World Series 2021 – How champion Atlanta Braves found their swagger after losing Ronald Acuña Jr.

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2:06 PM ET

  • Jeff PassanESPN


      ESPN MLB insider
      Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

HOUSTON — In the early hours of July 11, a small group gathered in a ballroom at the Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne hotel in Miami for what felt like a wake. Over the previous 3 ½ months, the Atlanta Braves, a team that entered the 2021 season with legitimate championship aspirations, had bumbled their way to a 44-44 record. The best thing about the Braves was their luminescent 23-year-old center fielder, Ronald Acuña Jr. And there he sat in the expansive room, his expression dour, his affect flat, his right anterior cruciate ligament torn.

The Braves didn’t want him to be alone, only a few hours after his knee buckled on the warning track when he attempted an acrobatic catch. Braves manager Brian Snitker was there. His bench coach, Walt Weiss, joined him. Freddie Freeman showed up. Ozzie Albies swung by to offer support to his good friend with whom he’d made a pact: They would both sign long-term contract extensions with Atlanta and bring a city with a tortured sporting past another World Series title.

Even for a sports town that has been through some grueling losses, this felt like too much. A year after the team blew a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series, they lost the National League MVP favorite in July. The season suddenly seemed over barely at the halfway point, waylaid by a 1 ¼-inch-long, half-inch-wide band of tissue. Atlanta Atlanta-ing, again, as always.

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“All those thoughts started to creep in,” Weiss says. “Like a ‘we’ll-get-’em-next-year’ type of thing. Nobody was saying that. But those thoughts creep in. It’s like, OK, this is the final straw. We’ve really been struggling, and now we just lost one of the best players in baseball.”

Around baseball that night, executives reacted to the news of Acuña’s torn ACL by studying the Braves’ roster. The trade deadline was less than three weeks away, and the team was bound to offload players. The consensus in front offices around the game was that this wasn’t Atlanta’s year, which made the calls they received over the next few days so curious.

Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ president of baseball operations, said he wasn’t selling. In fact, he said, they were looking to add players and make a run. For Anthopoulos, and soon, for the rest of the team, there was still a seedling of hope. Nurturing it would take five trades, $10 million, jewelry, a whistle, wine, quotes of the day, F-bombs and a four-letter word used so often inside the Braves’ clubhouse that it became a rallying cry.

On the night the Atlanta Braves lost Ronald Acuña Jr., they gained the chance to find something else.


Elsa/Getty Images

THREE-AND-A-HALF MONTHS after that night in the ballroom, the Braves won the World Series. Over the 3 hours, 22 minutes that Game 6 lasted Tuesday night, they laid waste to the Houston Astros. The 7-0 final score doesn’t fully represent the dismantling that took place. Major League Baseball’s 117th champion entered the postseason with the worst record of any 2021 playoff team and exits it with the second title ever for the city of Atlanta and the first since the Braves won in 1995.

All they could talk about afterward, as the confetti stuck to their heads and bubbly soaked their clothes and cigars dangled from their lips, was love. They’re here because of it, they say. It’s active and passive, verb and noun. They loved and were loved, gave love and received it. They love love, not just because loving love is a lovely concept. It emanated, in the Braves’ case, from a man who, to the uninitiated, doesn’t exactly project the traditional conceits of love.

Ron Washington, 69, is notoriously foul-mouthed. His tongue is a scythe, and he will cut you. Get past the rough edges, though, and the Braves’ third-base coach is a baseball bard, capable of taking a concept — any concept — and applying it to the game. Almost every day, Washington would read Braves players a quote, an idea, a belief, something to get them to think, and on Aug. 20, as the seedling’s roots matured, Washington wrote a word on a piece of paper: LOVE. As does much of what Washington says, it stuck.

“Love embodies accountability,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson says. “It embodies sacrifice. We pull for each other. We truly care for each other.”

Love brought the Braves together in the ballroom with Acuña five weeks earlier, and love showed up that August day, when the Braves happened to win their seventh consecutive game, and love gave them this crazy idea as October approached that they might actually win this whole thing. And, yeah, every team believes that, because baseball is a mad sport, prone to things like the mediocre Braves becoming, quite literally, a world-beater. Different was how the word became a mantra. Their guiding principle crystallized: When things are going well, spread the love, and when things aren’t, spread the love then, too.

“A lot of people from the outside looking in saw a team who was under .500 and just lost their MVP-type player,” says Adam Duvall, who replaced Acuña in center field. “But that was the word. We spread the love. We love each other. We’re going to pull for each other, and then we’ll see what happens. When you take a group and bring them close together, good things can happen.”

That ethos always resided inside of the Braves, ready to be extracted through words, actions, stimuli. The only thing they didn’t know, after Acuña went down, is what exactly that group would look like.



