up in the minors under Snitker. “Actually, I know I couldn’t have.” Greg Walker, the longtime Braves hitting coach, is convinced his friend’s life should be a movie.
Indeed, those who hear Snitker’s story—of unlikely encounters and crushing heartbreaks, of persistence and futility, of unexpected mentors and flashes of glory—tend to be either inspired or mystified. Some want to know how he did it. Others want to know why he stuck with it.
Had you met Snitker at age 13, chances are you wouldn’t have projected a bright future in baseball. Not especially agile or strong, he wore thick glasses and was so slow-footed that high school teammate Steve Shartzer would say, “There’s dead people that can outrun him.”
But Brian had loved the game since he was 6 years old, when he’d swing a bat in his backyard in Macon, a rural outpost of 1,200 in the middle of Illinois. His father, Dick, worked as a salesman for Pabst Blue Ribbon and, later, Jim Beam, which meant the Snitkers always had the best-stocked rec room bar in the county. It also meant Dick was on the road four to five days a week. So Brian, whom everyone just called Snit, played catch with his mom, Catherine, or banged balls off the brick wall at Macon High.
It was there that Snitker met the first of a string of men who’d shape his managerial approach, a young English teacher turned baseball coach named Lynn Sweet, who had moved to town from Chicago. To the consternation of many in Macon, Sweet wore his hair long, taught progressive books and had a habit of empowering his players. He let them choose their positions and steal at their own discretion. He also thought sports should be fun. When he filled out a form about the Ironmen for a nearby paper, for team weaknesses Sweet wrote: coaching.
The Macon boys wore peace signs on their hats, grew their hair out, played Jefferson Airplane during warmups and began winning at a heady pace. At the time, there were no class divisions in Illinois high school ball, so when the Ironmen took the district title in 1971, Snitker’s sophomore year, nearly every playoff game lined up as a mismatch. And yet Macon, with an enrollment of 250, won the sectionals to qualify for the all-comers state tournament in Peoria.
The experience opened Snitker’s eyes to a broader world—big-city press coverage, college stadiums, major league scouts. Defying the odds, Macon advanced to the semis and, in a game that would be etched in state high school lore, took down Chicago’s Lane Tech High, a baseball powerhouse with 5,200 students, becoming the smallest school in Illinois history to advance to the state finals.
That the Ironmen lost in the finals did little to blunt the achievement; when Snitker and his teammates returned home that night, they found the roadway in Macon lined with townspeople. (In 2010 I’d write about this season, for Sports Illustrated, and later in a book, One Shot at Forever, which is when I first met Snitker.)
For many of the boys, that season would stand as a high-water mark of their athletic careers. Not Snitker. Two years later he headed to Lincoln (Ill.) Junior College, then to the University of New Orleans for two seasons before leaving to sign as a free agent with the Braves in 1977. His career peaked at Triple A in ’78, when he had four hits—all singles—in 12 at bats. Within a couple of years, he had dropped all the way back to Class A, fighting to keep his batting average north of the Mendoza Line.
Which brings us to the fall of 1980. Released by the Braves, Snitker had no Plan B and, he says, “really no other passion than baseball.”
And then he got a call from Hank Aaron.
Under Snitker, who won the NL 2018 Manager of the Year award (opposite), the Braves have won three straight division titles.
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
We all have inflection points in our lives. Snitker had two pretty much back-to-back. First came that call from Aaron, the Braves legend and, at that time, MLB’s home run king. Aaron had recently been installed as the team’s farm director. He’d heard Snitker was good with people and offered him a gig as a roving instructor in the low minors. It wouldn’t be glamorous. He would sleep on couches, lug bags and throw BP, all for the princely sum of $14,000 a year. Snitker jumped at the chance.
