This was the spring of 2005. The first Mississippi Braves — ever — were holding spring training in Orlando, and my employer at the time dispatched me down there to preview the new team. That’s where I met their leader Brian Snitker, who now manages the Atlanta Braves and should be the hands-down winner for National League Manager of the Year.
My first impression of “Snit” — what his players, even the 19-year-olds called him — back then? That’s easy. I just remember thinking that if I were a baseball player, I’d love to play for this guy.
You watch the Atlanta Braves these days and you quickly realize this about them: Those guys, so many of them former Mississippi Braves, would try to run through a brick wall for Snitker, a 64-year-old grandfather and baseball lifer who never changes expression whether the Braves are six games behind — or four games ahead — in the standings. Watch Snitker in the dugout and you cannot tell whether or not they are down 10-0 or ahead 7-6.
Tuesday, Snitker’s Braves defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 5-4 to advance to the National League Championship series, where they will face either the San Francisco Giants or the Los Angeles Dodgers beginning Saturday. That the Braves are even playing in the postseason seems a miracle considering all they went through this year, including losing several of their best players to an assortment of injuries and legal problems.
They lost their ace pitcher Mike Soroka. They lost one of baseball’s best players, Ronald Acuna. They lost their clean-up hitter Marcell Ozuna. They lost a lot more, but they kept plugging away under Snitker’s steady hand. Yes, general manager Alex Anthopoulos made some critical acquisitions before the trade deadline. But it was Snitker who stayed the course and blended all the old and new, young and old, and kept them playing hard and believing even when they were below .500 in July.
Former Brave and lifelong Mississippian Jay Powell, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer who played on that first M-Braves team for Snitker, has watched from afar and is not surprised by Snitker’s success this season.
“There are certain managers or coaches you just want to do the best you can for them,” Powell said Wednesday morning. “There’s a respect there, a trust. I was fortunate to play for some Baseball Hall of Fame managers including Bobby Cox and Jim Leyland, and I put Snit right in there with them. He gets it. He gets baseball.”
“He understands the longevity of the season,” Powell said. “He understands you can’t go crazy over one bad play, or one bad game or one bad stretch. Baseball is a grind. Snit understands that and manages with that in mind.”
Powell was on a rehab assignment in Mississippi in the spring of 2005 recovering from elbow surgery. He was an established veteran, having already won Game Seven of a World Series. Snitker gave him a lot of leeway, and, in return, Powell helped polish the young Braves pitching prospects. Funny story. I was in Snitker’s office one afternoon when Bobby Cox called to ask how Powell was progressing. Cox asked Snitker how well Powell was doing at holding runners on base.
“Hard to say,” Snitker answered. “When Jay’s pitching, nobody gets on base.”
Phillip Wellman was Snitker’s hitting coach on their first M-Braves team and later was the M-Braves manager. The two shared a house at the Barnett Reservoir. Snitker always gave Wellman much of the credit for helping Brian McCann and Jeff Franceour zoom straight from Trustmark Park in Pearl to the Atlanta Braves, skipping Class AAA all together. Wellman laughed about that in a phone conversation Wednesday from his home in Chattanooga.
“Me teaching McCann and Frenchy how to hit is kind of like touching up at Rembrandt,” he said. “I didn’t mess them up.”
Wellman, too, gives Snitker so much credit for the Braves persevering through all the turmoil to become one of the five Major League teams left standing.
“He stays the course,” Wellman said. “Snit never gets too high or too low. He’s never changed. We go way, way back, 30 years at least. I couldn’t be happier for him. We’ve been friends since we were both young, skinny and had hair on our heads.”
Wellman continued, “I am not surprised at all by his success. Snit has never changed. Guys love playing for him because they know he has their back. I’ll tell you this much: What the Braves have achieved this year, with all they’ve been through, that’s a testament to Snit. That’s who he is.”
So many former Mississippi Braves — Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley and more — have been heroic for these Atlanta Braves. Important to remember: The glue to it all is the one they call Snit.