• Georgia State

    2018 Rewind: A Season For The Ages

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Proximity often blurs perspective. Something great happens, you celebrate like mad, then as the annuals of time tick by and the years slide off the calendar, you gain a refined look.

    This is an exercise that came about for me while perusing Twitter the other night, as I spoke of memorable moments these older eyes of blue have witnessed across a variety of sports, throughout a variety of decades. The timing certainly was appropriate, given I write this with 25 or so hours before we say bon voyage to 2018 and welcome 2019 with the hopes, dreams, goals and desire each fresh set of 365 days brings.

    Being in the moment – or just barely removed from it – does not offer the same view you obtain via the passage of time. But 2018 was an amazing year for me as a sports fan. I crafted a top 10 list spanning the start of me watching sports in person in the late 1970s through today, and three events from this season actually made the list.

    The Braves were the surprise story of 2018, following another 90-loss campaign with 90 wins and an NL East pennant.

    In March, I drove to Nashville with my best friend since middle school to watch my alma mater (Georgia State) play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Three weeks ago, I wept for joy next to my 16-year-old son inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Atlanta United celebrated winning MLS Cup – the first major pro sports championship in this city since this same old dude watched the Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series, in a stadium that now is … a parking lot for said alma mater’s football stadium.

    Sports has a way of connecting the dots, connecting the generations, connecting the masses. It truly is just an awesome experience. Whether I had a ticket in my pocket or a press pass dangling around my neck, the thrill of it all never gets old. This year, I was beyond blessed to attend 35 Braves games, including an opening day thriller, a walk-off bunt, a division clincher and two playoff games.

    I present to you the top 10 moments I witnessed in person this season, a campaign that expired just 84 days ago, but already resonates so deeply with Braves Country that it stands among the most memorable in the long and storied history of this franchise:

    10. Homestand-Closing Win And The Impossible Happened: The Braves began the season with a six-game homestand against two teams many picked to finish ahead of Atlanta – sexy-preseason selection Philadelphia and perennial-division power Washington. April 4 dawned with the Braves at 3-2 but staring at a daunting road trip – a three-city, nine-game, early-April swing through three cities (Denver, Washington, Chicago) that simply is inexcusable for any team to have that time of year. Plus, Max Scherzer toed the rubber for the Nationals while Atlanta sent Mike Foltynewicz to the mound.

    It was a mismatch from the start. A first-inning error on Washington second baseman Wilmer Difo extended the inning, Preston Tucker continued his scalding-hot start with a three-run homer in the inning, and Foltynewicz bested the future Hall of Famer and added the shocker of all shockers: a two-run double by the – shall we say, light-hitting pitcher – over a shallow-playing outfield in the fourth inning as the Braves won 7-1. It marked my nephew’s first visit to SunTrust Park, and my two sons’ first game of this memorable season.

    As an aside, the oldest kid called Tucker’s dinger. As an aside, he hasn’t stopped talking about it since.

    9. Through The Chill, Promise Of Hot Times Ahead: Actually, my oldest son got in a game before the aforementioned victory over Washington and his since never-ending prognostication. Atlanta played an exhibition game against a team of top prospects two days before the season opener. The weather was raw, drizzly and cold, but Mike Soroka started, Kolby Allard pitched, Cristian Pache belted his first two homers as a professional and Austin Riley nearly killed us with a scathing line drive just foul near the left-field pole.

    Oh, and some kid recorded a base hit that registered an exit velocity of 115 mph. Some dude named Acuña.

    8. The Home Debut Of The Phenom: The heralded promotion of 20-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. came after the Braves had dropped the first two games of a four-game set in Cincinnati in late April. After going 1-for-5 in his big-league debut, he slammed an upper-deck tank job the next afternoon.

    Eight days later, in his first home game against the Giants, Acuña went 0-for-4 from the two-spot in the lineup in a 9-4 defeat.

    One of the coolest things of my year happened pregame. With both my sons in attendance, we were able to meet up with Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun. What does that have to do with baseball, one may ask? One, Ken covers the Winnipeg Jets, who once upon a time were the Atlanta Thrashers, and I’ve kept cheering for the boys even after relocation. Two, Ken is a huge baseball guy who loves to visit stadiums. An off day in the Jets/Predators Western Conference semifinals gave him an opportunity to attend the game, and it was absolutely awesome to talk hockey with one of the best scribes covering the NHL.

    7. Charlie Clutch, Part Deux: Charlie Culberson etched his name all over the 2018 story and, in many ways, embodied this team. Born in Rome, raised in Calhoun, nearly an MVP in the previous season’s NLCS for the Dodgers, Culberson was a throw-in piece of the Matt Kemp contract-salary dump deal in December 2017. But after a slow start, Culberson began performing the heroics that have placed his name in Braves lore forever.