Not long afterward, Snitker met Veronica “Ronnie” Sylvester while on a blind date set up by his roommate, former big league outfielder Cito Gaston. They had little in common. Ronnie worked as a speech pathologist at an elementary school and was vegetarian. Brian dipped tobacco and had never met a burger he couldn’t inhale. Yet the two hit it off and, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Snitkers, soon moved in together. “You might want to experience this life first before we actually do it,” Snitker told her. “It’s not for everybody.”
Ronnie decided that it was for her, or at least that Brian was. They began a winding minor league adventure. The following spring, Snitker got a job managing the Class A team in Anderson, S.C., and then, a year later, the Class A Durham Bulls, leaning on Aaron for advice as he went. Snitker must have done something right, because in 1985 the big club called him up as a bullpen coach. These were the Braves of Ted Turner’s heyday, led by outfielder Dale Murphy and broadcast nationwide on the TBS Superstation. Turner lived large, serving bison from his Montana ranch at team dinners and sitting behind the dugout during games drinking beer, shirtless if the weather was hot. When the staff held meetings about the roster, the coaches knew what was coming. “By the time you got downstairs,” recalls Snitker, “Ted had already told the players what everybody was saying about them. He couldn’t help himself.”
In what would become a pattern, just as Snitker gained momentum, he lost it. The next season, the Braves hired Chuck Tanner as manager and, as managers often do, he brought in his own guys. Atlanta sent Snitker back to manage Class A Sumter and start at the bottom again.
Courtesy of the Snitker family
Snitker has had stops as a manager at Class A Durham (1984) and Macon (’97).
Courtesy of the Snitker family
When Bull Durham came out, in 1988, it lent a certain romance to the minor leagues. The reality, Snitker was learning, was far from it.
Managing came with no security and little pay; he made $17,500 managing Class A Durham in 1983, getting up to $27,500 there four years later. The couple became adept at making do, especially once their firstborn, Erin, arrived in December 1986, followed two years later by a son, Troy.
Often, the Snitkers were on the move. They bought the first of three Chevy Astro vans, which Ronnie jury-rigged into traveling homes. She saved matching packing boxes, placing a sheet over them to serve as an end table. They strapped a TV atop a milk crate and attached a VCR to create a rudimentary car entertainment system for the kids on long drives. “We looked like the Clampetts dragging stuff around the Southeast,” says Snitker.
Their schedules were near mirror opposites. Ronnie, who had a graduate degree in speech pathology and audiology from Georgia State, served as a single parent much of the year. She took work calls in a locked room in their home in Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, hoping the kids wouldn’t break anything. As soon as the school year ended, Ronnie and the kids packed up and drove to wherever Brian was coaching. One year, they stayed the summer at a Comfort Inn. Another, they shared a three-bedroom apartment with the pitching coach and the trainer. Once, they moved three times. Sometimes the apartment would be moldy; sometimes the neighborhood wasn’t safe. Ronnie once looked down at Erin in her Easter bonnet and saw a roach crawling on her face. “I just snapped,” she says.
In the summers, the kids lived on baseball time, staying up until 1 a.m. Troy became a batboy, dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” with the Wooly Bull mascot in Durham. Erin belted out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” changing it to “Take Me Out to My Daddy’s Game.” One year, Ronnie and the kids arrived before the team and set up the clubhouse. The players arrived to find 10-year-old Troy vacuuming the carpet.
In 1988, Snitker received a second promotion to the big leagues (to bench coach under Tanner), followed two years later by another demotion (back to Class A). With each “recycling”—as he came to call it—he moved to the back of the line again, a baseball Sisyphus.
Along the way, Snitker gained a reputation for intensity—he has since mellowed—and for being a gifted developmental coach. “I never would have had a major league career if not for Brian Snitker,” says Lemke, whom Snitker rostered as a third-string second baseman back in Class A. Once, mired in a slump, Lemke knocked on his manager’s door, hoping for technical advice. Instead, Lemke recalls, Snitker told him to stop worrying about where he held his hands or his batting stance. One day, Snitker said, you’re going to get a hit and then go on a hot streak and you won’t know what caused it, but the longer you think about it, the longer you’ll be in a slump. Not long after, Lemke started hitting. Within three years, he was in the majors, going on to start at second on Atlanta’s 1995 championship team.
