For Braves and Cardinals, the Managers Are Company Men

ATLANTA — For just a few moments on Thursday afternoon, in a makeshift room of microphones and klieg lights and portable air-conditioners, the baseball men’s voices seemed to catch.

How did it feel, the managers of the Braves and the Cardinals had essentially been asked, to be in a National League division series, considering all of the years of toiling and waiting and hoping for a big league chance?

“I never thought in my wildest dreams, three, four years ago, that this would ever happen,” said Brian Snitker, the 63-year-old Braves manager who only got his job in 2016 but has now reached his second consecutive postseason.

“Very blessed and very excited,” Mike Shildt, 51 and in his first full year in charge of the Cardinals’ dugout, said less than an hour later during his news conference here.

Both teams are facing formidable tests in the best-of-five series, which Atlanta evened on Friday before its shift to St. Louis for Game 3 on Sunday. And both have entrusted their lineup cards — and their ambitions to overcome sustained runs of October futility — to men with similarly rare résumés: Neither has ever moved from one organization to another, and neither played in the major leagues — the only managers in the postseason with those distinctions.

Between them, two of the three oldest managers in these playoffs, they have spent 28 seasons leading minor league teams, building careers short on employers and awfully long on jobs.

“Is it a template? I would think people are going to look at it a little bit more seriously,” said John Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations for the Cardinals. “I think where the game is today, it’s not necessarily what you did on the field, it’s how you can understand information, process information in real time.”

Major league clubs can be quick to plunder overachieving rival organizations to lead their teams. But in cities already steeped in the mythology of managers — Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa led the Cardinals to several World Series titles, and a bronze statue of Bobby Cox stands outside Atlanta’s SunTrust Park — Shildt and Snitker almost appear out to prove that steadiness can be just as much a playoff recipe as anything else.

“There’s a long history of success with the St. Louis Cardinals, and I’ve always embraced and admired and accepted that responsibility,” Shildt said. “And whatever role I’ve been in, I try to create value and try to move that forward and be a good steward.”

Most of Shildt’s current players had already been born when their major league manager was coaching high school baseball in his native North Carolina. He spent a few years working for baseball’s scouting bureau before he came into the St. Louis fold in 2004. His first managerial assignment came in 2009, at the Cardinals’ rookie affiliate in Johnson City, Tenn., and he joined the major league staff as a quality control coach in 2017.

It was during that first year around Busch Stadium, over dinner at an old-school steakhouse just west of St. Louis, that Shildt’s potential crystallized for Mozeliak. He went home and told his wife that Shildt would someday be a major league manager. “I assumed it would be for the Cardinals,” he added.

St. Louis picked Shildt as its interim manager during the next season, with the temporary tag stripped away about six weeks later — a vote of confidence for one of the few men to take charge of a major league team without having played a pitch of professional baseball.

His players were, and remain, unbothered by his lack of big league credentials. Second baseman Kolten Wong went as far as to argue that Shildt’s lack of playing time ultimately benefited players.

“Sometimes when you play the game for so long, you tend to forget how hard the game is, and when you haven’t played the game, you can really be on the guys’ level,” he said.

That can translate into more confidence for Shildt’s players.

“He’s not going to beat you down when you don’t play a good game or make an error or whatnot,” Wong said after a game in which he had recorded an error and, in the ninth inning, a two-run double. “At this level, we’re all hard enough on ourselves, so to have him be that guy to support us and knowing that he’s the manager and the head honcho, it gives you a lot more confidence going into the next ground ball or at-bat.”

Or, as Miles Mikolas, who started Game 1 for the Cardinals, put it: “How many guys get elected president that haven’t been president before?”

In Atlanta, Snitker draws his authority from even greater longevity and loyalty. He came to the Braves organization in 1977 as an undrafted free agent, playing for a few years in the minor leagues and never ascending beyond the Class AAA club. He managed throughout the Braves’ celebrated farm system and had three stints coaching with the major league team in Atlanta.

When the 2016 season opened, he was managing a minor league team in Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs. By the end of May, he was leading the Braves in their final season at Turner Field, with no certainty as to whether he’d get to keep the job. He was, though, a favorite of Atlanta’s players, seen as a link to Cox and as a quintessential company man in an industry that is not exactly overrun with them.

“He’s been through the grind more than anybody else,” said Mike Soroka, the rookie right-hander who is expected to start Game 3 for Atlanta on Sunday and who came up through the minors hearing about Snitker. “He’s someone who truly loves baseball, loves this game and respects the game, and it’s easy to play for a guy who loves it like that.”

On Thursday, not long before the men walked into a converted storage room to face reporters, word emerged that the Mets had fired Mickey Callaway, adding to the long list of managerial vacancies to be filled this off-season.

In Atlanta and St. Louis, though, those changes are just fodder for clubhouse contemplation. Their managers will stay, their clubs’ bets apparently working.

“Probably wouldn’t have worked if either of us would have went to another organization and tried this job out,” Snitker said. “Your familiarity with the players and having a hand in their development — and they know who you are and what you’re about and your passion for the job — makes it to where we can succeed sitting in this chair.”