Jeff Passan explains what Ronald Acuna Jr. tearing his ACL means for the Braves and for major league baseball.

ON JULY 11, a few hours after the conclave at the Ritz, Alex Anthopoulos started making phone calls. It was the first day of the Major League Baseball draft, and his attention was fireworking in a dozen directions, but this was too important to back-burner. He needed to send a message to Snitker and the players: Even if others were giving up on the Braves, he wasn’t.

Anthopoulos, 44, had come to Atlanta four years earlier to clean up the mess left behind by the previous front office, whose illegal signings in Latin America cost the team 13 prospects, wrecked their ability to pursue premium international talent for two years and got the previous GM, John Coppolella, banned from the sport for life. When he left in 2017, Coppolella also left Anthopoulos a fully stocked farm system and a team primed to move into a gleaming new stadium, supported by a rabid fan base whose tentacles reach nationally. Running the Braves might not be the best job in baseball, but it’s up there.

While building the Toronto Blue Jays into a winner, Anthopoulos developed a far higher threshold than most for chasing a postseason berth. Mind you, in Atlanta this year, it wasn’t a lark. For most of the season, despite owning a sub-.500 record, Atlanta was outscoring its opponents, the sort of thing that typically portends better days. It prompted Anthopoulos to call Chicago Cubs president Jed Hoyer.

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The Cubs were about to unload half their team, and Anthopoulos was interested in Joc Pederson, a thick-bodied, power-hitting, walk-taking outfielder. He didn’t play center anymore, which was fine. Anthopoulos wanted Pederson for his bat — and there were other considerations, too. When Anthopoulos spent two years with the Los Angeles Dodgers just before he arrived in Atlanta in 2017, Pederson would visit his office and they’d just talk.

Anthopoulos appreciated Pederson’s unrelenting self-assuredness. It’s part of what drew Anthopoulos to him, and why the Braves finally acquired him on July 15 for a lower-level minor league first baseman. The Braves had the talent. They needed outside voices, ones who hadn’t been there when Acuña’s knee blew out, to reinforce that notion.

“The minute Joc walked in the door,” Anthopoulos says, “he started talking about winning.”

So, OK. It’s a little vague to say Pederson talked about winning. He and Washington share the same predilection for working blue, and, in truth, when Pederson shared an early assessment of the Braves with his teammates, it sounded like this: “You guys are a good motherf—ing team.”

They didn’t particularly feel like it at that moment. Acuña was out. Mike Soroka, the talented young pitcher they hoped would return this season from Achilles surgery, re-tore the tendon. Ian Anderson, their brilliant young right-hander, got hurt on the last day of the first half. Anthopoulos knew they needed more.

First, he doubled down on his good-clubhouse-guy strategy and traded for backup catcher Stephen Vogt, who checks all three elite-backup-catcher boxes: funny, smart, hits home runs. Anthopoulos bided his time for two weeks, and on July 30, trade-deadline day, went on a shopping spree. For 10 days, he’d been trying to get Duvall, and he gave up catcher Alex Jackson to secure him from Miami. Around the same time, noon or so, he completed a deal for Eddie Rosario, who had underachieved in Cleveland.

About 45 minutes before the 4 p.m. ET deadline, Braves assistant GM Jason Pare suggested Anthopoulos check in with Kansas City GM Dayton Moore about whether he’d changed his mind on trading Jorge Soler, the leviathan slugger who two years earlier hit 48 home runs. Moore had suggested he would not deal Soler but now seemed open to doing something. Fifteen minutes later, the entire Braves outfield had been remade.

To suggest that Anthopoulos was some sort of savant who knew that he’d pull off an all-time trade deadline coup — getting four hearty contributors for $10 million, money that was there for him because the Braves’ attendance was so robust — is a stretch. He saw that Soler, awful for most of the season, had recently found his power stroke; and he believed that Rosario, a consistent contributor in past seasons, simply needed to get healthy; and he valued the versatility Duvall brought with his power and defensive flexibility. Sometimes it’s as simple as winning a series of bets and, in the course of doing so, rewriting the approach for all middling teams going forward. Teams need not necessarily limit themselves to blockbuster or bust. The tapas menu — two right-handed hitters and two left-handed, some fast and others not, personalities forged by different backgrounds — can be even more appealing than an entrée.

A team that was 51-54, even worse than its record at the break, was adding. And Pederson, effusive when he arrived, didn’t lose any faith in the talent. One day, he boarded the team bus specifically for pitchers and went back to the well: “You’re some bad motherf—ers, and we need to show the world.”

What Acuña projected on the field — showmanship and style — Pederson brought into a clubhouse, onto bus rides, wherever he was. “I don’t use the word swagger very often,” Atlanta catching coach Sal Fasano said, “but he does have that.” There was, it turns out, some prescience there as well. Atlanta lost its first game in August. Then it reeled off 16 wins in 18 games, passed the collapsing New York Mets, passed the mediocre Philadelphia Phillies. Felt the love.

