ATLANTA -- Craig Counsell didn’t have the pleasure of enjoying the decades-long friendship Braves manager Brian Snitker shared with Hank Aaron. But the Brewers skipper will forever cherish the day the iconic slugger was so interested in learning how Counsell became a Major Leaguer after growing up in Milwaukee’s cold climate.
“I don't think you forget talking to somebody like Henry Aaron,” Counsell said. “If you know Atlanta and Milwaukee, you know these are the cities he held near to his heart, so he would love the series. He would have loved this series. It would have been Henry’s series for sure.”
With the Braves-Brewers National League Division Series shifting to Truist Park for Game 3 on Monday, there will again be reason to celebrate the memory of Aaron, who died on Jan. 22, 2021. The Hall of Famer began his career with the Milwaukee Braves, achieved legendary status as member of the Atlanta Braves and then concluded his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Aaron moved with the Braves to Atlanta in 1966 and continued to call Georgia home over the final 50-plus years of his life. But he always had a genuine appreciation for Milwaukee.
“The feelings of nostalgia of not having him here are big,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said.
Aaron’s wife, Billye, and his son, Lary, who is a Brewers scout, will be attendance for Game 3. Aaron's close friend and former Braves teammate Ralph Garr will be there, too. Garr is slated to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and his thoughts will surely be on Aaron and Phil Niekro, another former Braves teammate who died on Dec. 26, 2020.
Like Aaron, Niekro debuted with the Milwaukee Braves and then enjoyed a long tenure with the franchise after Bill Bartholomay moved the club to Atlanta. Bartholomay died on March 25, 2020.
“It would have been so cool had [Aaron] been here,” Snitker said. “He’d have been really proud right now of what we’re doing. There weren’t three bigger Atlanta Braves fans than Hank, Knucksie [Niekro] and Mr. B. They hung on everything we did, and they were so supportive. We’re going to miss them all.”
It was Aaron who wisely suggested Snitker end his days as a Minor League catcher and begin a coaching career in 1980. The legendary figure was the Braves' farm director at the time. He gave Snitker his first managerial job in '82 and then watched him fill a plethora of roles within the organization before finally becoming a Major League manager in 2016.
Snitker enjoyed the many conversations he shared with Aaron, especially the congratulatory ones that occurred as the Braves made their way to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series last year. The man who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record may have been 85 at the time, but he always maintained a childhood passion for the Braves and the game of baseball.
“I was so appreciative of the fact that he would take the time to congratulate me on things and our team,” Snitker said. “It's like I told [the players], there's no bigger fan of the Atlanta Braves than him. He just was always pulling for the guys. I know he’d be very proud. Right now, I'm sure he's bragging a lot to anybody who will listen. It's cool to know that he is doing that.”
McGuirk is among the many other members of the Braves organization who wish Aaron would have been able to enjoy this first playoff matchup between Atlanta and Milwaukee. The longtime Braves executive spent time on Saturday with former Commissioner Bud Selig -- who, like McGuirk, idolized Aaron long before becoming his close friend.
“I would say he was the Braves’ greatest fan,” McGuirk said. “He was an observer and a fan, but he was an analyst all of the time. He would come to see me at least once a month during the season to talk about the team and what he saw from his analysis. We all encouraged him, because when you get a critique from Hank Aaron, you go to the bank with it.
“He was always my hero, so I treated him that way. But he wanted to be a friend and wanted to be treated like a friend. I was very, very lucky to have that relationship.”
But as one of Snitker’s acquaintances found out, not all friends are necessarily on the same level.
“I was on a call with a buddy of mine,” Snitker said. “[The number] came through, and I said, ‘I think I'm going to put you on hold here; Hank Aaron is calling me.’”
The memories will continue to surface throughout this NLDS. As Bob Uecker handles his radio analyst duties for the Brewers on Monday, he’ll be reminiscing about the great days he spent with Aaron and a few of his other former Milwaukee Braves teammates.
“I’ve been thinking about Henry,” Uecker said over the weekend. “We were talking about him on the broadcast. Henry and [Warren] Spahn and [Eddie] Mathews, the big names with the Braves.”