Let the kid play: Ronald Acuña Jr. reflects on his monstrous rookie season

Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr reflects on his Rookie of the Year season like he reflects on his dingers. (AP)
Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr reflects on his Rookie of the Year season like he reflects on his dingers. (AP)

It doesn’t always happen like this you know. For every Ronald Acuña Jr., there are No. 1 prospects like Jurickson Profar and Byron Buxton and Ben Grieves and J.D. Drew.

More rare is the player who gets all the hype and then actually lives up to it right away. Especially in the internet age where we drool over baseball prospects from their times in the minor leagues. The prospect factory has a way of disappointing — or at least prolonging the satisfying impact.

Acuña, the Atlanta Braves outfielder, is in New York City this week for the annual Baseball Writers Association of America award dinner at which he’ll be honored as the National League Rookie of the Year. It seems like a good moment to retrace just how great his impact was in Atlanta and around baseball, and just how important he might be both to the future of the Braves and the future of the game.

“Right now, my mentality is I’m going to do what I can do,” Acuña told Yahoo Sports this week in Spanish. “I hope I made a good impression. I’m going to do my work and concentrate on what I can do.”

Good impression is an understatement. He’s young (just turned 21 last month), uber talented, loaded with baseball tools, he exudes personality on the field but remains humble off of it. He’s the kind of player you love to watch — he hit eight homers from the lead-off spot last season and plays with the type of swagger and energy that baseball desperately needs.

He’s not only a cornerstone of the Braves’ future, he’s part of the youth movement that MLB is hoping will capture more attention from young viewers.

When the league put out its much-talked-about “Let the Kids Play” ad in October, Acuña is the first player on the screen. The ad, narrated by Ken Griffey Jr., seemed to signal that even MLB thinks the game’s unwritten rules are a tired act.

Acuña appears in the ad at least five times, his thunderous home swing making a few appearances, along with a dugout celebration and a moment where he’s watching a homer fly. Maybe too long, if you’re a traditionalist. While Acuña fits the mold of a bold young star that could open up baseball to a new generation, he’s not exactly making offseason stump speeches about it.

“I got a lot of attention from it,” Acuña says. “There are a lot of people who have opinions and say negative things.”

Still, he says the Braves have a good mixture of veteran players and young players and, “we work together.”

By October, Acuña was a budding MLB superstar who had the game talking with monstrous second half. That was one of the reasons he won the Rookie of the Year and his team made the postseason. There, he became the youngest player in MLB history to hit a postseason grand slam in the Braves’ NLDS versus the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When the season was over, he went back home to Venezuela and says his life didn’t change too much. He wasn’t Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. coming home, he was just the same kid — he only turned 21 in December, mind you.

“Talking with my childhood friends from school is what I enjoy the most,” Acuña said. “I have time to talk with them like we did when we were kids. We go to the beach and river … same scene where we grew up.”

He was eager to get home and eat his mom’s cooking. He works out with local baseball players, many of them younger than him. Even if they’re a bit more starstruck now — how could they not be? — Acuña won’t admit it.

“It’s the same,” he says.

But baseball never sleeps, and even from Venezuela, he’s been tracking the Braves’ moves this winter, assessing how his team fits into an NL East that has been busy beyond Atlanta.

“The truth is they’re doing good a job,” Acuña said. “They brought in [Brian] McCann, [Josh] Donaldson and they just resigned [Nick] Markakis. We wait to see if they sign anyone else. We have a really good team.”

“The other teams are good,” he continues. “The Mets have a good team. Washington has a good team, the Phillies have a good team. This year, we’ll have a lot of competition, but we need to look after ourselves, our own team.”

Now, a big part of the Braves’ successes will depend on Acuña and if he can take the hype to new levels in his second season.

“Maintain what I’ve been doing,” he says about his main goal for 2019, “and have another good season.”

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