A TRIBUTE TO A PHEÑOM

STAFF WRITER: MICHAEL BROWN

A “phenom” is defined as “a person who is outstandingly talented or admired, especially an up-and-comer.” If that definition doesn’t fit Ronald Acuña Jr. then, frankly, I’m not sure what does.

From his call up in April until his grand slam in the Postseason, Acuña showed he was more than even outstandingly talented, and he is certainly admired by many people around not just the United States, but the whole world. He took the league by storm when he was finally called up to Atlanta, and quickly became the favorite player of many, many people, including myself.

That day in April was an exciting one. The Braves had actually been fairly decent up until this game, more impressive than anyone had expected. Acuña’s call-up might’ve been the spark the Braves needed to make a miraculous run to the NL East title, though it was still quite early to be thinking about stuff like that. I still remember his first at-bat like it was yesterday. It was so insane.

With all the hype around him, you felt like you were witnessing history. It was like seeing the first at-bat of Babe Ruth or Mike Trout, or maybe watching Clayton Kershaw’s first ever start in the Major Leagues. You just knew that this dude was going to be a star, and you were thrilled to be able to watch it. Many Braves fans felt this way, too. When Acuña stepped to the plate for the first time in Cincinnati, he received a boisterous ovation from the crowd, the majority of which was made up of Braves fans who made the trip to see his debut. Acuña had every intention to get off to a great start, and he swung at the very first pitch he saw, coming about 5 feet short of a homer. He did later score the game tying run, and then, in his next at-bat, singled for his first ever hit, and the Braves won 5-4.

Acuña didn’t take long to launch his first dinger, either. He hit a ball 416 feet into the upper deck at Great American Ball Park. And just like that, a career that was filled with so much promise and potential was filled with that much more.

major league debut

Acuña celebrates after scoring the game-tying run in the 8th inning in his Major League debut in Cincinnati – PHOTO CREDIT – John Minchillo, Associated Press

You hear the phrase “too good to be true” quite often when referencing Atlanta/Georgia sports. When things can go wrong, they will, and if things seem great, it’s only a matter of time before they come crashing down. Super Bowl LI, the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, and Georgia Football’s consistent choking on the biggest stages are all examples.

Acuña continued to make an impact at the plate, on the bases and in the outfield as the Braves made their way to Fenway Park for a series with the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox. Acuña went 5-13 in the series with a homer off former Brave Craig Kimbrel.

Unfortunately though, Acuña, after he was called safe on an infield single in the third game of the series, took a nasty tumble to the ground, and it looked like he had surely torn his ACL.

injury

Acuña falls after injuring his left knee in Boston. He was able to slowly walk off on his own power – PHOTO CREDIT – MLB.com

He decided to walk off on his own power rather than take the wheelchair provided, which was both scary and encouraging. Luckily, the MRI did not reveal a torn ACL, and what looked like a season-ending injury was now going to sideline Acuña for just a few weeks.

Woodstock High School junior Bryce Clark said of the injury, “Yeah it was really scary. I’m glad that he was fine, and I’m glad they didn’t try to rush his return, either. They needed to take it slowly.”

The Braves did, in fact, take it slowly. They didn’t want to rush him back and just have him reinjure the knee. He was their prized possession, and they couldn’t afford to lose him for an extended period of time.

After a few weeks off and a brief rehab stint with AAA Gwinnett, Acuña returned to the lineup about a month later when the Braves were in St. Louis, where they swept the Cardinals as the calendar flipped over to July. Acuña and the Braves had the best record in the National League and were now on their way to Yankee Stadium for a matchup against the New York Yankees, who then had the best record in the American League. The series was heralded as a potential World Series preview, and there was all kinds of hype around it.

Fans, media, and commentators alike who watch college football will debate all season long about who should win the Heisman trophy. Many will proclaim different moments during a season to be a “Heisman moment” for a certain player. Lamar Jackson all but won the 2016 Heisman Trophy in Week 3 against Florida State when he scored five touchdowns and racked up 362 all-purpose yards as Louisville obliterated a very highly ranked Florida State team by six touchdowns. That was his “Heisman moment.”

I think it’s pretty safe to say Acuña will win the award for the National League’s Rookie of the Year, and if I had to pick his “Rookie of the Year moment”, his first game in Yankee Stadium would certainly be in contention. Along with a double that drove in Kurt Suzuki in the 4th, Acuña found himself at the plate with a runner on in a tie game in the top of the 11th inning. The lights were bright, the stadium was full. All eyes were on him. He didn’t shy away from the pressure, though. Acuña hit a homer that went just over the tip of the glove of 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge, who had jumped as high as he possibly could. Ronnie made his trot around the bases and the Braves went on to win 5-3.

 

yankees stadium home run

Ronnie takes a moment to admire his game-winning home run at Yankee Stadium – PHOTO CREDIT – Adam Hunger, USA TODAY Sports

Acuña came back from the All-Star break, though, in a dead heat with Nationals’ rookie Juan Soto in the race for NL Rookie of the Year. As things turned out, the rival Braves and Nationals opened the second half in Washington. Soto did hit a 2-run homer in the series opener, but Acuña outdid him, going 3-4 with a homer, double, walk, and a single in a Braves win. Some people may still try to argue Soto should win Rookie of the Year, but I just don’t see it.