On Sept. 9, even as they continued to win, Vogt could sense the season’s dog days were eating at the Braves. That afternoon, he asked Snitker and Weiss whether he could introduce the team to The Ref — his tight-shirt-wearing, whistle-blowing, basketball-officiating alter ego whose appearances in previous clubhouses were the things of legends. “We were in a little lull,” Vogt says. “The boys needed a little pick-me-up. And then The Ref came out to get everyone relaxed.”

Vogt had been with the Braves for nearly two months. In his 85 plate appearances before that night, he had only 11 hits, all singles. In his first two plate appearances on the night he brought down the house with The Ref, Vogt hit a pair of home runs that kept the game close in a 7-6 walk-off win.

The culture Anthopoulos hoped to establish with the trades had materialized almost immediately. It wasn’t just Pederson’s F-bombs or The Ref or even love. It was also a group of players and coaches forming the Burgundy Boys, a wine club made up of players and coaches that celebrate victories. It was Pederson, on Sept. 30, wearing a strand of pearls that became his signature accoutrement.

So popular were these Braves becoming that Harry Styles spoke about the team on stage during an Atlanta tour stop, predicting the team would “go all the way.” Pederson, alerted to this, knew someone who could deliver a message to Styles. He sent a jersey and a note, which read:

From one bad b—- to another.


Joc Pederson

ATL Braves


BY THE TIME the postseason rolled around, the 88-win Braves were peacocking like Pederson. The love was infectious. Anthopoulos’ trades were brilliant. And holding all of it — this Honda Accord that had turned into a Bugatti — together was Brian Snitker. In the division series, against the favored 95-win Milwaukee Brewers: Snitker won. In the NLCS, against the heavily favored 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, the same Dodgers who in the last NLCS overcame a three-games-to-one deficit: Snitker won. And heading into Tuesday, in the World Series against fellow old soul Dusty Baker: Snitker was winning.

Perhaps more than anyone, they felt love from and for him. Snitker was a baseball lifer. He’d spent 39 years in the organization before becoming manager in 2016. He hadn’t just paid his dues; his dues paid dues. But here he was, managing in a more modern sense — ensuring people’s happiness through a keen sense of human behavior and a calmness borne of experience.

“The amount of games that he’s actually managed, I don’t think he’s surprised by anything anymore,” Fasano says. “He’s a really calming influence. I’ve seen a lot of guys go into his office pissed off — and I’ve seen a lot of guys come out of his office smiling and hugging. He knows how to defuse almost any situation, but I think he’s also prepared for every situation. So I think it’s a pretty unique perspective he has on baseball.”

It’s why the Braves didn’t panic all the times the postseason punched them. They knew how to punch back harder. Soler tests positive for COVID-19 and misses most of the NLCS? OK. Rosario, who the Braves acquired for $1,946,237, won NLCS MVP. Charlie Morton wears a line drive off his leg in Game 1, throws 16 pitches after and only then is in too much pain to grit through pitching on a broken leg? Fine. Snitker will leverage his bullpen to near-perfect use as he did through much of October, ending with Will Smith, the closer whose more-than-occasional struggles in the second half could have prompted Snitker to yank him from the role.

“He rides with his guys,” Smith says. “He never loses faith in us. Even sometimes when we struggle throughout the year, he probably believes in us the most. He’ll never back down. He’ll always fight for us. He’s the shit.”

For the entirety of the series, Snitker had batted Freeman second. On Tuesday, after dropping Albies from third to seventh in hopes of shaking him free from a mini-slump, Snitker slotted Rosario at leadoff, Soler second and Freeman third. In the third inning, with Albies — who’d gotten his first single since last Wednesday from the No. 7 spot — and Rosario both on, Soler fouled off a full-count slider and another fastball before Astros starter Luis Garcia left a cutter in the middle of the strike zone. Soler vaporized it into the night, staking Max Fried, Atlanta’s ace, a 3-0 advantage.

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One run would’ve been enough. Fried threw six brilliant shutout innings and didn’t walk a batter. By the time he left, Swanson, a born-and-bred Atlanta kid, had tacked on a two-run home run. The capper came from Freeman, the 32-year-old fulcrum of the franchise. He lived through bad years. He expedited good ones. He should have been locked up to a contract extension earlier this year. He instead now gets to hold this as leverage over the franchise: Do you really want Freddie Freeman’s last at-bat as a Brave to be a home run in the World Series that preceded an epic trot, punctuated by a sword celebration in which the players use one arm to slash like backup outfielder Guillermo Heredia does with his good-luck-charm plastic swords?

“I’m not a very big pimper of home runs,” Freeman says. “So I hit it and I knew I had hit it out. I saw my family going nuts and all my teammates were out here waiting for me to do the sword so in that moment, clinching game of the World Series, I let my emotion out.”