Snitker’s knack for development worked for and against him. The skill kept him with the Braves organization, forever recycled rather than fired. But by helping his best players move up, he in turn made it harder to win. “The difference between him and other minor league managers is that he did exactly what you were supposed to do,” says Lemke. “Most guys want to win and uplift their own ego.”
So, year after year, Snit helped groom the big club’s next stars. He had outfielder David Justice in A ball (“very intelligent kid”). He was the first coach righthander John Smoltz met in Instructional League in 1987. (Smoltz later recalled being scared of Snitker.) In ’91 he was Chipper Jones’s hitting coach during Jones’s first full season in the minors, when he batted .326. Chipper has fond memories of those days, eating Moons Over My Hammy at Denny’s, watching teammates trying to sleep laid out in the luggage carriers on long bus rides. “Snit taught us how to be professionals,” Jones says.
In 1993, Jones debuted in the majors. Two years later, when the Braves finally won the World Series, Snitker watched from the stands, proud to know he’d been part of the players’ journeys. But the following spring, when Atlanta set out to defend the title, Snitker reported to Danville, Va., to manage a Rookie League team.
For generations, baseball was a game of instinct. Of gut calls and knowing talent when you saw it. But, as Snitker toiled in the minors, the game began to undergo a revolution. The Bill James Baseball Abstract grew from a photocopied novelty to required reading for forward-thinking front offices. In 2003, Michael Lewis’s Moneyball came out, popularizing the data-centric approach of the A’s.
As other teams embraced new concepts, Atlanta stayed the course. The Braves were then in the midst of an 11-season postseason streak, led by Bobby Cox, who’d taken over for Tanner in 1990 and was as old-school as they came.
Meanwhile, Snit waited his turn. And waited. He won two Manager of the Year awards with Class A Myrtle Beach, S.C. He managed Atlanta’s Double A club in Greenville, S.C., and then, when it moved, in Pearl, Miss., before being promoted to Triple A Richmond where, instead of bus rides, the team got 3 a.m. wake-up calls to get to the airport for flights. “You’re just exhausted all the time,” says Snitker. “Just raising a family and keeping a marriage together, and never being there. It was tough.”
Always, Brian and Ronnie expected financial instability. They had the $78,000 to buy their first home in Stone Mountain in 1986 only after Brian cashed in all his childhood savings bonds to help with the down payment. From then on when they bought houses, they did it based on his minor league salary, even during his stints in the majors. They clipped coupons and balanced checkbooks religiously.
In 2005, Snitker turned 50. Erin graduated high school. Troy began his junior year in suburban Atlanta, now a talented catcher himself—though Brian would see just three innings of Troy’s high school career in person. “You miss everything,” says Snitker. “I told my sisters, ‘Don’t get married during the season. I won’t be there.’ ”
By now it had been a decade and a half since Snitker’s last call-up. Every year he broke the happy news to promoted players, including catcher Brian McCann and, over Bud Lights in his hotel room, outfielder Jeff Francoeur (who recalls Snit getting “a little teary-eyed”). And every year, Snitker stayed behind. He began to talk about valuing the process, not the outcome.
And then, in the fall of 2006, Braves GM John Schuerholz called. Fredi González was leaving to manage the Marlins. They needed someone to replace him as Braves third base coach. Did Brian want the job?
Snitker did not prevaricate. “Man, I’ll take it!” he bellowed. Seventeen years had passed between appearances in the Show, a gap that, best anyone knows, stands as the longest ever.
In running Atlantas big league club, Snitker has been reunited with many of the players he helped develop.
Willie J Allen Jr/AP/Shutterstock
And thus began a third run in the bigs. Just as he’d once observed Sweet and Aaron, now Snitker watched Cox, who made everyone feel like the most important person in the room and took no one for granted. Snitker realized the job isn’t about baseball: “It’s about managing people.”
