Durham Bulls fans might now call Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker one of their own. There was a time, though, when those same fans wanted to run him out of Durham.
“I don’t blame them, I would have wanted my butt out of there, too,” Snitker, 61, said with a laugh recently from Atlanta, where he enters his first full season as manager of the Braves (2-6 going into Friday night’s games).
Snitker was a young manager for the Bulls during the 1983, ’84 and ’87 seasons. His Durham teams never experienced a winning season, yet did manage to scrape their way to the Carolina League’s championship series in ’84 before losing to Lynchburg.
During that ’83 season, Durham followers and Snitker ran afoul of one another to the point that a petition was delivered to the Atlanta Braves front office. Those few hundred club supporters who signed the petition wanted Snitker fired. Immediately.
According to Miles Wolff, who owned the Bulls at the time, the Braves were extremely unhappy with the petition and even threatened to pull their Class A affiliation with Durham because of it. Wolff was left to apologize and smooth things over, and the Braves remained Durham’s parent club until 1998 when the Bulls became a Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I was surprised at their unhappiness,” Wolff said this week of the Braves. “Heck, it’s a group of fans, I was thinking, go ahead (with the petition). I probably should have said don’t do it, but I had never had fans do a petition before.”
Snitker’s situation resulted from a strange convergence of circumstances completely out of his control. In the first three seasons of Durham’s return to professional baseball after a lengthy absence, its managers were the colorful and entertaining Dirty Al Gallagher and Bobby Dews. Both represented breaks from the traditional style of minor-league managers in that they believed entertainment and winning were an integral part of the managerial equation, every bit as much or more than development of players.
Those three teams under Gallagher and Dews were loaded with future major-leaguers, finished a combined 54 games over .500 and won three division titles and twice played for league playoff championships. Durham fans got used to winning.
Enter Snitker, who was a mere 28 years old with one year of managerial experience the previous season in Anderson (S.C.) of the South Atlantic League. Atlanta’s farm director at the time, Hank Aaron, first hired Snitker as a roving player/instructor during the 1980 and 1981 seasons because “I wasn’t demanding of anything, and just kind of did whatever they wanted and enjoyed what I was doing,” according to Snitker.
In other words, Snitker already was a company man, and that was important to know coming on the heels of managerial stints by Gallagher and Dews, both of whom were known to ruffle feathers within the organization. Those two occasionally went against Atlanta’s orders and put the players they wanted into the daily lineup.
Ken Scanlon, a sixth-round pick of the Braves in 1978, proved to be the center of a storm that hovered for three years in Durham. Gallagher simply refused to play Scanlon every day during the 1981 season, and Wolff believes it eventually cost the manager his job with the Braves. Dews, according to Wolff, claimed Scanlon was hurt and sent the second baseman to Atlanta on occasions during the 1982 season for “medical evaluations.” That way Dews did not have to pencil Scanlon’s name on the lineup card.
When Snitker arrived, he obeyed Atlanta orders and placed Scanlon in the starting lineup for opening day in 1983. When Scanlon booted a ground ball on the first play to open the season at Durham Athletic Park, fans began crying, “Same old Scanlon!” The Bulls were competitive in the first half of the season but faltered badly in the second half when injuries depleted the roster. Ultimately, the crowd chants morphed into, “Same old Snitker!”
Late in a season when the Bulls would finish with a 59-78 record, Durham fans had had enough. They drew up the petition and mailed it off to Atlanta.
“Back then, I didn’t even care,” Snitker said. “It didn’t bother me a bit. I was a hell of a lot tougher than I am right now.... They’re coming on the heels of Dirty Al and Dewsey and really good teams, then all of the sudden we come in and stink. They weren’t used to that. I don’t blame them.”
All turned out well for both parties. Over the years, Durham fans have become among the most rabid and loyal in the minor leagues. The franchise is considered one of the “top two or so stops” in the minors, according to Snitker, who has visited Durham Bulls Athletic Park many times as an opposing manager.
This season will be Snitker’s 40th with the Atlanta Braves, a remarkable achievement in any business, but especially so in the transient world of baseball. The full-time managerial position in Atlanta is reward for Snitker’s loyalty to an organization where he previously served as manager in the minor leagues as well as bullpen coach and third base coach in the majors.
Snitker generally has been loved and respected by players and fans at nearly every one of his stops within the Atlanta organization, save for those three tumultuous seasons in Durham. Do not let any old-time Durham Bulls fan tell you otherwise.