Why wouldn’t he? This was it. This was Tyler Matzek, the lockdown reliever, spelling Fried in the seventh inning and taking the eighth for good measure. And it was Smith coming into the ninth to finish out a series that was shockingly even but for one category.

Both teams logged 201 at-bats. The Braves outhit the Astros, 48-45, and had eight doubles to Houston’s seven. The Astros had the series’ only triple and outwalked Atlanta, 19-18. The most important category in modern baseball, though, was also the most lopsided. Atlanta hit 11 home runs and Houston — or, to be more specific, Jose Altuve himself — hit two. The ineptitude of the Astros’ offensive showing was staggering, but to frame it exclusively as Houston’s problem ignores that Atlanta was very, very good this postseason at chauffeuring opponents to problematic places.

“Baseball,” Washington said. “That’s what we do.”

Ten years ago, Washington managed the Texas Rangers to the World Series. They lost in Game 7, before which he gave an inspiring speech with Pederson levels of ribaldry that was surreptitiously recorded and released. Before Tuesday night, he still hadn’t won a championship, and while Washington still spits acid on the regular, there’s a softness to him now, too, reflected in what he told the Braves before Game 6.

“Today was about making memories,” Duvall says. “And it was about seizing the moment and making a memory. Because moments become memories. And what better moment can we have a memory of than tonight?”



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AT HIS HOME in Buckhead, Anthopoulos put his children to bed at 8:30 p.m. ET, retreated to his couch and watched the team he constructed in the same way as millions of others: on TV. Anthopoulos tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday. He had a little stuffy nose, took a test and was crestfallen by the result. Anthopoulos was fully vaccinated, but he knew he would need to quarantine at home.

Just past 9 p.m., Soler hit Garcia’s final pitch of the night out of the stadium. Anthopoulos screamed. His 11-year-old daughter, Julia, came downstairs. The yelp woke her up.

Anthopoulos and his wife, Cristina, decided to let her stay up. In the eighth inning, they brought their 9-year-old son, John, down to watch. If Anthopoulos took anything away from the 2021 Atlanta Braves, it’s to do things with people you love. So they started counting down the outs, like it was a New Year’s Eve party and the ball was dropping.

“I would love to have been there,” Anthopoulos says. “But for me this is more the achievement. This is not a one-night thing. It’s a lifelong thing. The proudest part of this is that this is the second championship for Atlanta. You know you’re part of this city forever now. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Anthopoulos will forever be the virtuoso who took $10 million at the trade deadline and turned it into Pederson, his pearls and his F-bombs, Duvall and his stabilizing center-field play, Rosario and his NLCS MVP award, and Soler and his World Series MVP award. The guy who signed Acuña and Albies to their long-term deals and, considering what Freeman said as he hugged Acuña on the field, maybe him, too.

“We did it,” Acuña told him. “We did it.”

“Doing it with you next year,” Freeman said.

The celebration at Minute Maid differed by the square foot. In one area, Pederson was running up to Terry McGuirk, the Braves’ chairman, and yelling: “We’re going to f—ing Augusta! Hell yeah! I f—ing told you.” McGuirk, a member at Augusta National, had told players that if they win a World Series, he can swing getting them a tee time. Pederson eventually made his way into the clubhouse, where he joined his fellow Burgundy Boys in drinking Salon champagne before uncorking two bottles of Screaming Eagle cabernet, which run about $5,000 a pop.

Pederson’s merriment contrasted with others who are a little older and had never experienced a title, which Pederson also did last year with the Dodgers. Washington just grinned, the grin of a man who knows what he is. Baseball. That’s what he does.

Vogt, 37, hit the injured list after hitting those two home runs and never came back. The Braves kept him around for the same reasons they brought him in. “I’ve been working my whole life for this, dreaming my whole life for this,” Vogt says. “I got a ring. I got a ring.”

At first, Snitker could barely string together words.

“I’m numb,” he says.

“It’s hard to do this,” he says.

Then, as if he recognized he was inhabiting his own body, Snitker glanced at his T-shirt, the one he’d just slipped on over his uniform. “Look at this,” Snitker says. “It says World Series champs. You s—tin’ me?”

No. This was real. This was where love, belief and daring got them. This was for Wash, for Snit, for Vogter, for Ronnie, for Alex — for everyone who waited so long or couldn’t be where he was supposed to. This was for Atlanta. This was forever.

To celebrate, Rick Kranitz, the Braves’ pitching coach, cracked open a fresh box of Padron 1926 Serie cigars. There are 10 different sizes of the 1926s available, each with its own distinctive number. This particular selection was the perfect choice for the night, for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. In the upper-left-hand corner of the lid, it indicated what Kranitz had chosen.

No. 1.