Snitker picked up other tricks of the trade from Cox. He learned to get up at 5 a.m. at the winter meetings, when baseball men like Jim Leyland gathered in the lobby to talk shop over coffee. He learned to schedule a daily meeting so it never felt out of the ordinary when you needed to address your team. And he learned the value of an office couch. (Cox was a Hall of Fame napper.)
Four years passed. González replaced Cox. Then Jones retired. After three Astro vans, Ronnie finally got a Ford Explorer. And, much to Brian’s delight, Troy, after graduating from North Georgia, was taken by the Braves in the 19th round of the 2011 MLB draft.
Occasionally, Snitker thought to himself that he might make a good manager. But he was also in his mid-50s. He knew how the world worked. At least he was still in the majors.
But if Snitker had learned one thing, it was never to get too comfortable. In 2013, the Braves made the playoffs and fell to the Dodgers. As Snitker recalls, on the plane ride home, GM Frank Wren said he was keeping everybody but would “tweak” the staff. Two days later, Wren called Snitker at home, asking him to come to the ballpark.
He went in, unsure what to expect. Maybe a shift to a new role? Then he saw the look on the faces of Wren and González.
Fifteen minutes later, Snitker trudged out. For a while, he roamed the clubhouse in disbelief. Finally, he called Walker, the Atlanta hitting coach.
“Well, Walk,” Snitker said, “I’m the tweak.”
A young Snitker goofed off with a young Chipper Jones.
Courtesy of the Snitker family
Let’s pause here, for this is the point where any reasonable person might say, in so many words, Screw this. Four decades with the franchise, and this was Snitker’s reward?
In demoting Snitker, Wren had offered him the Triple A manager’s job in Gwinnett, framing it as an opportunity. It didn’t feel that way. Before, Snitker had always found a silver lining when he got recycled. In 1986 he had a lot to learn. In ’90, he ended up getting to manage at Triple A.
He couldn’t find the upside this time. That weekend, a friend came over and for hour after hour over two days they sat on the porch drinking beer.
Giants could be short-handed as Mets series continues
Marlins prized prospect to make debut vs. Nationals
Snitker felt trapped. Because he’d worked for only the Braves, he lacked a network. Furthermore, baseball had evolved. GMs were gaining power. They increasingly looked to younger managers, recently retired from playing, or analytics-savvy minds who didn’t mind setting lineups or changing pitchers based on orders from on high. Someone like Snitker did not constitute a sexy hire. He says the Braves put out his name to other teams for a bench coach job, but none showed interest.
At the same time, he couldn’t retire. He hadn’t made enough and didn’t qualify for the full pension from MLB. And, since all he’d ever done was play or coach baseball, he had no fallback career. “If I was young, I’d have told them to shove it,” says Snitker. That fall, he and Ronnie returned to the minor league life.
At the introductory press conference with Gwinnett, Snitker couldn’t hide his disappointment. “Everybody sitting at this table, everybody with the jerseys on back there, myself included, we all want to be in the major leagues,” Snitker said. “It’s why we do this.”
And that, it seemed, was how his big league story would end. “As much as I hate to say it, when he went to Triple A, I think we all thought that was it for him,” says Walker. “He was getting older. It’s kind of like going back to Triple A as a player. I figured that was the end.”
When you wait your whole life for something you don’t get to choose how or when it happens. For Snitker, the fateful call came while he was out to breakfast with Ronnie.
This was the spring of 2016, and Snitker had just turned 60. Having sold their house, he and Ronnie were living in the basement at Erin’s, outside Atlanta, alternately helping her out with her newborn twin boys and, to hear Ronnie tell it, driving her up the wall.