    Atlanta opened a homestand on Memorial Day against the Mets with a doubleheader, and Culberson provided a two-run walkoff homer in a 5-4 triumph in the first game. Six days later, Culberson walked to home plate in the ninth inning of the homestand finale against the Nationals, the game tied at 2, and blasted a Tanner Roark pitch into the seats to lift Atlanta to a 4-2 victory.

    I posted a picture on Instagram of Culberson arriving at home plate with the simple caption: “THIS TEAM!!!” That moment was the first time, 59 games into this magically developing season, when I first thought to myself that team just might contend.

    6. Walk It Out … With A Bunt: I often have folks ask how many baseball games I’ve attended in my life. Well, counting 40 years of going to Braves games, a decade-plus covering baseball games from the Braves, the minors, college and high school, and a decade of coaching my kids in baseball, suffice to say the number is quite high.

    There is an old saying that on any given day at a baseball game, you may see something you’ve never witnessed before. I’d never seen a walk-off bunt, not until April 21 against the Mets. Eventual Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom did his typical job of stifling the opposing offense, while the New York batters did their typical job of not providing any run support. That set the stage for a heart-stopping ninth inning, where Inciarte drug a perfect bunt down the first-base line and Johan Camargo raced home with a head-first slide to cap a thrilling 4-3 victory.

    And you know what? Ender’s game-winning bunt wasn’t the only thing that night I’d never witnessed in person. Camargo tied the game in the ninth with a triple that hit on the infield, skated into the right-center field gap and rolled all the way to the wall.

    5. Young Newk; Damn You, Chris Taylor: I could not breathe. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Not necessarily the best scenario since I had been hospitalized late last year with stroke symptoms. But there were no medical issues as I stood in Section 431 on the final Sunday of July, watching one of the Braves future cornerstones chase immortality.

    Sean Newcomb had it all working against the Dodgers that day. As his pitch count climbed, my oldest and I both agreed the powerful lefty had to stay on the bump. Through eight innings, he had no-hit the defending NL champions, and I had chills on top of chills as the crowd roared for Newk as he walked to the dugout just three outs away. I flashed back to early June 2013, when both kids and I stood inside Turner Field and watched Julio Teheran no-hit the Pirates for 7 2/3 innings.

    Newcomb got two outs in the ninth, and up came Taylor, who worked the count to 2-2 and then lined a sharp single through the hole and into left field. I’ll never forget my son holding his phone to record the moment, and I noticed how he couldn’t stand still. Twenty-two years earlier, I sat in the press box at a baseball field in Gainesville, Ga., and watched a kid named Andy Hussion (who would go on to pitch at Georgia) throw a no-hitter in an American Legion playoff game. To this day, it is the only no-hitter I’ve witnessed in person, and it happened on a night where Andy’s dad (longtime Furman announcer Chuck Hussion) was doing PA duties, and where many in the stands had went to bed the night before with no knowledge of the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park until they retrieved their copy of our paper from their driveways that Saturday morning. We slammed the presses shut and redid the front page after the explosion – the only time in my newspaper career where we really “stopped the press.”

    4. A Tone-Setting Comeback For Openers: The home opener is sacred to me. I guess it’s because I always got home opener tickets every year for my birthday (in March), and through 40 years I’ve only missed two of them. I also was fortunate to cover three home openers, including Andres Galarraga’s homer in the 2000 opener after he missed the previous season with lymphoma. The night before was spent preparing around 100 sausage balls, stocking coolers with beverages and recording a 90-minute season-preview podcast.

    March 29 found me heading to SunTrust Park early in the morning. Several hours of tailgating preceded the 4:10 start time, the second opener in the history of the new ballyard. Connecting with old friends and meeting new ones, for all the angst of the previous offseason, a new day dawned for this franchise while delivering quite the harbinger of things to come.

    Down 5-0 in the sixth, Atlanta battled back, setting the stage for Nick Markakis to blast a three-run, ninth-inning walkoff homer into the right-center field seats. The celebration turned wet immediately afterward as a strong thunderstorm blasted the ballpark, but nobody complained. It would be the first of many comeback victories by the Battlin’ Braves of ’18.

    3. Title Time In Tomahawk Town: I walked into a cigar shop off Ga. 400 and bought my first cigar in probably five years (I typically only have one on the golf course, and I haven’t played golf lately). It was around 10 a.m. and I already had four bottles of champagne icing in the back of my SUV. The cashier asked if I was going to the game and, upon telling him yes, he said, “been a long time since I’ve been this excited about the Braves.”

