MLB High Heat: Atlanta Braves Hustle Backwards Benching Ronald Acuna Jr.

The Atlanta Braves vs. Ronald Acuna Jr. generational and cultural disconnect, that actually began back in 2018 when he was still the top prospect in the minors, reared its ugly head once again when Acuña was benched in the 8th inning of Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series against the Cardinals with the Braves leading 3-1

They would eventually fall 7-6 as St. Louis rallied.  

Acuña went 1-4 in Game 2 and made it through the entire game. Now that the Braves rebounded to win Game 2 on Friday, 3-0, some media are suggesting that Acuña’s “lack of hustle” may come back to cost the Braves the series.

On Thursday, Acuña led off the bottom of the seventh inning and smacked a pitch down the right field line. Either because he thought it was a home run or because he wasn’t sure if it would stay fair, Acuña watched the ball sail through the air rather than bust it out the box. As he did so, the ball slammed off of the right field fence and the Braves rising star had himself a long single.

Moments later Braves manager Brian Snitker unfathomably benched him.

Bench Atlanta’s Franchise Savior?

Acuña Jr. stormed into the National League as a 20-year-old Rookie of the Year winner in 2018, leading the Atlanta Braves youth movement to the top of the NL East Division for the first time since 2013. He followed that grand entrance up with 41 homers, a league-leading 37 steals and 127 runs scored this season. He also led the Braves to back-to-back Division titles for the first time since 2004-05 and the club’s highest win total (97) since 2003. 

You’d think he was everything an organization would want as a player, but when he was benched last night the love-hate relationship that is brewing between the Braves and their superstar newbie is one that should concern the city of Atlanta. 

I know it concerns me. 

When Acuña was still an 18-year-old phenom preparing for his grand entrance into “The Show”, it was reported that the Braves wanted him to wear his hat straight and maintain a professional appearance while in uniform and respect the game.

Mixed Signals

Baseball can’t have it both ways. 

The commissioner’s office can’t express a desire to attract a younger audience and entice people of color to play and then support organizations who act as if expressing yourself as an individual and having explosive swag and a captivating, even controversial style of play, is something that has to be restricted.

Nobody told Ken Griffey Jr. he was disrespecting the game when he was his own cultural wave, wore his hat to the back, always smiled and laughed and enjoyed his moments on the field. 

He had a cultural relevance that kept audiences, especially African-Americans, attached to the game. Griffey was doing that back in 94’ and getting lauded for his youthful exuberance. Nobody considered Junior a guy who disrespected the game. In my opinion, the Braves are going too hard to control Acuna’s personality. 

He might be a polar opposite of Griffey Jr. as far as how he expresses his passion on the field, but to call him lazy or the say he has a problem with not hustling is crazy considering he stole 37 bases this season. To me, there’s no such thing as too cocky in sports if you can back it up, and Acuña can. 

His talent manifests itself off the field, as he made the move from 20th to 6th this year in terms of jersey sales. When he finished 20th last year, he became the youngest player to make the list since the league started doing the rankings after the 2010 season.

Cultural Disconnect

Baseball differs from hoops and the gridiron in that you have to always play it with a certain calm. You have to get into a comfort zone and kind of stay there throughout the game. Very few people can excel in baseball with the reckless abandon and uninhibited emotion of a Pete Rose. 

Atlanta is moving in a sound direction on the field, but they are failing to protect the integrity of their golden child. The Braves, dropped the ball when they insisted that the Venezuelan outfielder wear his hat straight once he inevitably settles into a full-time role with the team.

Manager Brian Snitker was wrong two months ago when he benched Acuña after the young baller stared at what he thought was a home run and had to settle for a long single because he didn’t bust it out the box. He said Acuña “let his team down”.

And he was wrong again on Thursday night.

You can’t embarrass your franchise player in a nationally-televised playoff game under any circumstances because he didn’t give you the hustle you wanted. As long as Acuña is producing —  and he’s doing it at an all-time record rate for a player of his age — then leave him the hell alone.

Thus, we have the root of a cultural disconnect between a 63-year-old manager who was born in the 50’s and a young, rising, Latino star of color — a millennial to the core. When you have been playing 100 games a year since the age of 8, the tendency is to just play and not get caught up in the moment. 

Acuña Jr. will have to learn on his own that there’s a time to turn up and kick it into that next gear. If he doesn’t, the gear he has now is still destined for Cooperstown. It’s hard to tell a guy who is dominating MLB as a 21-year-old that he needs to hustle more. He’s not doing it because he’s being lazy. Dude played 156 games this season.

Benching him and having his teammates rip him in the press after already being embarrassed is just creating animosity and tension between a future Hall of Famer and the entire Braves organization. 

Acuña’s cockiness gets in the way sometimes, but he’s a baby baller feeling his way through MLB and adulthood simultaneously. He’s a celebrity who has been anointed the savior in Atlanta, and so far he’s come through with flying colors. If you have something to say to him, pull him aside. Show him the respect a franchise player deserves. 

This drama is occurring one year into an 8-year, $100 million deal that Acuña signed in the offseason. If he keeps getting yanked from games, he’s not going to want to fulfill the contract. Not in this age of player empowerment where players, especially superstars, don’t want to have their personalities or options intruded upon or controlled by suits. 

Snitker was 72-90 the season before Acuña arrived. He should be fetching his bathwater and feeding him grapes in between at-bats at this point. Instead, he’s pulling Billy Martin stunts like he got rings. 

The Braves, who haven’t won a World Series in decades, seem more concerned with controlling their top prospect than him developing into a comfortable, MLB force and a franchise piece for a city that needs to win a World Series.

They need to back off the young bull. 

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