How former Durham Bulls manager Brian Snitker is injecting hope into the Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker watches from the dugout in the sixth inning of a game against the Washington Nationals on Sept. 16.
Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker watches from the dugout in the sixth inning of a game against the Washington Nationals on Sept. 16. AP

About this time two baseball seasons ago, I happened to meet up with Brian Snitker, then the interim manager of the Atlanta Braves, just outside the home team’s dugout at Turner Field in Atlanta.

We reminisced about his days as manager of the Durham Bulls in 1983, 1984 and 1987. He said Durham fans wanted to watch winning baseball and that naturally created a clash of objectives with developing players for the Atlanta Braves paramount to his thinking.

Then came discussion following the most awkward of questions concerning his future.

“I’m OK with whatever they decide,” Snitker said of Atlanta’s front office. “If they want me to manage in the minors, let me go or keep me on, I’m OK with anything.”

Snitker, now 62, had spent close to four decades with the Atlanta organization, first as a player, then as a minor-league coach, minor-league manager, bullpen coach in Atlanta, third-base coach for the Braves and, finally, as interim manager when Fredi Gonzalez was fired in May 2016.

In his newest role, Snitker had inherited a rudderless Atlanta team with a 9-28 record, the worst in the major leagues. By season’s end, Snitker had guided the rebuilding of the youthful Braves to a respectable 59-65 record.

Even bigger than the record or any particular in-game strategy employed by Snitker was an endorsement he received late during the 2016 season. It came from the team’s respected veteran leader, first baseman Freddie Freeman.

“His presence is something that just makes you want to run through walls for (him),” Freeman told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I think everybody in this clubhouse has responded to him, because he’s such a good guy, he treats everybody the right way.”

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Atlanta Braves Freddie Freeman, right, who went three for three, gets a high five from manager Brian Snitker after the Braves 7-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 19, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Still, there was strong sentiment for the front office to conduct a makeover that began with playing in a new stadium, SunTrust Park, for the 2017 season. Playing in a new ballpark, the thinking went, would assuage the Atlanta fan base as the Braves continued to lose while stocking their farm system with players.

Instead, management surprised most baseball experts by hiring Snitker, albeit for only one season.

Really, who better than Snitker to manage the wave of young, talented players? This is the guy whose entire baseball life was spent tutoring and developing young players. Of those already in the big leagues, Snitker had coached or managed almost all of them.

Snitker’s Braves played to a 72-90 record and third-place finish in the 2017 National League East standings. Another losing season was difficult to swallow for Atlanta fans. Yet the pain was made bearable because Snitker had injected a dose of hope into the franchise.

“Help is on the way” could easily have been Snitker’s mantra. To those long-time Atlanta fans in the Research Triangle area, they recognized last season what they had seen during Snitker’s three years at the Bulls’ helm: sound fundamental baseball to include throwing to the cutoff man from the outfield, and all-out effort to include running out ground balls.

This time, management cashed in on the one-year option in Snitker’s contract, although another one-year deal was hardly a ringing endorsement.

This season, Atlanta has employed a healthy mix of young phenoms from Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna and Dansby Swanson, with wily veterans among Freeman, Nick Markakis and Kurt Suzuki.

Perhaps arriving as a pennant contender one season ahead of schedule, Atlanta is on pace to win 90 games and should clinch the NL East title soon. Not since 2013 has Atlanta reached either of those milestones.

So, what does Atlanta do now with Snitker?

A five-year contract that rewards Snitker and offers him security sounds about right.

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