By Riley Stovka, November 10 2021—
It was July, and things were not going well for the Atlanta Braves. At the All-Star break, the Braves found themselves with a 44-45 record, good enough for third in the division. And as it stood they had a 7.6 percent chance to make the playoffs and an even worse 0.3 percent shot at making the world series.
Then, disaster struck. Ronald Acuna Jr., the Braves perennial all-star outfielder and luminescent superstar, dove for a ball near the right-field warning track at Miami’s Marlins Park, only to come crashing to the ground with his right anterior cruciate ligament completely torn.
As Acuna was being carted off the field in tears, the whole of Atlanta and extended Braves nation, held its breath. When the news came out about the severity and extent of the injury to the 23-year-old phenom, the season was over. It was the final nail in a twisted and warped coffin that held the Braves World Series aspirations.
A month or so before the Acuna death blow, the Braves had been dealt another twist of fate, in the form of slugging outfielder and free-agent acquisition Marcell Ozuna. As it so happened, Ozuna had a penchant for domestic abuse, actions heinous enough to land him on the Leagues’ long-term administrative list, and in an Atlanta prison.
Another month before the Ozuna debacle, Atlanta’s ace, Calgary-born right-hander, Mike Soroka, was walking around the home clubhouse at Truist Park, when his Achilles tendon snapped like an elastic. It was a reaggravation of his 2020 Achilles tear — an injury that put him out for the entirety of that shortened season. Soroka wouldn’t throw a single pitch for the Braves in 2021.
A myriad of injuries to key star players and a criminal charge to the most potent member of their offence spelled disaster for an Atlanta team that was in a complete nose-dive, spiralling endlessly downwards into an open, flaming pit that had consumed many a team before them.
So, when the death knell came in the form of Acuna’s mangled knee, Braves General Manager, Alex Anthopoulos, had a decision to make. Kick the season down the road and sell off players on expiring contracts to recuperate lost value in a season full of loss. Or he could do the unfathomable, the unpredictable, the downright insane. He could go for it.
On July 15, five days after the injury to Acuna, Athopoulos sat in his Atlanta office and dialled up Jed Hoyer, the general manager of the Chicago Cubs. Anthopoulos was calling to inquire about Joc Pederson, an enigmatic, barrel-chested outfielder on an expiring contract. Hoyer’s Cubs were having a worse season than the Braves, and their trade deadline fire-sale will go down in legend as one of the largest midseason roster overhauls in baseball history.
Pederson, known for his larger-than-life antics, was exactly what Anthopoulos was looking for. A shot in the arm to a slumbering Atlanta lineup. Pederson could slot in at the top of the lineup, and he was a lefty bat — always a valuable and inexpensive tool to have when playing National League baseball.
Anthopoulos didn’t stop at Pederson. In quick succession, he made a flurry of trades that would alter the trajectory of the season for the Braves. Adam Duvall, the National League home run leader, was picked up from the division-rival Marlins. Eddie Rosario, who became possessed by the spirit of Hank Aaron and mashed his way to a National League Champion Series (NLCS) MVP award, was traded from the Cleveland Indians for virtually nothing. Eventual World Series MVP, Jorge Soler, two years removed from a 48 homerun season, was shipped out of Kansas City just fifteen minutes before the trade deadline.
In a day, the Atlanta Braves had sustained a massive facelift. They found new life with their new acquisitions, and surged down the stretch to pass the struggling New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. On Oct. 1, just days before the end of the season, the Braves clinched the division and a postseason berth.
In sport, there is often an obsession with veteranism — a term I am creating that showcases the importance of age and experience over raw talent, especially when it comes to arbitrary spaces of time deemed more significant and impactful than any other space of time. We hear it all the time. “This team has a great veteran presence,” “This player really knows how to get it done because he’s been there and done that.” It’s all garbage. At the end of the day, the best players will perform the best and the better team will win, regardless of their willy age or veteran determination. Sure, in the playoffs it helps to know what it takes to win but no one really knows what it takes to win, until they win. With this theory of veteranism, there comes an extension of an idea that is a real and tangible thing. It’s called dues.
Paying your dues is described as having earned something through hard work, long experience and more often included than not, suffering. It’s how something feels earned. It’s how we get that immensely overwhelming sense of cathartic relief whenever we accomplish something that has plagued and tormented us for a long time. It’s hard to measure and compare one person’s paid dues to another, especially compared to differing sports. But if anyone, in any profession has paid their dues, it’s Braves manager Brian Snitker.
