Skip to main content

He's Old-School. He Doesn't Embrace Analytics. And He's Thriving in Today's MLB.

Braves manager Brian Snitker waited 40 years to get his shot. There may never be anyone like him again—and that may be exactly why he’s had so much success.

Of the many, many times when Brian Snitker could and perhaps should have given up on baseball, the first came in 1980.

By that fall, Snitker, then 24, had hit his ceiling as a player: four years in high school, three in college and now four in the Braves’ minor league system, playing in Southern outposts like Kinston, N.C.; Savannah; and, most recently, Durham, N.C.; where he’d made $750 for the season as a Class A catcher and first baseman.

In that moment, he could have avoided all that followed: the life of 12-hour bus rides, missing entire seasons of a child’s school sports, working on one-year contracts—the nights sleeping on a training table, the decades chasing his big league dream, only to have it snatched away over and over.

dCOVsnitker_Vlogo

Snitker could have gone back to school, earned his degree and lived a normal life, one where he knew where he’d be in 12 months’ time. Instead, for better or worse, he chose to push on—to keep grinding, believing in a destination that seemed more and more unreachable the older he got. Meanwhile, the game evolved, becoming the province of analysts and MBAs until a man like Snitker—an old-school baseball lifer, lacking in artifice and terrible at self-promotion—felt like someone from another age.

But the world works in mysterious ways, and now, to the surprise of most everyone in baseball, Snitker is in his sixth year as manager of the Braves, having led them to three consecutive NL East titles and, last season, to within one game of the World Series. At 65 he is currently the fourth-oldest manager in MLB and the one initially hired to the job at the oldest age. “I’m not sure I could have gone through what he did,” says Mark Lemke, the former Atlanta second baseman who came up in the minors under Snitker. “Actually, I know I couldn’t have.” Greg Walker, the longtime Braves hitting coach, is convinced his friend’s life should be a movie.

Indeed, those who hear Snitker’s story—of unlikely encounters and crushing heartbreaks, of persistence and futility, of unexpected mentors and flashes of glory—tend to be either inspired or mystified. Some want to know how he did it. Others want to know why he stuck with it.

Had you met Snitker at age 13, chances are you wouldn’t have projected a bright future in baseball. Not especially agile or strong, he wore thick glasses and was so slow-footed that high school teammate Steve Shartzer would say, “There’s dead people that can outrun him.”

But Brian had loved the game since he was 6 years old, when he’d swing a bat in his backyard in Macon, a rural outpost of 1,200 in the middle of Illinois. His father, Dick, worked as a salesman for Pabst Blue Ribbon and, later, Jim Beam, which meant the Snitkers always had the best-stocked rec room bar in the county. It also meant Dick was on the road four to five days a week. So Brian, whom everyone just called Snit, played catch with his mom, Catherine, or banged balls off the brick wall at Macon High.

It was there that Snitker met the first of a string of men who’d shape his managerial approach, a young English teacher turned baseball coach named Lynn Sweet, who had moved to town from Chicago. To the consternation of many in Macon, Sweet wore his hair long, taught progressive books and had a habit of empowering his players. He let them choose their positions and steal at their own discretion. He also thought sports should be fun. When he filled out a form about the Ironmen for a nearby paper, for team weaknesses Sweet wrote: coaching.

The Macon boys wore peace signs on their hats, grew their hair out, played Jefferson Airplane during warmups and began winning at a heady pace. At the time, there were no class divisions in Illinois high school ball, so when the Ironmen took the district title in 1971, Snitker’s sophomore year, nearly every playoff game lined up as a mismatch. And yet Macon, with an enrollment of 250, won the sectionals to qualify for the all-comers state tournament in Peoria.

The experience opened Snitker’s eyes to a broader world—big-city press coverage, college stadiums, major league scouts. Defying the odds, Macon advanced to the semis and, in a game that would be etched in state high school lore, took down Chicago’s Lane Tech High, a baseball powerhouse with 5,200 students, becoming the smallest school in Illinois history to advance to the state finals.

That the Ironmen lost in the finals did little to blunt the achievement; when Snitker and his teammates returned home that night, they found the roadway in Macon lined with townspeople. (In 2010 I’d write about this season, for Sports Illustrated, and later in a book, One Shot at Forever, which is when I first met Snitker.)

For many of the boys, that season would stand as a high-water mark of their athletic careers. Not Snitker. Two years later he headed to Lincoln (Ill.) Junior College, then to the University of New Orleans for two seasons before leaving to sign as a free agent with the Braves in 1977. His career peaked at Triple A in ’78, when he had four hits—all singles—in 12 at bats. Within a couple of years, he had dropped all the way back to Class A, fighting to keep his batting average north of the Mendoza Line.

Which brings us to the fall of 1980. Released by the Braves, Snitker had no Plan B and, he says, “really no other passion than baseball.”