On the other end of the phone was Braves GM John Coppolella, joined shortly by John Hart, the president of baseball operations. They asked whether Snitker could talk. Like, really talk. So he headed outside and walked the asphalt parking lot. And that’s where, a little after 11 a.m. on May 16, 2016, in his third season at Gwinnett and to his great surprise, Brian Snitker finally became a major league manager.
So surprised was Snitker that, at first, he thought he’d heard “bench coach.”
No, said Hart, the whole team. They’d fired González after a 9–28 start.
What’s more, they needed Snitker to be in Pittsburgh by the next morning; he’d be managing against the Pirates.
Snitker felt terrible for González, a good friend, but he had little time to think about that now. First, he had a game to manage; then he needed to get to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Ronnie still didn’t know why her husband hadn’t returned to breakfast.
Less than 24 hours later—after celebrating with Ronnie, managing Gwinnett in a near-trance, breaking the happy news to his kids, grabbing a few suits and catching a 5:30 a.m. ride to the airport—he walked out onto the field at PNC Park, the oldest rookie manager since 64-year-old Bobby Mattick helmed the Blue Jays in 1980.
Technically, he knew what to expect from his years as a third base coach. This was different, though; he was in charge. At least he had one advantage. When he walked into that clubhouse, dozens of familiar faces awaited—Francoeur and Kelly Johnson and Mallex Smith and Freddie Freeman and so many players he’d developed, managed or worked with as third base coach.
Snitker recalls little about the game—the Braves lost 12–9—but he does remember how Pirates manager Clint Hurdle came over to wish him well. Just as he remembers how, when he got his first win the following night, Francoeur and Johnson bought him champagne. When they played the Cubs, Joe Maddon sent over a bottle of wine and an encouraging note. Against the Giants, Bruce Bochy walked over to congratulate him. Says Bochy, “You have an affinity for the guys that really grind and spend all those years getting there.”
Snitker now drew on all his experiences. He tried to empower, like Sweet. To stay even-keeled, like Aaron. And, above all, to be straight with players. “The truth is all I’ve ever wanted to hear and haven’t,” says Snitker. “I’ve been shoved aside probably more than the player I’m talking to and I’ve never been told the truth, and I had to learn to deal with it. So I just tell them the truth.”
It didn’t help that Atlanta was a mess, early in a rebuild and lacking talent. The whole year felt makeshift. Brian and Ronnie stayed with Erin the rest of the season. “I was the only manager in Major League Baseball living in his kid’s basement,” Snitker says. “It was like Animal House.”
Meanwhile, the Braves won a few, then a few more. The players took to Snitker. “When people get the job of manager the power can change who they are,” says Freeman. “He’s literally the same person he was as a third base coach. He doesn’t take it for granted after all that time in the minor leagues and what he went through.”
That season the Braves finished strong, winning 12 of their last 14. Though Snitker had done well, most assumed he’d be replaced. In the fall, Atlanta began interviewing managerial candidates. It was, Snitker realized, the first time that he’d ever filled out a job application.
As the media floated successors, the players had their own opinions. All those years of developmental work, of having everyone’s back, had not gone unnoticed. Led by Freeman, they rallied around Snitker. That fall, the first baseman recalls walking into the office of Hart and Coppolella. “I told them he needs to be our manager,” he says. Next came outfielder Nick Markakis, one of the most respected veterans on the team.
Still, the players’ vote went only so far. Conventional wisdom still lay with hiring an experienced coach. Bud Black, who’d won NL Manager of the Year with the Padres, was the favorite. Snitker prepared to be disappointed again.
Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 10, 2016, Snitker was driving to Florida for the Braves’ organizational meetings when his cellphone rang. Hart and Coppolella delivered the news: They were making him their full-time manager. Sure, it was only a one-year contract with a club option. And sure, they’d nearly chosen Black. (Media reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put the decision as “a 51–49 thing.”) And yes, the team remained a reclamation project.
None of that mattered to Snitker, a 60-year-old man quietly beaming as he drove down I-75, finally someone’s first choice.