    Brother, I felt ya in that moment. And the Braves delivered like champions, Atlanta jumping all over Jake Arrieta – the experienced playoff veteran Philadelphia acquired to lift it to October – knocking him out after scoring four runs in two innings. Meanwhile, Foltynewicz took a no-hitter into the seventh and when Acuña gloved the final out of the game, everybody in Braves Country lost their minds.

    How did this happen so fast? The rebuild ended, the new era fully engaged. Wow, here we are, with championship T-shirts and champagne showers in the locker room and tears of joy and hugs and screams of delight. It marked the seventh title I’ve seen the Braves clinch in person – but other than the Miracle Comeback in the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS and the World Series clinching victory in Game 6 of 1995, it’s hard to think of any other Braves moment that tops Sept. 22. And while my kids weren’t there, getting to cry with and hug some of my great, dear Braves friends made the moment absolutely awesome.

    2. Acuña Slams The Postseason Stage: I mentioned above three of my top 10 moments witnessed in person across all sports occurred this season. I honestly had little expectations going into the NL Division Series against the big, bad Dodgers. But when the Braves came home for Game 3, I thought they would buck up and find a way to win and draw within 2-1 of the series. I could just feel it.

    But the manner in which it happened took our breaths away. Acuña, the eventual NL rookie of the year, becoming the youngest player in baseball history to belt a postseason grand slam, a second-inning shot into the left-center field seats. What followed was two or three minutes of absolute bedlam, complete and comparable to the early/mid 1990s euphoria. It literally shook SunTrust Park to its foundation.

    Atlanta would capture Game 3 on a Freddie Freeman homer, a Chop House special deep to right field, but the Acuña grand slam represented more than four runs with one swing of the bat. It marked the return to prominence of this franchise, and its fanbase. There may be three or four moments where I’ve experienced the ear-splitting, knee-buckling spontaneous combustion of noise that I felt that night. I’ll carry that feeling to my grave.

    It also landed a buddy of mine with an Acuña tattoo on her wrist, and a prominent spot on the national news.

    1. Sharing This Ride With All Of You: Our world is filled with so many dividing items, and it feels that’s the case now more than ever in my lifetime. Social media can be toxic. News coverage can be depressing. Conversations that go just beneath the surface can break up relationships decades in the making. In times like these, the connection a sports team can provide is not only welcomed, it’s needed.

    I have met and developed relationships with so many people through Braves baseball, from folks who played at the highest level to award-winning writers to so many folks who are just like me, who love this sport and love their team. There is so much passion, so much energy from so many wonderful and talented people throughout Braves Country, whether you’re in Atlanta or around the world.

    It truly is an honor to be in your midst, online and in person.

    I have met some of the best people in my life through my love of the Braves, and 2018 took that to a whole new level. People I have met through following and writing about the Braves have taught me valuable lessons, provided me a shoulder to lean on, prayed for me in sickness, enhanced my ballpark and tailgating experience, and overall cast even more sunshine into my life. For that, I’m thankful. So much love to all.

    That’s the biggest thing I’ll carry from 2018, a year in which the Braves ended the rebuild. The best is yet to come, and I cannot wait to continue this journey with all of you.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Snitker the Brave Receives Well-Deserved Extension

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was a moment that otherwise would be forgotten amid the wreckage of a lost season, the 72nd game of a campaign in which the Atlanta Braves would win but 68 times, would finish 26 ½ games out of first place, would promote an organizational lifer to the manager’s seat after a 9-28 start merely to steer the listless ship toward October and incoming certain change at the helm.

    The Braves hosted the New York Mets on June 23, 2016, at Turner Field, Brian Snitker filling out the lineup card as a major-league manager for the 35th time since replacing the fired Fredi Gonzalez six weeks earlier, 39 years after debuting as a minor-league catcher for Atlanta’s rookie-league affiliate in Kingsport, Tenn., 34 years after starting his first season as a manager for Atlanta’s Single-A affiliate in Anderson, S.C. The Braves were hosed out of the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, a blown call that (surprise!) replay upheld.

    Mets announcers, not surprisingly, were pleased with the call …

    But Snitker promptly strolled onto the field for an explanation from umpire Mike Everitt, who promptly ejected the interim skipper.

    Then, we saw it. Yes, it’s been there since 1977 and those days squatting behind the plate in the Appalachian League, but here on a major-league diamond was Snitker, stomping behind Everitt, arms flailing violently, Braves cap in his left hand, screaming at the top of his lungs, fighting for the team that brought him up only to keep a seat warm in the dugout, a demonstrative outpouring of passion and loyalty to the lone franchise he’s known, an outburst that made the 22,324 in the ballpark that night sound like 40,000.