And then he got a call from Hank Aaron.

Under Snitker, who won the NL 2018 Manager of the Year award (opposite), the Braves have won three straight division titles.

Under Snitker, who won the NL 2018 Manager of the Year award (opposite), the Braves have won three straight division titles.

We all have inflection points in our lives. Snitker had two pretty much back-to-back. First came that call from Aaron, the Braves legend and, at that time, MLB’s home run king. Aaron had recently been installed as the team’s farm director. He’d heard Snitker was good with people and offered him a gig as a roving instructor in the low minors. It wouldn’t be glamorous. He would sleep on couches, lug bags and throw BP, all for the princely sum of $14,000 a year. Snitker jumped at the chance.

Not long afterward, Snitker met Veronica “Ronnie” Sylvester while on a blind date set up by his roommate, former big league outfielder Cito Gaston. They had little in common. Ronnie worked as a speech pathologist at an elementary school and was vegetarian. Brian dipped tobacco and had never met a burger he couldn’t inhale. Yet the two hit it off and, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Snitkers, soon moved in together. “You might want to experience this life first before we actually do it,” Snitker told her. “It’s not for everybody.”

Ronnie decided that it was for her, or at least that Brian was. They began a winding minor league adventure. The following spring, Snitker got a job managing the Class A team in Anderson, S.C., and then, a year later, the Class A Durham Bulls, leaning on Aaron for advice as he went. Snitker must have done something right, because in 1985 the big club called him up as a bullpen coach. These were the Braves of Ted Turner’s heyday, led by outfielder Dale Murphy and broadcast nationwide on the TBS Superstation. Turner lived large, serving bison from his Montana ranch at team dinners and sitting behind the dugout during games drinking beer, shirtless if the weather was hot. When the staff held meetings about the roster, the coaches knew what was coming. “By the time you got downstairs,” recalls Snitker, “Ted had already told the players what everybody was saying about them. He couldn’t help himself.”

In what would become a pattern, just as Snitker gained momentum, he lost it. The next season, the Braves hired Chuck Tanner as manager and, as managers often do, he brought in his own guys. Atlanta sent Snitker back to manage Class A Sumter and start at the bottom again.

IMG_8043
Snitker has had stops as a manager at Class A Durham (1984) and Macon (’97).

Snitker has had stops as a manager at Class A Durham (1984) and Macon (’97).

When Bull Durham came out, in 1988, it lent a certain romance to the minor leagues. The reality, Snitker was learning, was far from it.

Managing came with no security and little pay; he made $17,500 managing Class A Durham in 1983, getting up to $27,500 there four years later. The couple became adept at making do, especially once their firstborn, Erin, arrived in December 1986, followed two years later by a son, Troy.

Often, the Snitkers were on the move. They bought the first of three Chevy Astro vans, which Ronnie jury-rigged into traveling homes. She saved matching packing boxes, placing a sheet over them to serve as an end table. They strapped a TV atop a milk crate and attached a VCR to create a rudimentary car entertainment system for the kids on long drives. “We looked like the Clampetts dragging stuff around the Southeast,” says Snitker.

Their schedules were near mirror opposites. Ronnie, who had a graduate degree in speech pathology and audiology from Georgia State, served as a single parent much of the year. She took work calls in a locked room in their home in Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, hoping the kids wouldn’t break anything. As soon as the school year ended, Ronnie and the kids packed up and drove to wherever Brian was coaching. One year, they stayed the summer at a Comfort Inn. Another, they shared a three-bedroom apartment with the pitching coach and the trainer. Once, they moved three times. Sometimes the apartment would be moldy; sometimes the neighborhood wasn’t safe. Ronnie once looked down at Erin in her Easter bonnet and saw a roach crawling on her face. “I just snapped,” she says.

In the summers, the kids lived on baseball time, staying up until 1 a.m. Troy became a batboy, dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” with the Wooly Bull mascot in Durham. Erin belted out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” changing it to “Take Me Out to My Daddy’s Game.” One year, Ronnie and the kids arrived before the team and set up the clubhouse. The players arrived to find 10-year-old Troy vacuuming the carpet.

In 1988, Snitker received a second promotion to the big leagues (to bench coach under Tanner), followed two years later by another demotion (back to Class A). With each “recycling”—as he came to call it—he moved to the back of the line again, a baseball Sisyphus.

Along the way, Snitker gained a reputation for intensity—he has since mellowed—and for being a gifted developmental coach. “I never would have had a major league career if not for Brian Snitker,” says Lemke, whom Snitker rostered as a third-string second baseman back in Class A. Once, mired in a slump, Lemke knocked on his manager’s door, hoping for technical advice. Instead, Lemke recalls, Snitker told him to stop worrying about where he held his hands or his batting stance. One day, Snitker said, you’re going to get a hit and then go on a hot streak and you won’t know what caused it, but the longer you think about it, the longer you’ll be in a slump. Not long after, Lemke started hitting. Within three years, he was in the majors, going on to start at second on Atlanta’s 1995 championship team.

