Back in Time, Part Two: The Manager

public hardware

Photos of the historic Public Hardware store in Durham by Leah Sobsey.

As the season draws to a close, and the run of days slows and grows autumnal, now seems like a good moment to look back at some early settlers of what we now take for granted as Bulls country. This is part two of a four-part series of interviews and profiles. It’s also an unforeseen expansion of my Paris Review Daily piece, out today, about the most exciting game I ever saw, which took place at the old Durham Athletic Park on September 4, 1984. The manager of the Bulls that season was Brian Snitker.

Brian Snitker played four years of minor-league baseball before going into coaching. He had reached Triple-A in 1978, but by 1980 he was back down in Double-A and even Single-A — he actually played in three games for the Durham Bulls in their second-inaugural 1980 season. But Snitker wasn’t playing much at all by then, anywhere. He was one of legions of young but insufficiently gifted ballplayers who recognize at an early age that their future in baseball won’t be as a player, much in the way that most theater directors and playwrights start out as actors but simply lack the physical tools to stay on the stage. Wanting to remain in the business, they find niches in the wings, outside the playing area.

Brian Snitker. Courtesy of thebiglead.com.

After he stopped playing, Snitker stayed not only in baseball but also in the Atlanta Braves organization. He’s never left, a company man through and through. In 1982, he managed his first team, the Anderson Braves, in the low-A South Atlantic League, and he was bumped up to Durham a year later. When the 1983 season started, Snitker was just twenty-seven years old, younger than two of his players. Was that a problem in the clubhouse? Did his players dismiss his nominal authority?

No, they embraced it. “I could be honest with them,” Snitker says, perhaps because he was nearly their peer. There was no need to keep secrets that older, wiser, more treacherous managers sometimes feel. “I worked hard for them,” Snitker says. “I rooted for them; I was in it with them.”

I started out by asking Snitker about that extraordinary playoff game in 1984, which started this series rolling. Snitker, like just about everyone else I asked, had no memory of the game whatsoever — a comic reminder, in reverse, of the old saw that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The most exciting game I’ve ever seen made virtually no impact, apparently, on any of the people most heavily involved in it or closely watching it. That itself is part of the story. The game exists as a remote memorial island, charted only on my map.

So he didn’t remember the game itself, but what did Snitker remember of the 1984 Durham Bulls? “I was a year better than I was the year before,” Snitker said. He didn’t remember much else, although he recalled the general atmosphere at the old Durham Athletic Park quite well.

“I remember how wild that place was,” he says. “There was high energy in the ballpark every night.” No wonder, given the way Snitker’s tenure as the Bulls’ manager began the previous season, in 1983. On opening night, Durham’s starter was Braves first-round draft pick Duane Ward, who would go on to have a strong (if short) major-league career as a reliever for Toronto. Ward walked the first three hitters he faced, and then gave up a grand slam to the fourth one. Completely unglued, he hit the next two batters, triggering a bench-clearing brawl against the Bulls’ fiercest rival, the Peninsula Pilots. On opening day, no less.

Chip Childress, who was on that Bulls team, remembered the brawl, too (more on his memories of it tomorrow), and so does the Bulls’ current PA Announcer, Tony Riggsbee. Riggsbee said he’ll never forget the image of the brawl raging on the field, with every player on both teams in the melee except for one: an abashed, nineteen-year-old Ward, who went and hid in the dugout, where the team trainer stood next to him and laid a consolatory arm on Ward’s shoulder.

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

The Bulls came back to win that game on a hit by none other than Chip Childress, who will be featured here tomorrow. It was a good thing they did: Bulls fans cared about winning, and the team had won its division in 1980 and 1982. In fact, they cared about winning to an almost threatening degree. “In ’83, we fought for the first half title,” Snitker says, “and then we had a couple injuries and we just stunk. Fans petitioned to have [pitching coach] Leo Mazzone and me fired. We just weren’t very good. It was a long, long second half of the summer. I remember what a good feeling it was to win the next year.”

The Bulls had struggled to a 59-78 record in 1983. Then as now, the Class A Carolina League season was divided into two separate seventy-game campaigns. You qualified for the playoffs by winning your division in either half, but the Bulls fell three games short in the first half in ’83, and then were decimated by injuries in the second, limping to a last-place second-half finish and going home promptly after the regular season’s final game.

The 1984 team was similar, only a degree better. They won the first half regular season title in the Carolina League Southern Division with a 39-31 record, then struggled in the second half of the season, finishing in third place at 29-41, just 68-72 overall. Nonetheless, in the first round of the playoffs they beat their staunchest rival, the Peninsula Pilots, who had won the second half Southern Division crown, and advanced to the finals against the intimidating Lynchburg Mets.