After Atlanta tabbed Snitker as interim manager in 2016, Freeman (left) pushed for his full-time hire.
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports
Now it’s a warm Tuesday night in late May, and Snitker is driving home after a 4–2 win over the Nationals, piloting his Ford SUV through the rolling Atlanta exurbs to the 60-house subdivision where the Snitkers have lived since moving out of Erin’s basement.
Over turkey sliders and beers in his kitchen Snitker relives the last five years. That first season, in 2017, the Braves finished 72–90 and fell into dysfunction. Coppolella committed extensive violations in signing international players, dragging the organization into an MLB investigation. Had Coppolella not been fired, Snitker says he may not have wanted to return. But MLB banned the executive for life, and Hart turned to Snitker for stability, exercising the one-year option. By the middle of November, Hart was also gone, replaced by Alex Anthopoulos.
On paper it didn’t seem a match; Anthopoulos is analytics-driven while Snitker relies on his experience and gut. Many assumed Snitker was on borrowed time. One Atlanta columnist called him “Accidental Manager.”
That same season, though, the farm system began to bear fruit. Suddenly, having a manager versed in developing players wasn’t the worst thing. Second baseman Ozzie Albies blossomed into an All-Star in his second season. Outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. tore into the league as a rookie and Snitker, sensing his potential, installed him at the top of lineup, an unconventional but ultimately catalyzing move. The Braves began to win, then win some more. And then came Aug. 15, 2018, when, to hear some tell it, Snitker dispelled any lingering doubts.
It was a warm afternoon, and the Braves were hosting the Marlins. The teams had history. On the first pitch of the game, Miami starter José Ureña threw at Acuña, drilling him in the elbow with a fastball. As Acuña grabbed his arm and Ureña stared him down, the dugouts tensed.
And then, roaring up the steps and onto the field, face red and bellowing, charged a portly, bald 62-year-old with a bad hip, beelining for Ureña, having to be held back. And with that the floodgates broke and the benches emptied. In the end, no punches were thrown, and, after deliberation, the umps tossed Snitker along with Ureña.
“People always ask, ‘Why would a player run through a wall for a manager?’ ” says Bill Shanks, a longtime Atlanta radio host who has written a book about the Braves. “Well, that’s why.” The normally calm Snitker was still riled up during his postgame press conference. To Francoeur, it’s an example of how Snit bridges the gap—of decades, language and culture—with his young players. “They see that and they know he’s going to fight for them,” says Francoeur.
From that point on the Braves rolled. Snitker clicked with Anthopoulos and began incorporating elements of analytics in his approach, relying on his bench coaches to filter and translate the data. Atlanta won the first of three straight division titles, and Snitker took home the NL Manager of the Year award in 2018. Last year, they won a postseason series for the first time since ’01, falling to the eventual champion Dodgers 4–3 in the NLCS. Afterward, Snitker was rewarded with a two-year extension taking him through the ’23 season with a club option for ’24. He says it is only the second time in his life he’s had job security beyond one year.
This season has been challenging (even if, in mid-August, Atlanta finds itself tied for first place in the NL East). The team lost two All-Stars, Acuña and pitcher Mike Soroka, for the season, along with a half dozen other players who’ve been out with injuries. The weekend before my visit, outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who had just gone on the IL himself, was arrested for domestic violence. Snitker said he found out after his players did, as the news hit social media. Now, as Snitker awaited the results of an MLB investigation, he said, “I don’t know if we’ll ever see him again.”
The season has offered one notable highlight, though. On April 16, Snitker got to pay it forward and call up infielder Sean Kazmar Jr. from the club’s taxi squad. Perhaps you heard the story. How Kazmar played 19 games with San Diego in 2008 and then got sent back down. How he kept grinding and dreaming, through the minor league systems of the Padres, Mariners and Mets before joining the Braves’ Triple A affiliate in ’13, when Snitker was the manager. So when Ender Inciarte strained his hamstring early this season, Snitker got to be the one to break the news to the now 36-year-old Kazmar, in the hotel room over minibar wine, one grinder to another. Each had waited more than 15 years between call-ups.
