- Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
- Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
- Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
- Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
- Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association
ATLANTA — The narrative shape of the 2021 Atlanta Braves, the newly crowned champions of baseball, was not an arc, as fantastical tales tend to be. It was more like a wave chart, with ebbs and flows leading to one final tidal wave that began gathering momentum in early August and crashed ashore on Tuesday night.
Over the last three incredible months, the Braves went from a team that had not spent a day over .500 to World Series champions.
That, in itself, is a good story. But the story didn’t begin in August, or at a July trade deadline that Atlanta turned into a season-defining event, or on the day its biggest star, Ronald Acuña Jr., went down for the season, or even in spring training. It began decades ago in 1977, when Brian Snitker, a 22-year-old catcher-first baseman from Macon, Illinois, via the University of New Orleans, joined the organization. It would be a short stint as a player, but a lifetime stint as a Brave.
In many ways, Snitker was just a boy when he joined the Atlanta organization. And in the days before he reached the pinnacle of his profession at age 66, Snitker talked frankly about the joy with which he and his club pursued the biggest prize in the sport.
“I’ve always said the team that has that little boy in them are teams that do good in the postseason,” said Snitker, Atlanta’s manager since 2016. “And I really believe that. I think the team that just plays with emotion and enjoys what they’re doing in the postseason is really dangerous.”
When the final out was made in Game 6, and the Braves mobbed each other in a writhing, euphoric pile at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the event signified so much for the current iteration of the Braves organization, the long history of a franchise with roots in 19th century Boston, and for their home city of Atlanta, which has been disappointed so many times in so many high-stakes games that it has self-identified as a cursed sports town.
More than anything, it signified that a team that burst into contention in 2018 — bearing the moniker “Baby Braves” — had finally grown up.
WHEN SNITKER TALKS about players being able to stay in touch with the exuberant youth inside them, he may well be talking about second baseman Ozzie Albies, one of the most well-known and most talented Baby Braves. At 24, Albies is already a two-time All-Star and a Silver Slugger award winner. He hit 30 home runs this season. And yet, perhaps because of Albies’ postseason struggles at the plate, it feels like those traits have not gotten enough attention during the Braves’ run.
It’s an ephemeral thing to say whether or not a player has gotten enough recognition for what he does, particularly during any given series. But with Albies the question is pertinent, because he has for several years been on the short list of the most exciting players in baseball.
That’s a subjective description, but in Albies’ case, the numbers scream that it’s true. He hit 30 homers despite a 5-8, 165-pound frame. He sits high on the triples leaderboard, and he steals bases, ranking near the top in extra bases taken on the basepaths. Since he came into the league, only four second basemen have piled up more defensive wins above replacement.
In short: All the exciting stuff that happens on a baseball field, Albies does it well and he does it often.
He has become a regular in the majors after joining the Braves during the 2017 season, at 20 years old. And his double play partner has been Dansby Swanson.
“Clearly, we can’t get enough of each other,” Swanson said during the World Series, when he was seated next to Albies during a workout day news conference. “We’ve got to sit next to each other at the podium too.”
Swanson is another charter member of the Baby Braves, and perhaps that was always destined to be the case. A product of Marietta High School, about 12 miles from Truist Park, he was the first pick of the 2015 draft — by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But six months after Swanson was drafted by the wrong team, he was traded to the Braves in one of the foundational deals of the Atlanta rebuild. As someone who grew up immersed in the sports culture of Atlanta, Swanson knows as well as anyone what the championship means to his city.
Atlanta has long dealt with something known in the region as “the narrative.” Roughly speaking, the narrative is this: Atlanta’s favorite sports teams are always going to figure out a way to not win a championship.
The Braves entered the World Series with a record streak of 16 postseason appearances without winning a title. But it’s more than that: The Braves’ title in 1995 was, until Tuesday, the only championship by a major professional sports team in Atlanta history.
The Falcons have never won a Super Bowl. The Hawks have won an NBA championship, but it was so long ago that the franchise played in St. Louis at the time. Disappointments by major college programs like Georgia and Georgia Tech have added to the misery. The list goes on and on, and in local lore, was starting to take on the form of a curse.
“I cherish every moment here, whether it’s now or a random day in July,” Swanson said after Atlanta went up 3-1 in the series. “There’s still a lot left to be written, and I think that we need to go out and continue to compete to put ourselves in that position to give this city what it’s been longing for.”