In the early 1980s, the New York Mets had one of the best farm systems in perhaps the entire history of baseball. A quick list of players to suit up for Lynchburg from 1980-84 includes:

  • Lenny Dykstra, who broke the Carolina League stolen base record with 105 steals in 1983 while batting .358, then became one of baseball’s best players for a decade;
  • Daryl Strawberry, the gifted slugger who would have been a Hall of Famer had drugs not derailed his career;
  • Dwight Gooden, “Doctor K,” Dykstra’s 1983 teammate, who like Strawberry lost a Hall of Fame career to drugs (he struck out an unbelievable 300 batters that year in Lynchburg, at age nineteen, a Carolina League record that will almost surely never be broken);
  • three-time major league All-Star Rick Aguilera, who saved 318 major-league games;
  • Randy Myers, who saved even more, 347 (that’s ninth all-time);
  • Kevin Mitchell, the National League MVP in 1989.

Those are just the highlights. You may never have heard of Herm Winningham, Randy Milligan, Calvin Schiraldi, Miguel Bautista, Stan Jefferson, Lloyd McClendon, and Dave Magadan, but all of those players went on to have productive big-league careers. Many of them became successful managers and coaches; they were brainy as well as brawny. (Also, Billy Beane, the esteemed General Manager of the Oakland A’s and the primum mobile of Michael Lewis’s seminal book, Moneyball, was on the 1981 team, a first-round draft pick.) And they all played for Lynchburg from 1980-84.

The 1984 Lynchburg Mets took seven of the twelve spots on the Carolina League All-Star team. Randy Myers was named Pitcher of the Year; catcher Barry Lyons was the Most Valuable Player. Manager Mike Cubbage was awarded Manager of the Year. (Cubbage, a pretty good third baseman in the late 1970s for Minnesota, is now seen a few times a season at the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park; he’s part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ scouting staff.) The Mets, who had finished the season with a league-best 89-49 record, were trying to repeat as Carolina League champions, having cruised to the title in 1983 by going an astounding 96-43 and sweeping Winston-Salem in the championship series.

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

So this was a David and Goliath matchup, and Goliath won the first game easily, 4-1. All-Star Lynchburg starter Mitch Cook throttled the Bulls, whose lineup lacked a single future major-leaguer. Then the Bulls fought back and won the legendary game two, which you can read about in detail at the Paris Review. Snitker told a reporter afterward that even though the Mets were heavy favorites, maybe they doubted themselves a little after falling at the DAP.

Because that game was so amazing, it would seem that anything that followed it would be anti-climactic. But all that game actually accomplished was to tie the series, 1-1; in fact, what Brian Snitker did remember, a little, was what  he described as the game after that. In that game, Bulls pitcher Todd Lamb — who was from Maine, but happened to have attended Duke University, right nearby the DAP — took a no-hitter into the ninth inning at Lynchburg, but then lost both the no-hitter and the game, 1-0.

Perhaps the reason Snitker remembered that game, rather than game two, has something to do with what is actually a misremembered detail on his part: Lamb didn’t throw his near no-hitter in game three but in game four, and the hard-luck, heartbreaking loss he took ended the series: Lynchburg won, three games to one.

Game three was actually also a nail-biter. Tied 4-4 in the top of the ninth at Lynchburgh, the Bulls scored twice to take a 6-4 lead. But the Mets slugged right back, and in lightning fashion, too: they scored three runs of their own in the bottom of the ninth to win the game, take a two-to-one series lead, and set up the next night’s clincher over Lamb. Thus each of the last three games of the series came down to the final at-bat, all decided in sudden-death heroics. Sportswriter (now professor of journalism) David Bulla, who was covering the Bulls that season for the Durham Herald-Sun, wrote in his game story that it would surely be remembered as “one of the greatest Carolina League championship series in history.”

It was not just the heart-stopping action that made it so; it was also how unlikely the Bulls’ competitiveness was. Only two players on Durham’s 1984 team would go on to have anything like a noteworthy major-league career. One was pitcher Paul Assenmacher, who wasn’t involved in the series at all, having pitched the Bulls into the series against Peninsula immediately prior. The two other major-league-bound pitchers on that team, José Cano, and Steve Ziem, were no longer with the ball club by the time the playoffs started. (And they weren’t exactly stars in the making. Ziem pitched in exactly one major-league game, Cano just six. Cano is much better known as the father of New York Yankees’ superstar second baseman Robinson Cano.)