He was fantastic, but Acuña was flat-out amazing. It also helps Ronnie’s case that the Braves won the East while the Nationals finished just 82-80 and missed the playoffs. Woodstock junior Evan Conley agreed, “Acuña impacted the Braves more than Juan Soto impacted the Nationals. Even though the two had similar stat lines, Acuña simply had more of a positive impact on his team’s success, and that was reflected in the teams’ final records.”

Acuña further buffed his case for the award later on in August over a span of a few unforgettable games. Ronnie hit homers in five consecutive games, a total of six homers in those five games which spanned over just four days, not to mention four of the six dingers coming in the first at-bat of the game.

home run streak

Ronald blows a bubble while rounding the bases after he leads off game 2 of a doubleheader against the Marlins with a home run. He led off the first game that day with a homer as well; he became the fourth player in MLB history to lead off 2 games with a homer in one day – PHOTO CREDIT – John Bazemore, Associated Press

A stretch like this was unheard of. Woodstock junior Abi Halls added, “I was so shocked considering he was the second-youngest player in the MLB; and the boy hardly speaks English! The talent that he possesses showed through his home runs and shows that he has worked hard to get where he is.”

The Marlins weren’t as thrilled about the streak. Or at least Jose Ureña wasn’t. Ronnie had greeted the Marlins rudely since they had arrived in Atlanta; in two days, he had hit three home runs, two of which came in the first at-bat of the game. He had been a little bit of a showboat, but nothing bad at all. He flipped his bat, but who wouldn’t?  I guess Ureña wanted to send him a message or something.

With Ronald set to receive the first pitch of the game, Ureña nailed him with a 97 mph fastball. It was the fastest pitch Ureña had thrown all season, and it was nowhere near the plate. He intentionally hit a kid who was doing nothing but playing the game and having fun. A brawl ensued, and Braves’ manager Brian Snitker was leading the charge.

Snitker was ejected (as was Ureña), but said after the game of Acuña, “He’s my kid. I have to protect him.” The Braves happened to be in Miami about a week later, where Acuña got his revenge in the form of a 432-foot home run that damaged the paint in the walls of Marlins Park. Acuña stepped back, admired his work, flipped his bat, and you could say he took his time rounding the bases, too.

 

bat flip against marlins

Acuña flips his bat after hitting a mammoth home run in his first game against the Marlins since they plunked him after his home run streak – PHOTO CREDIT – Getty Images

That was an incredible moment, and Acuña was able to ride out the rest of the Braves’ season, continuing to do what he does best: playing the game of baseball. Really, I think it was Acuña who was the Braves’ MVP in 2018. I’m not sure they would’ve won the East without him.

celebration

Ronald celebrates the Braves’ NL East Championship with manager Brian Snitker – PHOTO CREDIT – CBS Sports

And, fittingly, it was Ronnie who caught the final out against the Phillies that clinched the division. The crowd went wild, the team celebrated and celebrated. Acuña had non-alcoholic champagne, of course. He’s still about two months away from being legally allowed to drink.

Things didn’t go as smoothly for the Braves in the Postseason, unfortunately. The Dodgers hit a lot of home runs, and it was just too much to overcome. Acuña went out with a bang, though, and provided fans with the most memorable moment of his very young career. The Braves entered Game 3 of the NLDS down 2-0 in the series, on the brink of elimination. Braves’ pitcher Sean Newcomb drew a bases-loaded walk on four consecutive pitches, scoring the Braves their first run of the game.

 

grand sla

Acuña celebrates his first career grand slam; Ronald became the youngest player to ever hit a grand slam in the Postseason – PHOTO CREDIT – John Amis, Associated Press

Ronnie was next up to bat, and he took three straight balls. Walker Buehler was out of control; he’d thrown seven straight pitches out of the zone. He threw an eighth straight that would’ve walked Acuña, giving the Braves a 2-0 lead. Instead, the umpire made a horrendous strike call, and the stadium rained down with boos. It worked out in the Braves favor, though. On the very next pitch, Acuña launched one into the seats at SunTrust Park for his first ever grand slam, and the Braves led 5-0. He became the youngest player to ever hit a grand slam in the Postseason, a mark previously held by Mickey Mantle. In what was the Braves final win of the season, Acuña left the fans with something to remember. It was a special moment, one I’ll never forget.

This whole season was truly full of unforgettable moments from Ronald. Every time he went to the plate it was must-see television. He rose to become one of the MLB’s biggest stars in just a few months. Acuña’s best quality, to me, though, is how much fun he has when he plays the game of baseball. It’s so obvious how much he loves what he does, and he’s so happy doing it. That happiness is infectious to those that watch him; it is simply a joy to watch him play the game.

 

having fun

Braves’ shortstop Dansby Swanson embraces Acuña after Ronald hits a home run against the Marlins, his second in that game – PHOTO CREDIT – Curtis Compton, AJC

 

When Ronald Acuña Jr. is inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame about 25 years from now, it’s going to be really fun to remember where it all began, and how it all got started. This young man is going to do special things, and I’m thrilled to be along for the ride.

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