On Tuesday, the Braves killed the narrative. Swanson did his part during the playoffs, making a spinning play on a hard hit grounder against the Dodgers for the last out of the NLCS. Then, in Game 4 of the World Series, his seventh-inning homer to the opposite field tied the score and helped set the table for the win that pushed the favored Astros to the brink. In the Game 6 clincher, his two-run homer (with Albies on base) gave Atlanta a 5-0 lead in the fifth.
Three nights later, six years into his tenure as the Braves’ shortstop and roughly nine years since he graduated from Marietta High School, Swanson is a champion.
“Just being here, understanding what sports culture is like here, understanding how invested people are and ultimately kind of how this city has fallen short a lot of times has led to a lot of frustration,” Swanson said during the NLCS. “But I think that this team is really good about just continuing to fight and battle for everything that we’ve earned this year.”
THIRD BASEMAN AUSTIN RILEY was a second wave Baby Brave, reaching the majors in 2019. Twenty games into his career, he looked like a player who had dropped in as a fully formed star, hitting his first nine homers and putting up a 1.065 OPS.
But that didn’t last. Riley spent the back half of 2019 and the entire 2020 season trying to recapture that early flourish. This season, it finally happened. Riley led the Braves in homers (33), RBIs (107) and average (.303). After entering the season with a career total of minus-0.5 WAR (per baseball-reference.com), this year he posted a spectacular 6.1 bWAR and will likely earn significant support when NL MVP balloting comes out. (If it were up to Braves fans, he’d win in a landslide, as they spent much of October chanting “M-V-P” when Riley came to the plate.)
He’s come a long way in a short time, and he says it’s taught him some lessons.
“If you don’t continue to produce, you’re going to find yourself out of the game,” Riley said. “The biggest thing is just coming in every day and working.”
Riley’s emergence was crucial to the Braves’ success all year, especially after outfielder Marcell Ozuna left the team on the heels of domestic abuse allegations. And he set the tone in the playoffs, homering and stroking a game-winning single in Game 1 of Atlanta’s quest to knock off the powerful Dodgers in the NLCS.
“That’s a really good thing organizationally when you see guys mature and they can slow the game down and do what they do, whether it’s a defensive play, a rundown or a big hit,” Snikter said after one of Riley’s big late-game hits. “Our young guys are maturing right in front of us.”
Riley has become a burgeoning star and now, after the celebration on the field on Tuesday, possibly the first great Atlanta third baseman since Chipper Jones, who was on hand to exhort Braves fans just before the start of Game 3 with a hearty “Play ball!” shout.
Of course, Riley has a long, long, long way to get where Jones ended — in Cooperstown. But now he joins Jones on a very short list: Starting third basemen on a world champion Atlanta Braves’ team.
THE IN-SEASON MAKEOVER of the Braves’ outfield generated a lot of attention during October, and for good reason. The additions of Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario were a season-saving development, and their fingers were all over the Braves’ playoff run.
But Acuña, who is likely the most talented and most highly regarded of all of this Baby Brave generation, contributed as well. All through the World Series, Acuna could be seen cheering and cavorting in the Braves’ dugout with as much intensity and joy as if he had just hit a game-winning grand slam.
It could not have been easy, but maybe this is the final lesson for the most essential of the Baby Braves: How to deal with adversity.
“It’s one of the hardest moments of my career, to be honest, to be here at the stadium and not be able to be out on the field with my teammates and play with them,” Acuña said during the NLCS. “Nothing you can do about that. For me, it’s just about being here, continue to give them support as if I were playing and continue to give 200%.”
Acuña will get a ring, and he deserves it. The MVP track he was on at the time of his ACL injury might have been just a subplot to the Braves’ lackluster start. Then again, imagine where Atlanta might have been if Acuña had not dominated the early part of the season.
Time very much remains on Acuña’s side.
“I feel really good, and I’m really happy to be here with my team now that they’ve made it to this point,” Acuña, 23, said. “This is what it’s all about.”
THOUGH ACUÑA HAS always dominated headlines, the Baby Braves were formed with a foundation of starting pitching in mind, because that was the formula that worked so magnificently for the turn-of-the-century Atlanta teams led by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood and others.
Alas, there are few things more difficult than turning the corner from touted prospect to productive big league starting pitcher. Some of the prospects meant to take up that mantle have moved on to other teams. Some are still trying to find their way to Atlanta. Some have been injured, like one-time Cy Young contender Mike Soroka.