The next morning of my visit, Ronnie pulls out some binders full of baseball memories. There’s Snitker in a Durham Bulls uniform in 1984, back when he had hair and sported a robust mustache; there he is in the dugout in Macon, Ga., with a skinny, 19-year-old Jones. She leafs through page after page of Snitker’s contracts, preserved under plastic. As she goes, he tells stories.
By this point he has experienced most everything the game offers. He has cut hundreds of young men. He’s been invited to players’ weddings. He sat in a dugout with Carl Yastrzemski in West Palm Beach, the Red Sox legend “hammering cigarettes” as he talked about his son, Mike, whom Brian was managing, all the while Snitker thinking, I cannot f------ believe I’m talking to Carl Yastrzemski! He moved apartments with 75-year-old Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling helping him lug furniture. He has become fast friends with Murphy (“the essence of the boring pro,” Snitker says, which he deems the highest compliment, for it connotes no-drama work ethic) and played racquetball with Aaron, learning to get the hell out of the way when he hit, lest he leave welts on your calves.
The baseball is the easy part by now, Snitker says. “It ain’t about the game. It’s all the other stuff.” In doing so he follows unwritten principles. Don’t crowd your players or try to be their friend. Trust them to do their jobs. Don’t b.s. them. Have the hard conversation yourself. Realize that, as Snitker says, “It’s a tough thing they’re going through,” and that this is a hard sport to play. And, what he tells his team every spring training: I’ll treat you all fair but not the same. Because, as Snitker explains, not everybody’s the same. Freeman is different from a rookie.
These may seem like little things, but they accrete. Says Jones, who returned this year as a hitting coach, “There’s a reason why Snit has been in the game for as long as he has in one organization. He’s loved beyond belief by the players, generations of players, to be honest with you.”
Freeman talks about Snitker’s ability to “read your body language. . . . Whenever he says something, you just trust it because you know he has your best interest in mind.” So fierce was Markakis’s allegiance to Snitker that, when Hart came into the clubhouse in 2017 and tore Snitker a new one for his use of closer Jim Johnson, “Markakis made it known,” as David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, “that if Hart ever treated the manager that way again that Markakis would, in so many words, kick his ass.” (Says Francoeur: “He f------ blasted Hart.”)
Now, looking at the binder, Snitker notices a sheet of paper on which Ronnie has traced every year and stop, a sprawling list of towns and teams. Brian shakes his head. “How in the hell did we do that? How did we drag around all the household things, and beds and kids?”
He looks at Ronnie. “If it wasn’t for you, I could have never done all this.”
Ronnie looks up from her coffee. “I used to call it the God thing, where I’d be in two places at one time,” she says. “I had to be at the baseball field and the dance studio or whatever.”
Now, finally, they are settled and, for the first time, have financial security, even if it doesn’t feel real sometimes. “I never expected to be doing what I’m doing now,” Brian says. “During my career as a third base coach, I thought, ‘You know, I could manage.’ And then at the end, I got kicked out the door again, recycled, and I thought that’s O.K., I’m good. And I never thought of myself being a big league manager after that. I was O.K. with that. It didn’t define my career.”
And now? “It is surreal. I’ve been in this thing 45 years and 40 of them, just grinding. I’ve been very blessed. I should take more heed of that, quite honestly. I’m too hard on myself and beat myself up. I should realize what I’ve accomplished.”
He has become the mentor now, rather than the mentee. Three of his former players are now coaching in the minors, and two more—Braeden Schlehuber and José Yépez—are on the Braves’ staff. Last year, Aaron, with whom Snitker had become lifelong friends, died. Cox, now 80, suffered a stroke; the two talk on the phone rather than over pregame 6:15 p.m. coffee. As for Sweet, the coach who first set Snitker down this path, he’s retired to his home in the woods, outside Macon, where he can watch the birds in the afternoon. He and Snit meet on Braves road trips and text regularly. That whole Ironmen team stayed close. This June, they celebrated the 50th anniversary of that season. Drive through town and you’ll see the baseball diamond bears a new name: Brian Snitker Field.