For Snitker, the last 45 years have been spent in a Braves uniform — from his time as a minor league player to minor league coach, to big league coach and eventual manager in 2016. He has seen it all, the highs and lows. Shared in the euphoria of coming oh-so-close and the gut-wrenching disappointment of coming up short. Snitker has paid his dues, his dues have paid dues. Generations of Braves history rest upon Snitker’s shoulders.
He was there to witness the greatness of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. He was there for the Braves of the nineties, a period of domination so great it’s hard to find a comparison (The team won 11 division titles in a row and made five World Series during this time, but only won one). Now Snitker, who spent all those years as an Atlanta coach learning from the Hall of Fame manager, Bobby Cox, is the skipper of his own ship. Over his years Snitker has borne witness to some of the Braves all-time greats — Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Dale Murphy. Now he tends to a new crop of Braves stars, like Freeman, Albies and Acuna, each hungry to win one for their battle-hardened mentor.
For someone who was born and raised in southern California, Freddie Freeman is about as close to being a Georgia native as a person can be. Selected in the second round of the 2007 MLB draft, Freeman had the trappings of a star. For the better part of a decade, Freeman has anchored the Braves infield from his home at first base. His defensive mastery and offensive prowess make him one of, if not the, best first baseman in the sport. Players have a sense of loyalty to the organization that drafted them, and why not? After all, they did take the chance to draft and develop them. Professional baseball teams invest more in their prospects than most small countries do in infrastructure. And let’s remember, there is no guarantee that a player will pan out. It happens all too frequently with draft picks. But Freddie is different.
Twelve years into his big league career, Freeman has become synonymous with the Braves. He has taken hometown discounts to stay in Atlanta, even during a time when teams around the league were criminally overpaying free-agent first basemen. Year after year it was a certainty that Freeman would always be back in a Braves uniform. Anything else would look unnatural, like Wayne Gretzky in a Blues uniform or Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform.
But this year is different. In the final year of his contract, Freeman is set to become a free agent for the first time in a decade. Coming off an MVP season in 2020, plus numerous MVP quality seasons in years past, teams around the league will be backing Brinks trucks up to the Freeman household. All 30 teams, including the Braves, will be trying to court the services of Mr. Freeman, and they all will be incredibly desperate to outbid one another. I imagine Freeman will have to shoo team reps and general managers away with a garden house, as they scurry over the walls of his mansion, multi-million dollar contracts in hand.
There has been no word of a contract extension in the works for Freeman, although, I suspect he will re-sign with the team. The Atlanta Braves are known for their legends, also as much as Anthopoulos is known for his contract extensions. But if he were to go, there is no better way to leave a franchise you have spent a third of your life playing for, than hitting a homerun in the championship-clinching game of a World Series.
Three and a half months after Ronald Acuna Jr. was carted off the field in Miami, the Braves won the World Series. It was never a guarantee, nor was it easy. For the entire season, the Braves battled uphill. They fought through injury after injury, disappointment after disappointment, loss after loss. Everyone in the baseball community, myself included, counted them out. No way this team could win a World Series. The stars would have to align for that to happen, everything would have to break their way. And even that didn’t happen. When they finally did make the playoffs, the Braves had to go through a 95 win Brewers team, stacked with the best starting pitching in the league. They beat them in four games. Then they faced a historically good 106 win Dodger team. They dispatched them in six. Then they had to play a 95 win Houston Astros team, who had the best offence in baseball. They beat them too, clinching the Commissioner’s Trophy in a 7-0 blowout.
In the end, after all the heartbreak, all of the pent-up disappointment, all the past sorrows of a team of 25, and a nationwide fanbase dissipated like smoke. For Brian Snitker, it was a half-century of waiting, of honing his craft, of teaching and developing players far better than himself. It was decade after decade of slow-building anticipation, like a snowball streaming down a hill. For Freeman, it was a decade of being one of the best players in baseball, a franchise icon in a franchise full of them. For Anthopoulos, it was the labour of all his work paying dividends. It was the gratification of selling high on something he believed in.
In baseball, a moment can last an eternity, but it can also consume time in a flash. A ball destined for the seats can fly through the air for days. A slow grounder to second base can eat a player up. But for the players that man the diamond, whose lives are dedicated to the game, it is both. A half-century struggle can be washed away in an instant. A decade-long grind can be forgotten at a moment’s notice. And a years-long fight for survival can accumulate in a triumphant crescendo in three hours.
All it takes is a hard grounder to short and a throw to first.