The other future major-league player of note on the 1984 team was a shortstop named Andres Thomas, and it is Thomas who elicited Brian Snitker’s most fascinating memory of his time with the Durham Bulls. Andres Thomas was good enough to become the Atlanta Braves’ starting shortstop in the late 1980s. He didn’t last long, a free-swinger who drew an astoundingly tiny fifty-nine walks in over two thousand career plate appearances. Thomas had an ugly tomahawk swing that needed serious mechanical help in the minors; it seems he never got it. He wasn’t much of a fielder, either. He committed thirty-four errors in 113 games in 1984, and that was a marked improvement over his fielding in Durham the previous season: in 1983, after a mid-season promotion to Durham, he made about the same number of errors, thirty-two — but he made them in just seventy games.

Still, as a nineteen-year-old in 1984, Thomas was the Bulls’ top prospect. So why didn’t he play in the playoff games against Lynchburg? Why was Chip Childress, who was nothing like a heralded player, playing shortstop instead of the blue ribbon-wearing Bull? Thomas hadn’t had a great year, but he was still the best guy they had. Might the Bulls have found a way to take down the mighty Mets if their most promising player had been in the lineup? Was Andres Thomas injured?

I’m glad I called Brian Snitker, because he had the answer.

“I suspended him and sent him home,” Snitker said.

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

What had Thomas done? Nothing specific, Snitker said. It was a season-long buildup of attitude problems. Snitker and his staff had tried to work with Thomas, just a teenager, the same age Duane Ward had been in 1983. But it didn’t take with the kid. “It was time to get his attention,” Snitker said.

“I called Hank, my farm director. I told him I couldn’t have [Thomas] around anymore.” The farm director gave Snitker his blessing to suspend Thomas. This permission is almost unthinkable in today’s baseball climate. “Agents have so much power now,” Snitker said, and that’s to say nothing of the much tighter and broader control that front offices exercise over their minor-league systems. To give, at telephone distance, a twenty-eight-year-old manager the authority to suspend a player — and not just any player but the team’s top prospect — is a remarkable act of trust, even by 1984’s standards.

I asked Snitker what Hank’s last name was — the farm director who let Snitker suspend Thomas.

“Aaron,” he said. “Hank Aaron.”

Oh, right. That Hank.

Part of the reason Aaron signed off on Andres Thomas’s suspension by phone was that, as Snitker put it, “it wasn’t easy for him to just show up and watch a game.” Aaron would be mobbed by autograph seekers. Snitker speaks glowingly of Hammerin’ Hank, the home run king (non-PED division). He gave you the reins. He trusted you, he gave you that latitude. He’d call you about every ten days. ‘How’s your family, how are you, do you need anything?’ He kept close tabs on us.”

Public Hardware shelves

Photo by Leah Sobsey.

It was a hard job, being the underpaid, underage manager of a struggling team. Class A minor-league baseball, a generation ago, was a ragged world. So what did Brian Snitker do for fun in Durham while he was here? By way of an answer, he replied first that he remembered Simón Rosario, who was nearly as old Snitker, getting his thousandth career minor-league hit with the Bulls that year, 1984. Rosario was the classic minor-league hard-luck case. A few years before that, as Rosario told it (or as I recall him telling it to the local paper), he was in Triple-A and about to be called up to the major leagues. But it was 1981: the players went on strike, Rosario’s moment passed, and he never played higher than Double-A again. “I just no lucky,” he said to the Durham newspaper reporter.

This is all from memory now, as is my image of Rosario’s family coming to visit him from the Dominican Republic, where I believe he owned a couple of grocery stores. They stood, all of them, wife and children, in resplendent, formal bright clothes in the grandstand, the only color in the weathered, worn, tobacco-brown ballpark. In my mind’s eye I see Rosario’s gold tooth, gleaming.

Snitker remembered his way through Simón Rosario because he was getting to one of the things he did for fun in Durham. Rosario’s wife and some other Latinos would cook for Snitker and some of the other Bulls. Thirty years ago, there were hardly any Latinos in Durham; good, authentic Latino food was almost unheard of, the DAP’s Bull Durham Burrito notwithstanding. Snitker fondly remembered that food Rosario’s wife would cook, but he didn’t remember much else. He was working too hard to remember much else. The thing he remembers best is not the most exciting game I ever saw, not suspending Andres Thomas, not watching Duane Ward start an opening night brawl. It’s not anything that took place on the field. It’s not even a bar. It’s truer than that.

“I was so exhausted by the hours,” he says, “that I didn’t have time to go out.”

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