ATLANTA — For a franchise that’s won exactly one ring in the half-century since it moved to Atlanta, the Braves tote an awful lot of ghosts. There’s an entire museum in SunTrust Park dedicated in large part to the Braves’ decade-and-a-half run of playoff participation that started back in 1991. Ghostly images of Smoltz and Glavine and Maddux and Justice play on television screens and loom on hanging banners around the park, a perpetual reminder of how Atlanta didn’t realize just how good the good times were even as they were happening.
The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001. They’ve won exactly two playoff games in the last 12 years. Even with baseball’s expanded playoff system, Atlanta hasn’t reached the postseason since 2013. Worst-to-first, Sid’s Slide, Cy Youngs aplenty, Justice’s home run to beat the Indians … those are all just stops in the museum now.
So it’s somehow fitting that the guy who could lead them out of their current malaise has no memory of any of their postseason dominance … because it all happened before he was even born.
Who is Ronald Acuña Jr.?
“ACUUUNYA JOONYA! ACUUUNYA JOONYA!”
The kid in the vintage Braves snapback cap bellowed the same two words every time Ronald Acuña Jr., the Braves rookie who’s barreled into the league like a locomotive through fog, stepped to the plate in Atlanta last Friday night. Acuña, at 20 the youngest player in the league, doesn’t yet have a catchy nickname. He calls himself “El Abusador” – “the abuser,” for what he does to baseballs – but that seems like a tough marketing sell. So “ACUUNYA JOONYA,” Venezuela-by-way-of-NASCAR, will do for the moment.
The son of Ron Acuña, a ballplayer who bounced around the lower echelons of the Mets’ minor-league system in the late 1990s, Acuña is that rarest of gems: a top prospect who’s delivering on the hype. Raised in the tiny fishing village of La Sabana, Venezuela, Acuña played his way onto scouts’ radar at the age of 14. Two years later, the Braves signed him for a reported $100,000, and managed to hang onto his rights even after Major League Baseball dropped the death penalty on Atlanta last year for its international recruiting violations.
Acuña rocketed upward through the Braves’ minor-league system in 2017, starting in Class A in the Florida State league, powering through Double AA – the highest mark his father ever reached – en route to the Triple AAA after the 2017 All-Star break. He spent the rest of the year there, and ranked either first or second – to a fella by the name of Shohei Otani – on every hot-prospect list coming into 2018.
You don’t get that far – and hear that much wondrous praise – without getting a bit high on yourself, and as this year’s spring training opened, the Braves reached into their voluminous history and pulled out an unexpected Obi-Wan to mentor Acuña: Andruw Jones. Perhaps the finest defensive centerfielder since Willie Mays, Jones knew a thing or two about debuting hot – he homered in his first two at-bats in the 1996 World Series while still 19 – and he also knew about the dangers of taking the game too lightly. Then-manager Bobby Cox once yanked Jones from a ballgame for slacking on a fly ball, a humiliating moment that Jones hopes Acuña can avoid entirely.
“The main thing he needs to remember is keep your head straight and respect [your surroundings],” Jones said in March. “Be humble, but a humble-cocky.” Jones took on the task of showing Acuña how to walk the major league walk – straightening your hat and easing off the strut, for instance.
Cocky minor-leaguers who are light-years ahead of their peers generally get the attitude knocked out of them once they arrive at The Show. But what happens when the cocky minor-leaguer finds The Show isn’t quite as tough as everyone says it is? We’re about to find out.
Acuña’s remarkable debut
Acuña spent the first couple weeks of the 2018 season 45 minutes east of SunTrust Park, at the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett. “He’s a dynamic five-tool guy,” Bobby Cox said earlier this year. “He needs a little more seasoning at Triple-A, and get him off to a good start.”
That “seasoning,” conveniently enough, also allowed the Braves to avoid tripping a contractual provision that would have cost them an additional guaranteed year of Acuña’s services; he’s now under contract to the team until after the 2024 season.
