MACON – Not since the book came out has Lynn Sweet’s phone rang like it did on Tuesday.
You remember the book, don’t you?
It was late spring of 2012 that “One Shot at Forever,” a book by Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Ballard, introduced to the world the 1971 Macon High School Ironmen baseball team.
With a dramatic retelling reminiscent of “Hoosiers,” Ballard skillfully recounted how tiny Macon marched all the way through the Illinois High School Association one-class state tournament, losing a heartbrearker to mighty Waukegan in the championship game.
It wasn’t the backdrop of baseball that made the tale memorable. It was the tapestry of characters including a group of farm kids who played for and loyally marched to the renegade drum beat created by their likeable manager, Sweet.
It’s been 45 years since that magical summer and in the decades since, players have scattered, families have been formed and a few baseball dreams were pursued briefly before the realities of the real world set in.
For all but one of those players, that is.
Brian Snitker, the catcher on that Macon team, found his life’s calling in baseball. After college he hooked up with the Atlanta Braves and has carved out a career as a coach, toiling in the minors and reaching the major leagues as bullpen coach or working from the third base coaching box while helping the Braves through some periods of great success.
This season, however, was to be a rebuilding year and manager Fredi Gonzalez was the team’s first major casualty, fired Tuesday after Atlanta stumbled to a 9-28 start.
Snitker wasn’t with the major league club this season. Instead, he’d been dispatched to Gwinnett, Ga., to manager the team’s AAA team. But with Gonzalez out, the Braves needed someone they could trust to guide the team the rest of this season so they named Snitker to be the interim manager.
“It’s super cool,” Sweet beamed from his rural Moweaqua home. “The guy has been there for 40 years. I’m very happy for him. He deserves it. Even if he’s just the interim manager this season, he can say he’s been there. He can say he was a big league manager.”
Through the years, Sweet has kept in close touch with Snitker. When the Braves would visit Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium, Sweet had an open invitation to come to the dugout, locker room and onto the field to share a glimpse of Snitker’s world.
“He’s very loyal, he just doesn’t forget,” Sweet said. “I’ve been around him a lot and the players like him. I would call him kind of low-key, which has enabled him to stay in the game so long. One thing he emphasizes, it’s one game a day. Don’t get down, don’t get up. Just get out there and do it.”
Snitker won a starting job playing for Sweet as a high school freshman.
“He had a natural swing that was just unbelievable,” Sweet said. “He was a catcher and I kidded him about his speed. We still kid him about it.”
Sweet said he’s been hearing from many of his former players, all delighted that Snitker has reached the pinnacle for a baseball coach. As always with that tight-knit Macon group, they’re still rooting for each other.
“I’ve heard from Steve Schartzer twice today,” Sweet said, referring to the star of the 1971 Macon team. “He lives about an hour-and-a-half from Atlanta and I know he’ll go to see Snit and they’ll get into the old stories again. And he’ll get on Brian about his speed. That’s how it goes.”
As for Sweet, he’s already looking at schedules to see when Snitker and the Braves will be in the area.
“He has a date coming up in Chicago for a Cubs’ makeup game, then the next three will be at the White Sox,” Sweet said. “I’ll go up and see him there. I’m just so happy for him.”
Back in the day, Sweet and the Ironmen came within a whisker of winning a state championship. Forty-five years later, Sweet’s voice was filled with pride knowing that one of his players – the one who made baseball his life – will manage in the big leagues.