Midway through breakfast, Ronnie’s cellphone rings. It’s Troy. He retired from the minors in 2014, coached at North Georgia, got his master’s and taught himself Spanish using Rosetta Stone, hoping it would help with international players. When he sent out résumés he didn’t send one to the Braves. (“He didn’t want me doing anything for him,” says Brian.) In 2015 the Astros hired Troy as a rookie league hitting coach and, three years later, called him up to the big leagues as a hitting instructor.
Brian has high hopes for Troy, in part because he can walk between both worlds, able to relate to the traditionalists and the stat gurus, conversant in both languages.
Snitker sees some of the old guard still around. Dusty. Maddon. Mattingly. A resurrected La Russa. But a lot is changing. Recently, he says, one of the younger coaches met him for the first time and addressed him as “Dude.” “A lot of my staff are like a bunch of old relics,” says Snitker. “[Teams] are hiring guys from pitching barns and academies. And not even guys who have been in pro ball, either. Lots of the coaches now in the big leagues are guys that have never played. I’ve never even heard of some of them.”
This is the way it’s all headed. “It’s more of a collaboration now,” says Bochy. Still, to Bochy’s eyes, someone like Snitker retains an advantage. “You talk about putting 10,000 reps in, and I promise you, he sees it different from someone who hasn’t been in the dugout that much. Not just game management, but dealing with players and their ups and downs. They’re people, and you can’t forget that. They have a heartbeat.”
Snitker says he intends to hang around for at least a few more years.
For Snitker, the end is in sight. Despite waiting nearly 40 years for his shot, he’s now become an institution himself. Only Cox and González have won more games since the club moved to Atlanta in 1966.
He has done all this as anonymously as one could. Sometimes someone will come up to him at Costco and ask, “Did anyone tell you you look like that baseball coach?” Mostly, though, he lives an excessively normal life. He listens to classic rock, reads David Baldacci novels and enjoys fishing and hunting with his son, even though he’s not very good at either. He is not complicated, or revolutionary, or ahead of any curve. Then again, that may be what has made him successful, for baseball is a game of consistency. Players may not want a manager who rides an emotional roller coaster, or who is angling for his next job, or who tells them one thing and does another. When I ask Jones why Snitker has been successful, he answers with one word: “honesty.”
Snitker does not know how much longer he’ll do this. Maybe two years, plus his option, riding out his contract. He wants to travel with Ronnie while he’s still healthy. He wants to dote on his three grandkids. Maybe sign on as a special assistant “just to get me out of the house.”
A little before noon, Erin arrives with her three boys, the 6-year-old twins and a 1-year-old. Born nine months before Brian got the interim job, the twins know nothing of his grind. They’ve known their grandfather only as the manager of the Braves. They grab scooters and dash off toward the driveway while Brian trails their baby brother as he speed-crawls toward the deck.
At 1 p.m., Snitker leaves for the ballpark. As always, he’ll settle in, watch batting practice, b.s. with the media and then meet with his bench coaches to go over possible pitching changes. Then a little after 7, the players will run onto the field to take their positions and Snitker will take his, arm on the top rail in the dugout, and for three hours his bad hip won’t hurt, the rest of life will blur away and the world will narrow to one game. Then he’ll go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.
More SI Daily Covers:
• Nick Hornby: How the Super-League Exacerbated Soccers Fan-Owner Dynamic• Crying Foul Over Ballpark Injuries• Pro Sports Leagues Are All-In on Gambling• Alex Karras, HOF Eligible for 45 Years, Didnt Change. The NFLs Stance on Gambling Did