'Best ever'? It sounds absurd, but Ronald Acuna Jr. isn't far off

SIX GAMES? Shane Greene thinks for a moment before nodding. Yeah, that sounds about right: After six games in a Braves uniform, he'd seen all he needed to see. Over those six games, Greene watched in silent awe from a bullpen bench in Cincinnati and Minneapolis and Miami as 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. played the game in a way Greene couldn't believe was possible. When Acuna wasn't hitting homers, he was leaping fences to rob them. When he wasn't stealing bases, he was using his arm to deny them. The results were one thing; the style was another. Acuna plays a burdensome game -- The Game of Failure™, according to every baseball guy ever -- with a lightness that borders on mirth. Greene kept sneaking looks at the teammates sitting around him. They were mostly unmoved. What Greene considered astonishing, the rest of them -- those who had seen it all and more -- viewed with knowing indifference.

Greene was the new guy, and part of being the new guy meant "keeping my mouth shut and observing," he says. So he observed Acuna in a way that became more granular with each day. He marveled at the way Acuna stands in the batter's box, holding his hands out in front of his body like a dare, bat perpendicular to the ground as if he's unsure about the point of the whole enterprise. The languid approach seems designed to convince the pitcher he might be able to get it past him before he notices it's been thrown.

"And then," Greene says, "here come maybe the fastest hands I've ever seen."

He watched Acuna hit a walk-off two-run single to rescue Greene's blown save on Aug. 3. He saw three hits, four runs scored and a homer three days later, a homer the day after that, and two homers and four RBIs the day after that.

He watched Acuna steal bases and hit homers at a rate that could have made him just the fifth -- and youngest -- 40-40 player in history if a groin injury hadn't ended his regular season with six games to go. He led the National League in runs scored (127) and stolen bases (37). He hit 41 homers. He is expected to play in the National League Division Series against the Cardinals, and there's no way to overstate his importance to the Braves' October chances.

At some point during that sixth game, after Acuna had done something Greene can't remember -- "There's no telling, really; it could have been anything" -- Greene discovered that six games was as long as he could hold it in. The statute of limitations on keeping his mouth shut and his eyes open had expired, and so he just sat there in the bullpen and blurted it out:

"That's the best player who's ever lived."

To Greene, it seemed obvious. He'd never seen anything like Acuna -- "a freak player, a once-in-a-lifetime player" -- and every time he looked at him, one fact kept running through his head like a news crawl: He's 21 years old. Granted, Greene doesn't watch baseball unless he's playing it, and yes, he's not only aware of Mike Trout but has a record (two homers allowed in three official Trout at-bats) to prove it. But he's not some wide-eyed fan; he's been in the big leagues for six seasons, and his eyes told him he was seeing something his brain could barely imagine.

The boys in the bullpen laughed. Not a mocking laugh; more of an easy there, new guy kind of laugh. Everybody laughed but Greene, who cocked his head a bit and refused to retract his proclamation. And then the next night Acuna hit another homer, and the boys in the bullpen looked at Greene and said, "Best ever." And it was still a bit of a joke, to be honest, but the next night Acuna hit two homers among his three hits and by then best ever had become A Thing. Each time, Greene nodded at his bullpen mates with a prove-me-wrong look and the chorus started again:

Best ever

Best ever

Delivered with a nod, though, and not a laugh.

Over time, with each passing homer or throw or over-the-wall catch, the refrain began to sound less sarcastic and more reverent.

"At first we thought it was kind of funny," reliever Jerry Blevins says. "As time wore on, though, we were like, 'Well, yeah -- Shane's probably right.'"

THREE HOURS, 58 MINUTES before a mid-September game in Philadelphia, Acuna sits at his locker, wearing his glove, examining it from all angles, tightening a few strings here and there, occasionally smacking his right hand into the sweet spot. The news here isn't so much what Acuna is doing but where and when: out in the open and during the one-hour window the media are allowed in the clubhouse.

There are unwritten rules scattered all over baseball, including in the clubhouse, where the best players usually disappear once the doors open to the media. It's not always personal; if you're a star-level player, your presence at your locker engenders excitement in people who want to stick a microphone in your face and ask you non-questions that are intended to simply make you talk. You are told to talk about in a way that can make you feel like a pull-string doll.

But Acuna, among the handful of best players in the game currently and perhaps historically, sits at his locker, unbothered, confident that no one in the room will ask him to talk about anything since none of them -- present company included, sadly -- can talk about anything of substance in his language.

"A superstar, just sitting there by himself," a Braves PR guy says. "It's kind of crazy."

The best approach, to steal from Greene, is to shut up and observe.

THERE IS A moment in every game in which Acuna announces himself. Three hours, 58 minutes after he sat at his locker examining his glove, he led off the game against Phillies left-hander Drew Smyly and reached on an error, then stole second and third. An Ozzie Albies ground ball later, the Braves were up 1-0.

In the sixth, with his team down 5-4, he ranged from his spot in center field to the wall in right-center and leaped to steal an extra-base hit from Jose Pirela. An inning later, he stood at the plate and watched a Blake Parker curveball parachute its way toward the plate, appearing wholly uninterested in the first 40 feet of the pitch. But then the swing started, originating several strata below the batter's box and rumbling upward. The hands -- the hands Acuna describes only as "something some people have and some do not" -- send the bat to the ball and the bat sends the ball more than 400 feet, over the center-field fence.