But some also became indispensable members of the Braves’ pitching core. Atlanta would have not won the title without lefty Max Fried or righty Ian Anderson. Kyle Wright has struggled to find his footing as a big leaguer but has seen a disproportionate amount of his success in the playoffs over the past two years. He threw 4⅔ crucial innings during Atlanta’s Game 4 win. And Tucker Davidson started Game 5 in his first big league action in more than four months.
From those players and a few others, including veteran Charlie Morton, the Braves got just enough starting pitching to get them through the long slog of the modern baseball postseason, and the bullpen took over from there.
For much of the season, Atlanta’s bullpen was not an area of strength. During the first three months of the season, the Braves’ bullpen ERA went 4.76, 4.41 and 4.73. It dropped below four in July and August. Then from Sept. 1 through the end of the World Series, it was 2.98.
Snitker found his formula early in the LCS. If a starter would go short, he would probably bring in homegrown lefty A.J. Minter, who struggled so badly early in the season he was sent to the minors. Veteran righties Jesse Chavez and Chris Martin might also figure in, depending on how many outs Snitker needed to get in order to set up his end-of-game contingent.
That contingent consisted of rubber-armed lefty Tyler Matzek, hard-throwing righty Luke Jackson and veteran closer Will Smith. Again and again Snitker finished out games with that trio, joined by Minter more and more as the playoffs progressed and his effectiveness became evident.
It didn’t seem possible that Snitker could lean so hard on so few for high-leverage outs at the highest-stakes time of the season. But he did, and the Braves were rewarded. These were not the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves. This Atlanta team was carried to the finish line by a bullpen that at least among national mainstream fans was relatively anonymous.
“We’re all ready to pitch every night,” Jackson said. “Whether that’s the third inning to the ninth inning, take the ball when the ball’s given to us, especially in the postseason where we put the work in to get ready for this time of year to be able to throw every day, day in and day out.”
ALL OF THESE threads are tied together by two men who aren’t Baby Braves, but who were perhaps the most crucial factors in helping this crew grow up. On Tuesday night, that hard work paid off, when Snitker and Freddie Freeman became champions.
Snitker was a big part of this Braves title, helping navigate a dizzying bullpen labyrinth in October, moving on from the key absences of Acuña, Ozuna, Morton and, for a stretch during the playoffs, Soler.
Through it all, he was an easygoing, steadying presence. And all through the World Series, he could have only dreamed of 44 years ago and that his team wanted for him as badly as for themselves. Atlanta played more relaxed and with more joy than the favored Astros, and all the baggage they carried with them into the series.
“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,” Freeman said before the series.
Funny thing is, Freeman’s teammates said the same thing about him.
“He’s been through the really rough times of this team when they weren’t really winning at all,” Riley said, when the Braves were on the verge of punching their ticket to the World Series. “And to finally be in a position to where we could get there, I think that is huge. And I think if you ask every player, it would mean a lot to them for us to get to the World Series for him.”
Freeman was the anointed one — the one player whom the Braves identified to bridge the last era of success for the Braves, through the rebuild, through the transition from Turner Field downtown to Truist Park in Cobb County, and on through the ascension, as Albies and Acuña and Swanson and Fried and Soroka and Riley and the rest all came up to join him.
He was the player whose ongoing presence sent a vital message to the Braves fan base during the years of losing — a message about once being good, and becoming good again, or something that might be uttered in a James Earl Jones voice-over.
That message was answered loud and clear on Tuesday night, because of Freeman, Snitker, the Baby Braves and all those who helped them along the way. They have all given Atlantans the gift they had started to think might never come again.
In 2018, when the Baby Braves were just breaking out and emerging as a fun, new story in baseball, Freeman sat down for a chat one Sunday morning. He spoke of his gratitude at being tabbed by the Braves as the franchise cornerstone, the excitement of his talented new teammates and the difficulty of the years of losing.
At one point, Freeman pointed over his shoulder at the wall above his locker in the Atlanta clubhouse. On it hung a championship banner honoring the 1995 Braves. “There’s only one of those up there right now,” Freeman said.
Then he directed his questioner’s attention across the way, where there was a wall with nothing on it. “I want to put one on the other side. That’s a blank wall. That’s all I’m here to do.”
With plenty of help, Freeman has done just that. He won a pair of World Series games last week in a ballpark sitting on land that just a few years ago was nothing but a space crammed between two freeways. Truist Park is about 12 miles from the places where Aaron and Chipper and Maddux and Glavine played.
The wall will no longer be blank, because the team we first knew as the Baby Braves has blossomed into World Series champions.
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