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IN OUR CLEANSING OF SPORTS, DON’T FORGET THE BRIAN SNITKERS
We shouldn’t be swallowed by scandals and lose sight of heartwarming stories, such as the well-traveled manager of the Braves, whose journey overwhelms Atlanta’s racist chops and chants
Brick by brick, creep by creep, slur by slur, chop by chop — the House of Sports is under attack. Behold an enlightened transformation I never thought was possible in my lifetime, fueled by sophisticated thought and responsible (not social) media pressure. Call it a systemic flush, another fast-forward reckoning, an enema expelling the contents of a meathead culture in hopes of humanizing and civilizing a $600 billion industry.
This is, in fact, our new sporting competition: progress vs. the pigs.
Remind the world what is horrifically wrong about a hockey animal who sexually assaults a player and a mentality that covers it up in the name of winning. Shout down the racist chants, joined by Donald and Melania, that echo through a ballpark in the Deep South during a World Series. Purge the NFL coach, whose blowhard masculinity once was rewarded with a $100 million contract and a prime ESPN gig, when his anti-gay, racist and misogynistic emails are revealed. Keep demanding that Roger Goodell, who was paid $128 million the last two fiscal years for obeying the whims of owners, rub out Daniel Snyder and release the entirety of the Washington Football Team-prompted email trove.
And we’ve just entered November. God knows what else awaits.
Yet in our zeal to cleanse sports of its ills, amid the revelations of a revolution, we can’t be so focused on the bad guys to overlook the good guys who become the great stories — the fairy-tales-come-true that are more important than ever. In the Fall Classic, one such story swallows all the negatives. His name is Brian Snitker, and if you’d never heard of him before last month, you aren’t alone. At 66, after a circuitous and torturous 45-year journey that many men would have abandoned at various rude intervals, Snitker is one victory from managing the Atlanta Braves — not the $270-million-payrolled Los Angeles Dodgers, not the pinstriped New York Yankees, not the favored and scandal-tattered Houston Astros — to their first championship since 1995.
And if it happens, a magical ending to a preposterous journey that could be Hollywood’s next baseball movie, how will Snitker react? “I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep,’’ he said.
A better question might be: How is this happening? The Braves have functioned for months without their best starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, and MVP-caliber cornerstone, Ronald Acuna Jr. They return to Houston with a 3-games-to-2 lead despite a piecemeal pitching staff that relies less on traditional starting arms, even in the bullpenning era, than any in postseason history — an almost farcical merry-go-round of which Snitker was in full command until a 9-5 loss Sunday night. The night before, he gave a rookie lefty named Dylan Lee his first major-league start — in Game 4 of the World Series — and though it resulted in 10 balls and five strikes and a quick yanking, the Braves won anyway. This from the franchise that once trotted out Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in October.
“The team that has that little boy in ‘em — (those) are the teams that do well in the postseason,’’ said Snitker, trying to explain. “I really believe that. The team that just plays with emotion and enjoys what they’re doing in the postseason, they’re really dangerous.’’
So dangerous that Snitker just might steal a trophy after paying so many dues, the sport owes him a massive rebate.
Maybe the most wonderful part of his epic is how he redirected us away from the noise. All through Truist Park, detached from urban life in white-dominant Cobb County, a giddily ignorant crowd performed the tomahawk chop — a war chant that mocks Native Americans and insults the American intelligence. It also bucks the movement to rid sports of racist nicknames and images (see: WFT and Cleveland Guardians). Major League Baseball was disturbed enough by Georgia’s restrictive voting laws that it moved the All-Star Game to Denver, yet commissioner Rob Manfred, in an about-face that reflects his sport’s desperation to not let anything disrupt its showcase event, somehow defended this deplorable display. With a labor impasse threatening to shut down the sport in four weeks, he suspiciously sounded like a huckster and not a protector of the public trust.
“It's important to understand that we have 30 markets around the country. They're not all the same,’’ said Manfred, conveniently forgetting that baseball and the WORLD Series belong to the world, not only to Atlanta. “The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community. The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. For me that's kind of the end of the story. In that market, taking into account the Native American community. It works. … We don't market our game on a nationwide basis. Ours is an everyday game. You have to sell tickets every single day to fans in that market. And there are all sorts of differences among the clubs, among the regions, as to how the game is marketed.”
Manfred can get lost and let the displaced national pastime continue to wane on his watch. Atlanta is Brian Snitker’s domain now, bigger than chumps and chops alike after taking over the Series. He did so with a wickedly expert touch that approached perfection, with barely a starting pitcher in his arsenal. Choose any Hall of Fame skipper through time, and he wouldn’t have out-strategized Snitker in a show almost defying explanation. The Braves could have folded after losing their best remaining starter, Charlie Morton, to a broken leg in Game 1. Instead of withdrawing in a snit, The Snit gutted out wins the way he has gutted out life. He’ll always be remembered for resisting old-school instincts and pulling starter Ian Anderson in the fifth inning of Game 3, though he hadn’t allowed a hit in a sport dying for TV viewers and any semblance of all-ages entertainment.