Acuña finally joined the major-league club on April 25 in Cincinnati, and recorded a hit in his very first game. And then, in his sixth plate appearance in the bigs, he sent a Homer Bailey fastball halfway to the Rockies:
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 26, 2018
At six feet even and 180 pounds, Acuña doesn’t terrify you with his size. And his preternatural calm at the plate can lull you into thinking he’s chasing the moment rather than controlling it. But watch his hands in that clip. Watch his reaction time. And then watch the ball take flight.
Reaction among Atlanta faithful, who’ve spent most of the last half-decade adjusting expectations ever downward, was predictably unchained. Even a future Hall of Famer stepped into the mix:
“An electric player,” new Brave Jose Bautista said of Acuña, with whom he crossed paths briefly in Gwinnett. “He seems like he’s not phased by anything. He’s not afraid to play the game, and I’m excited to see what he can do at this level.”
The stats on his first week were the kind of cheat-code numbers Atlanta fans only see these days on “SportsCenter”: a slash line of .417/.481/.750, 10 hits, five doubles, four RBIs. This couldn’t last forever, could it?
And then, late last week, Acuña arrived in Atlanta. He walked to his first Atlanta press conference with exactly the kind of strut a star ought to have.
“It’s been extremely emotional. I’m excited to get on the field,” Acuña said through an interpreter as a dozen media members crowded around him in the Atlanta dugout. “I’m just as excited, if not more excited, than the fans.”
Friday night’s game against the Giants set a mark for attendance at the year-and-a-month-old SunTrust Park, and while most of that was probably due to the fortuitous combination of beautiful spring weather and an Ozzie Albies Star Wars-themed bobblehead, Acuña’s home debut added a special jolt to the evening.
When Acuña stepped to the plate, a few in the crowd stood to applaud. And when Acuña roped the fourth pitch he saw into deep center, a few more rose. Could this be one of those magical moments that baseball seems to summon at just the right time?
Not quite. San Francisco’s Austin Jackson reeled in the ball at the warning track, and that loud out was the most noise Acuña would make at the plate all night. Still, every time Acuña had a bat in his hands, there was something more burbling through the crowd, something that felt a little like … hope?
The Braves’ youth waves
For Atlanta, youthful salvation tends to come in waves. There was the Smoltz-Glavine-Justice-Steve Avery run of the early 90s, followed by the Chipper Jones-Ryan-Klesko-Javy Lopez charge that helped Atlanta rule the National League for the mid-90s. The so-called “Baby Braves” — unwritten-rules arbiter Brian McCann, onetime golden child Jeff Francoeur, and others — helped Cox close his managerial career with one last playoff appearance. And now there’s Acuña, along with Albies and pitcher Mike Soroka, who beat the New York Mets in his debut last week – three players who just happen to be the three youngest players in the league.
“The confidence they have in their abilities is amazing,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We’ve brought a lot of really good players through our organization. These guys are right there with them.”
For these Embryo Braves, Atlanta’s playoff legacy barely even exists in their lifetimes. Sid Bream slid to win the NLCS five years before Acuña was born. The Braves’ postseason achievements in his living memory are slim indeed; he was 8 years old when McCann et. al. made their debuts, and 13 when Chipper Jones played his last game.
There’s always the chance that Acuña’s ceiling isn’t far off. Not every Braves phenom leads the team to glory. Francoeur never came close to hitting the highs that put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Andruw Jones couldn’t ever match his glove skills with his bat. Jason Heyward’s championship-inspiring motivational speech came when he was in a Cubs uniform.
But then again, this is a franchise that hasn’t been in first place this late in a season since 2014. And nobody thought Atlanta was any good back at the beginning of 1991 either, the first year of all those division titles of yore. The Braves have spent the last couple years promising that the farm pipeline is stocked for a long-term run at the postseason starting in 2019. But Acuña might just be a sign that the team’s a bit ahead of schedule.
“It’s an exciting team,” Acuña said. “It’s an exciting team. We’re going to work. And it’s been a great pleasure to be a part of it.”
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