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At 61, Braves Manager Brian Snitker Is the Oldest Rookie in Baseball

When Brian Snitker took over the Atlanta Braves as interim manager last May, he became the oldest first-time MLB manager since 1982. Now the title is official, but Snitker freely admits he's still learning on the job.
Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves arrived at Citi Field this week mired in a six-game losing streak and fighting their way out of last place in the National League East.

At the helm of this team is Brian Snitker, a dichotomy of baseball experience. In one sense, he is utterly green, with less than a full season of major league managing on his resume. When he took over the team as interim manager last May, the then 60-year-old Snitker became the oldest first-time manager since Bobby Mattick back in 1982, and the fourth-oldest first-time manager in MLB history. He freely admits that he is learning on the job.


"I learn something every day," Snitker said, chatting in the Braves' dugout Tuesday afternoon. "Bobby [Cox] told me that, you'll go around the league two, three times. And once you learn the league—well, I'm not there yet. I'm a 61-year-old rookie, I'm just learning how to do things."

But Snitker is no stranger to the game of baseball. He played four minor league seasons in the Atlanta system, earning just 13 plate appearances above Double-A. When he reached the end of his playing career, a Braves farm director named Hank Aaron urged him to consider coaching.

So it was ever since: coaching, managing, some in Atlanta with Bobby Cox, but mostly in distant outposts of the Braves farm system: Anderson, Sumter, Durham, Macon, Danville, Myrtle Beach, Greenville, Richmond, Jackson, Gwinnett, a virtual tour of the old Confederacy. He'd dreamt of managing in the major leagues, but gave that up around the time he turned 55, and his good friend Fredi Gonzalez got the Atlanta job in 2011.

But after the Braves dug themselves into a 9-28 hole last year, Gonzalez was fired. Snitker, who was managing in Triple-A Gwinnett at the time, got the call. The choice caught Snitker, among many others, completely by surprise.

And even as the Braves played virtually .500 ball under Snitker, finishing the season on a 20-10 tear, few thought he'd get the chance to hold the job on a full-time basis. The Braves were a team on the rise, with hitters like Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp supported by young, emerging regulars such as Ender Inciarte in center field, Adonis Garcia at third base, and Dansby Swanson at shortstop. Nevertheless, in October the Braves asked Snitker to return as manager, seeing 2016 as predictive, rather than a simple case of effective caretaking.


It was Snitker, of course, who gave Inciarte the chance to play every day, and saw Garcia as a third baseman in the first place. And Freeman recognized something else about Snitker, too.

"He is very candid about how he feels and what he thinks, and that's refreshing for us," Freeman said, sitting at his locker in the Citi Field visitor's clubhouse Tuesday afternoon. "What you get with Brian Snitker is what you see. And he's not afraid to let you know what he's thinking. And he's very grateful for this opportunity, and he's very carefree. Because he's been waiting 30-plus years for this opportunity. He's the one person who deserved it, and he's the one person we wanted."

That combination of fresh perspective and experience has come in handy as the Braves stumble through another slow start to the season this year, particularly with the team's young core. Swanson has struggled so far this season, his production far below the .302/.361/.442 line he posted in 2016, but Snitker has been resolute in his support for the young player, both publicly and privately. When asked about his manager, Swanson talked about him the way one might discuss a treasured family pet.

"I mean, he's just Snit," he said, smiling broadly. "He expects us to win, to put our best effort forward. He allows us to drive the bus, so to speak, to make it our season. He trusts in us, he trusts in the combination of everybody in here will push forward in the right way."


Swanson, a Georgia native, remembers growing up watching the Braves, and Snitker near third base, coaching for Cox. He seemed to revel in the thought of the man he'd watched on television now in his life every day.

"It's Snit, he's awesome. His son was at Vandy [Swanson's alma mater], an assistant strength coach there. It's a little connection, and it's just grown and grown every day."

If Snitker's personal proximity to the challenges of being a rookie inform his relationship with the Braves' youngest players, the veterans on the team like Freeman and R.A. Dickey also recognize someone who has been through the marathon of a baseball season many times, and knows what matters, and what doesn't.

"He's not moody," Dickey said. "He's very understanding, encouraging. Empathy. But waiting a long time to get your chance to manage can make you grateful. And you see that with him. He gets the grind, because he's a lifer. But he's grown with the game. He understands players are different, emotionally, than they were under, say, Bobby Cox. And the reason it's evolved is because personalities have evolved. And we're now at a different place in baseball than we were 20 years ago, even 10 years ago."

Dickey pointed to seemingly small things, like allowing his players to wear a collared shirt and jeans on a flight after a late-night game—concessions to comfort that don't interfere with an expectation that his players will give him maximum effort.


Dickey says he noticed something else, too, about Snitker when they first met last winter in Nashville, when the free agent Dickey was deciding where he wanted to pitch next.

"He cares," Dickey said of his initial impression, one reinforced by subsequent phone conversations and the daily routine since spring training began. "He cares about my family. He knows I'm a father of four. He gets that part of it, because he's been through that, too. He has a lot of things you want in a manager, things that aren't necessarily manifested in wins and losses, but just with developing people, encouraging people, and getting the most out of the clubhouse."

It is a life experience Snitker knows well. He and his wife, Ronnie, have been parents within the confines of a baseball schedule, and Ronnie serves as primary babysitter for their daughter Erin's twins. The family gathered in Atlanta to watch Snitker jog to the first-base line for the first time as a full-fledged major league manager earlier this season, but even that had to wait a bit: the Braves' home opener didn't come until Atlanta had played in the home openers for the Mets, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Miami Marlins.

"That was pretty cool," Snitker said. "Thinking how blessed I felt, what an honor it is to be the last manager at Turner Field and the first manager at SunTrust Park. So I'm looking out there at Chipper and Bobby and Glavine, and watching Hank throw out the first pitch to Bobby, just how cool that whole scenario was. And then we won the game, which was even cooler."


Snitker wasn't concerned about his team's 6-12 start entering the series with the Mets, expressing a belief that the Braves were a far better offensive team than they'd shown, and the 15 runs they subsequently put up against Mets pitching in an abbreviated two-game sweep this week helped alleviate those concerns even further. There's every reason to believe the Braves only get better from here, with the top-ranked farm system in MLB according to Baseball America, and Freeman believes they're ready to contend right now.

"I think we're here already," he said. "I think this team has a chance to compete. And though we didn't get off to the start we wanted, I believe we'll be playing meaningful games in September. I think we're there. We have the number one farm system, and the pitching is close, and we have the guys right now to score runs."

Shepherding them through it will be the 61-year-old rookie. Dickey knows a little something about an older manager guiding a young team, having played for Terry Collins during the rebuild in New York. And he understands the effect of having to wait such a long time to get a chance, having spent years toiling at the fringes of organized baseball before his revelatory 2011 season and Cy Young campaign in 2012.

So he hypothesized that Snitker the player must have been a fair-to-middling minor leaguer, too. Told he never got a big league shot, Dickey nodded.

"A minor league lifer? For me, that makes a lot of sense. Because he knows how hard it is to be in this clubhouse, and he respects the position. He gives us the freedom to be men, to police ourselves. Unless something needs tending to, he'll leave it alone. And now, people feel the freedom to be who they are, and a manager who recognizes that, allows guys to bring the gifts they can bring to the table, can only help a team."

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