    It truly feels like a fairy tale, this 2018 season that culminated in a National League East championship, a trip to the NL Division Series, the confluence of veteran leadership with young blooming talent. And in the midst of it all stood Snitker, who long shed the interim label, who Monday sat proudly in a red shirt and a blossoming offseason beard (mustache, too!) as the Braves announced a two-year contract extension with a third-year option for 2021.

    When Snitker was summoned from Triple-A Gwinnett to take the helm after Gonzalez was relieved of his duties, I joked on Twitter that he should bring Ozzie Albies with him. No way did I ever think this stint would last beyond the final game of 2016, but lo and behold, we saw something else that muggy June night in the ballpark that now is the home of Georgia State football.

    We saw the Braves rally. Adonis Garcia belted a two-run homer an inning after Snitker was sent to the showers, the come-from-behind 4-3 victory serving as foreshadowing for how Atlanta would become the battling Braves in years to come. Atlanta has won 57 games in its last at-bat since Snitker became manager, including 20 this season as the Braves raced past expectations and past the rest of the NL East, fashioning one of the most memorable campaigns in these parts since the franchise relocated from Milwaukee in 1966.

    For context, that was 11 years before Snitker joined the Atlanta organization.

    He deserves a ton of credit, and it started during those dark days of 2016. The Braves were an embarrassment in the final two months of 2015 and it continued through the early weeks of the next season, Atlanta going 34-76 in Gonzalez’s final 110 games as manager. Certainly, it wasn’t all his fault, with a stripped-down roster as the organization dove head-long into rebuild mode. Snitker managed 52 games before the All-Star break, the Braves going 22-30, then put together a 37-35 second half and knocked Detroit from the playoff race in the final game before home plate at Turner Field was dug up and transported via police escort to the dirt pile that would become SunTrust Park.

    Snitker found himself at the helm for 2017, an evaluation year that certainly would end with bumbling executives John Coppolella (trying to circumvent MLB rules) and John Hart (trying to lower his handicap) seeking a new manager for 2018, the man who would lead the Braves out of the darkness. Holes remained in the roster, of course, but Snitker helped squeeze a 45-45 start before Atlanta finally ran out of gas, and by late summer there was every indication the lifelong organization man would be in a different role come 2018. We’ve heard the stories by now, how right fielder Nick Markakis stood up for Snitker after Hart screamed at the manager following a loss in August, how Coppolella’s lack of people skills pushed Snitker to the point of telling a clubhouse attendant to pack his stuff while the Braves were finishing the season on the road, the affable lifelong Brave so disgusted, he had no desire to even return to his home ballpark.

    We all know how the story played out from there. Snitker, the beacon of steadiness, one beloved by players and staff alike, was the perfect person to guide the Braves one more season while new GM Alex Anthopoulos assessed the reeling organization top-to-bottom in 2018. Loyal to the brand to the very end, Snitker embraced the new regime’s reliance on analytics, formed tight bonds with several new members of the coaching staff brought into the dugout in the offseason, and continued to hold the steering wheel with a steady, firm hand as the trickle of young, promising talent reaching the majors grew into a wave.

    And his confidence grew, too. Two years on the job, more comfortable with the media, more relaxed. Brian Snitker had a chance – a real, fair chance – to manage for his job in 2018. He seized it. He benched Ender Inciarte, one of Snitker’s more vocal proponents, for failing to run out a ground ball. It didn’t change the center fielder’s feeling for his manager, but helped spark him to a strong second half. Snitker tried to single-handedly tear through the Miami Marlins roster to get at Jose Urena after Ronald Acuna Jr. was nailed on purpose with a pitch, his emotional postgame comments in which he described the Braves boy wonder as “my kid … I’m going to protect him,” resonating throughout baseball.

    And of course, the crowning moment, fighting back tears on the infield at SunTrust Park moments after the Braves won the East, saying simply, “I’m a Brave.” It’s a moment I’m not ashamed to say has made my eyes water every time I’ve watched it.

    He’s a Brave, indeed, and the gig is his. There are times where the tactical decision-making leads me to shake my head. I guess you could say that about any manager, coach, boss, person in power. But there is no denying this: I coached my kids in baseball for more than a decade. I would be honored for them to play for this man.

    Brian Snitker, the good company man, finally has his just reward. It’s not a retirement party or a gold watch or a farewell pat on the back. It’s this opportunity, one that made all those long bus rides and rain delays and time spent away from family across four decades worth the sacrifice.

    It’s a chance to manage a team that very soon figures to be a World Series contender. It’s a chance richly earned and well deserved.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.