Braves honor Aaron, Niekro at spring camp

Soroka, Anderson room together; Snitker to have pitchers take BP earlier

February 23rd, 2021

As the Braves prepared for their first full-squad workout on Tuesday morning, they honored the memories of Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Bill Bartholomay. Each of these key club figures were lost over the course of the past year.

“We were able to honor the great members of this organization who unfortunately passed away,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “We saw a couple great videos about their life. It was very inspirational. It’s tough to know what this organization is going through with those losses. They are big losses.”

Aaron’s passing on Jan. 22 extended a sad stretch for the Braves, who lost Sutton on Jan. 18, and Niekro on Dec. 26. Bartholomay, the beloved former owner who brought the franchise from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, passed away in March 2020.

A little more than a month before his passing, Bartholomay arrived at the Braves’ new Spring Training complex in North Port, Fla., to join Aaron for the dedication of Hank Aaron Way, a street located outside of CoolToday Park.

Bartholomay and Aaron had been present for nearly every first full-squad workout the Braves staged over the past few decades.

“It made me sad that [Aaron] was not here with us and [Bartholomay] also,” manager Brian Snitker said. “I tell [the players] those are two of the biggest fans they have. Unfortunately, they were missing this year.”

Adhering to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Snitker had to alter the way he has traditionally delivered this preseason speech. The club has usually gathered all of the players, coaches and staff members in center field for this event. They now have the option to use the on-site, multi-media auditorium.

But this year, the players socially distanced themselves in the stands as Snitker and other club officials addressed them with a microphone placed on the complex’s main field. Video tributes of Aaron and Niekro’s career played on the stadium’s video board located in left-center field.

“I think to honor them was very special,” d’Arnaud said. “It’s humbling too to know everybody cares about them, especially with the great things they did while giving back to the city all the time. I think it was big. It was motivational for sure.”

Talented roommates
Though they have never played together, Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson have formed a strong friendship over the past few years. The two talented young pitchers roomed together during Spring Training in 2020 and are doing so again this year.

“We’re into 'Peaky Blinders' lately,” Anderson said in reference to the popular Netflix series. “That’s kind of been our binge watch. I’ve been cooking a lot of meals. So it’s been good so far.”

Soroka produced one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history when he posted a 2.68 ERA (173 ERA+) and won his only career playoff start in 2019. After Soroka suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon last year, the Braves received significant value from Anderson, who limited the Yankees to one hit and one run over six innings in his Aug. 26 MLB debut.

Anderson posted a 1.95 ERA over six regular-season starts and then he didn’t allow a run through the first 17 2/3 innings of his postseason career.

“We have some great conversations,” Anderson said. “We’re kind of on similar wavelengths on a lot of things. It’s definitely good to talk to him.”

Regaining their swing
With the expectation National League teams will not be using the designated hitter again this year, Snitker is planning to have his pitchers start taking batting practice a little earlier than in previous years.

Spring Training was shut down before Braves pitchers began drawing regular at-bats in Grapefruit League games last year. Then of course, the universal DH was put in place when play resumed in July.

So the pitchers have not taken swings on a regular basis since the 2019 season ended.

“We’ll get them bunting and hitting off a tee,” Snitker said. “I don’t think we’ll wait as long as we did normally. If something happens and they [add the universal DH], I’d rather have it that way. I don’t want to rush these guys.”