“The me of old, a couple of years ago, I would have thought, ‘How the hell am I doing this?’ ’’ he said.
But the Snitker of now pulled it off, threading together a conga line of relievers who didn’t allow a run. It didn’t mean he had fallen off the old-school wagon as much as he was willing to embrace analytics, including frequent use of the infield shift, as requested by a noted 21st-century front-office nerd, Braves boss Alex Anthopoulos. Snitker is no dummy, knowing Anthopoulos gladly took executive orders and acquired four postseason heroes — Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler — to replace Acuna after he tore his ACL in July. If Game 3 didn’t spiritually bury the Astros, Snitker spent the next night running out a hodgepodge bullpen crew — PETA wants us to call it “the arm farm’’ (and why the hell not)? Sunday, he started lefty Tucker Davidson, a roster addition with five career appearances and zero postseason experience, and his luck finally ran out.
Still, the baseball gods already had rewarded Snitker for almost three decades of bus rides, Holiday Inns and Cracker Barrels as a minor-league manager, coach and player. Before his juju went dry in Game 5, he’d made 58 pitching changes this postseason. His relievers went 7-1.
In going up 3-1, the only part of him that wasn’t in heaven was when he glimpsed at the other dugout, where his son, Astros hitting coach Troy Snitker, couldn’t figure out Dad’s maneuvers. It makes you wonder where he’d been all these decades. What does it say about New Age management groupthink, which fills spreadsheets and algorithms and comes up with Gabe Kapler as the 2021 prototype, when the Series managers are Snitker and Dusty Baker, who have been on Earth a combined 148 years? Put it this way: U-Haul trucks have traveled fewer miles than Snitker. He managed eight of the Braves’ minor-league affiliates and roved as an instructor, a road interrupted when the parent club had him work as a coach under five different managers, only to be demoted to the minors three times. When he was sent back to Class AAA Gwinnett in 2013 after seven years as Atlanta’s third-base coach, Snitker figured he’d lost his shot to run a major-league dugout. But he didn’t mope, remaining a loyal company man and preparing himself for more disappointment even when the Braves admitted another failure by firing Fredi Gonzalez in 2016. The big club surprised him. He was summoned to be the interim manager, finally rewarding his years of service instead of denigrating his lack of starpower. He hasn’t looked back.
“I thought in ’16, it was probably off the table when I left that time in that last recycle like that,’’ Snitker said. “When it happened, it’s like, ‘Absolutely, I’ll try this.’ I couldn’t imagine how great this has been and what’s transpired since that time because I wasn’t looking for that. I wasn’t expecting it. When I got the call, that’s not what I was expecting to hear. I’ve been blessed to be able to be in this position.
“I think this happened to me at a really good time in my life. I’m probably better versed to handle this position later in my career than I would have been earlier.”
His son, who endured annual family sacrifices while his father left home for another town, is even more thankful. “I know it was a dream of his to be able to do this and be able to manage in the big leagues, and I think he always knew that he could do it,” Troy said. “But I definitely think there was a point where he probably didn’t think it was going to happen anymore, which makes this very special.’’
Always grateful, never showing a smidgen of bitterness, Snitker is beloved in his clubhouse. He never misses a chance for a quick detour to the ballpark to visit longtime Braves manager Bobby Cox, his mentor, who continues to recover from a 2019 stroke. Don’t discount that love as integral in the title climb of an 88-win team, a punchline as the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants played in a National League division series after 100-plus-win regular seasons. “Everyone that's in this room, that's in the Atlanta area, knows how special that man is and how hard he's worked in his life to just get to this point,” said franchise face Freddie Freeman, who won’t forget watching Snitker get off the bus for his first Series workout. “It was the coolest thing ever watching Brian Snitker walk into a World Series workout day.”
And to think he wouldn’t be here without Henry Aaron. As the Braves’ farm director, he saw something in young Snitker when it was obvious he had no playing future. Before he passed away in January, Aaron called Snitker with congratulations after big victories. “I think he’d be very proud of what we’ve done,” Snitker said. “I’m sure he’s bragging a lot to anybody who will listen. It’s cool to know that he is doing that.”
After Game 3, he was far more moved by greeting Aaron’s widow than the winning. “I got to hug Billye …,” he said, pausing, “… and tell her how much I missed Hank.’’
As a target of racism, as he was breaking Babe Ruth’s career home-run record in the Deep South, Henry Aaron would be most appreciative of how Snitker turned a racist chant into joyful roars.
Consider it part of the ongoing systemic flush.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.