Snitker’s knack for development worked for and against him. The skill kept him with the Braves organization, forever recycled rather than fired. But by helping his best players move up, he in turn made it harder to win. “The difference between him and other minor league managers is that he did exactly what you were supposed to do,” says Lemke. “Most guys want to win and uplift their own ego.”

So, year after year, Snit helped groom the big club’s next stars. He had outfielder David Justice in A ball (“very intelligent kid”). He was the first coach righthander John Smoltz met in Instructional League in 1987. (Smoltz later recalled being scared of Snitker.) In ’91 he was Chipper Jones’s hitting coach during Jones’s first full season in the minors, when he batted .326. Chipper has fond memories of those days, eating Moons Over My Hammy at Denny’s, watching teammates trying to sleep laid out in the luggage carriers on long bus rides. “Snit taught us how to be professionals,” Jones says.

In 1993, Jones debuted in the majors. Two years later, when the Braves finally won the World Series, Snitker watched from the stands, proud to know he’d been part of the players’ journeys. But the following spring, when Atlanta set out to defend the title, Snitker reported to Danville, Va., to manage a Rookie League team.

Read More SI Daily Cover Stories: https://www.si.com/tag/daily-cover

For generations, baseball was a game of instinct. Of gut calls and knowing talent when you saw it. But, as Snitker toiled in the minors, the game began to undergo a revolution. The Bill James Baseball Abstract grew from a photocopied novelty to required reading for forward-thinking front offices. In 2003, Michael Lewis’s Moneyball came out, popularizing the data-centric approach of the A’s.

As other teams embraced new concepts, Atlanta stayed the course. The Braves were then in the midst of an 11-season postseason streak, led by Bobby Cox, who’d taken over for Tanner in 1990 and was as old-school as they came.

Meanwhile, Snit waited his turn. And waited. He won two Manager of the Year awards with Class A Myrtle Beach, S.C. He managed Atlanta’s Double A club in Greenville, S.C., and then, when it moved, in Pearl, Miss., before being promoted to Triple A Richmond where, instead of bus rides, the team got 3 a.m. wake-up calls to get to the airport for flights. “You’re just exhausted all the time,” says Snitker. “Just raising a family and keeping a marriage together, and never being there. It was tough.”

Always, Brian and Ronnie expected financial instability. They had the $78,000 to buy their first home in Stone Mountain in 1986 only after Brian cashed in all his childhood savings bonds to help with the down payment. From then on when they bought houses, they did it based on his minor league salary, even during his stints in the majors. They clipped coupons and balanced checkbooks religiously.

In 2005, Snitker turned 50. Erin graduated high school. Troy began his junior year in suburban Atlanta, now a talented catcher himself—though Brian would see just three innings of Troy’s high school career in person. “You miss everything,” says Snitker. “I told my sisters, ‘Don’t get married during the season. I won’t be there.’ ”

By now it had been a decade and a half since Snitker’s last call-up. Every year he broke the happy news to promoted players, including catcher Brian McCann and, over Bud Lights in his hotel room, outfielder Jeff Francoeur (who recalls Snit getting “a little teary-eyed”). And every year, Snitker stayed behind. He began to talk about valuing the process, not the outcome.

And then, in the fall of 2006, Braves GM John Schuerholz called. Fredi González was leaving to manage the Marlins. They needed someone to replace him as Braves third base coach. Did Brian want the job?

Snitker did not prevaricate. “Man, I’ll take it!” he bellowed. Seventeen years had passed between appearances in the Show, a gap that, best anyone knows, stands as the longest ever.

In running Atlanta's big league club, Snitker has been reunited with many of the players he helped develop.

In running Atlanta's big league club, Snitker has been reunited with many of the players he helped develop.

And thus began a third run in the bigs. Just as he’d once observed Sweet and Aaron, now Snitker watched Cox, who made everyone feel like the most important person in the room and took no one for granted. Snitker realized the job isn’t about baseball: “It’s about managing people.”

Snitker picked up other tricks of the trade from Cox. He learned to get up at 5 a.m. at the winter meetings, when baseball men like Jim Leyland gathered in the lobby to talk shop over coffee. He learned to schedule a daily meeting so it never felt out of the ordinary when you needed to address your team. And he learned the value of an office couch. (Cox was a Hall of Fame napper.)

Four years passed. González replaced Cox. Then Jones retired. After three Astro vans, Ronnie finally got a Ford Explorer. And, much to Brian’s delight, Troy, after graduating from North Georgia, was taken by the Braves in the 19th round of the 2011 MLB draft.