"That swing? That swing is not typical," says reliever Mark Melancon. "The optics are different. You have a lot of guys who can hit a deep home run, but the way he does it -- so quick, so late. He waits beyond what you think could be possible before he swings, and it looks like the bat is a toothpick."

Melancon looks off into the distance and shakes his head. "I mean -- he's 21," he says. "I have to keep reminding myself of that. I don't think I've ever played with a 21-year-old before."

Acuna's age is evident only in his face: rounded and boyish, the slightly chubby cheeks at odds with the rest of him. He smiles a lot and plays with a joy that can be interpreted and misinterpreted in all the traditional ways: showboating, cockiness, immaturity. He's been criticized for slow home run trots, for being overly pleased with himself after fantastic catches, even for wearing too much jewelry. In the occasional bout of accuracy, his style has been attributed to its primary source: the simple joy of a 21-year-old playing a difficult game exceedingly well.

"As a little kid, ever since I told my parents I want to play baseball, I feel like I've had a joy for the game," Acuna says through an interpreter. "Everyone has their own style of living, and to each his own. The way I play, I go out there to enjoy myself and I do it with the utmost respect, not meaning to offend or disrespect anyone on the other team. I do it out of love for the game."

The three of us -- Acuna, Franco the interpreter, me -- are standing in the middle of the visitors locker room on a Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park. Players filter past, excusing themselves as we succeed in conducting an interview in the most awkward way possible. I ask Acuna if he'd heard that Greene had proclaimed him best ever, and as the words are relayed to him he laughs sheepishly and says, "Comments like that motivate me to work harder and stay humble. I wouldn't say I'm the best, but I practice and train to be the best."

The Braves, who won 97 games and their second straight NL East title, are a fascinating mix. There's 22-year-old Albies, who led the NL in hits and doubles and plays with the same theatrical flair as his closest friend on the team, Acuna, snatching popups out of the air as if their very existence disgusts him. There's 22-year-old starting pitcher Mike Soroka, who had a 1.09 WHIP, led the NL in fewest homers allowed per nine innings and led all big league pitchers with a 1.35 ERA on the road. Josh Donaldson, gray edging in at the temples, hit 37 homers at 33. Left fielder Nick Markakis is 35, as is catcher Brian McCann. Are they too young, too old or just right?

"The theme here? Go out there, be yourself and play baseball," infielder Charlie Culberson says. "If you start trying to change who people are as individuals, you can change who you are as a team."

In a locker across the room from Acuna, sandwiched between understated superstar Freddie Freeman and Donaldson, is McCann. For much of the past decade, McCann has earned a reputation as the man who regulates fun on the baseball field. He was there when Carlos Gomez got a little too much enjoyment out of pimping a slow jog around the bases. He was there when Jose Fernandez held his home run pose a beat too long. As a result, his angry visage has been photoshopped into every possible sports celebration since the invention of photography.

To be fair: McCann hasn't done it for a while. (Acuna was 15 when McCann and Gomez had their moment.) Age and the game's evolution seem to have eroded some of the granite from his jaw. He is soft-spoken -- almost shy -- and effusive in his praise of Acuna.

"He loves the game and loves to have fun," McCann says. "You can see that; he's a fun guy, and he does all the right things. I'm a big fan of his."

"Has Acuna changed your attitude?"

"Around here we try to win every day," he says, "and we have 25 guys trying to do that."

He looks up and smiles. The line of questioning has failed. He shrugs, and his eyes say: Live and let live.

PRESIDING OVER ALL this young talent and veteran wisdom is manager Brian Snitker, a 63-year-old baseball man who looks like a hard-line high school PE teacher and football coach. Snitker is plainspoken and free of pretense. After games on the road, he stands in his office against a white cinder block wall that's been adorned with a plastic Braves logo tarp. He takes off his cap for the interviews, presumably because he is inside and that's the polite thing to do, exposing a bald head and an equatorial forehead dent like a flood line on the wall of a building. Cameras press in, and the lights bear down. He looks as if he should be holding up a newspaper displaying the day's date.

Acuna's baseball life couldn't be more different from Snitker's. One was elevated to the big leagues at 20 after 236 minor league games, and that was probably too many. The other gritted and ground his way through 36 years in the minor leagues, just four as a player before beginning his minor league managing career at 26 in the subterranean levels of the Braves' system. A certain kind of 26-year-old baseball man became a manager in 1982: one dedicated to teaching young guys how to play the game a certain way -- The Right Way -- and willing to subjugate his ego for the cause. There was a near lifetime of Travelodges and Days Inns and countless speeches about paying dues behind Snitker when by clubhouse demand he was hired permanently after finishing the 2016 season as the interim manager.

"I tell everybody, 'I'm going to treat you fair, but I'm not going to treat you the same,'" Snitker says. "I'm not going to treat Ronald the same way I treat Josh Donaldson. The experience and the age difference warrant that. We rush these guys through the minor leagues so quickly, and they don't stay anywhere long enough to learn. Before, they knew the ropes and how you probably should just sit in the back and be seen and not heard for a while. That's not so much the case anymore."

The styles have clashed. On Aug. 18 against the Dodgers in Atlanta, Snitker benched Acuna after he admired a long fly ball to right that turned into an epic single instead of a home run. Snitker was characteristically direct with his explanation ("You've got to run," he said) and equally direct when I asked him if he risked losing Acuna with such a public denunciation.

"If you lose a kid because of something like that," he says, "then he probably wasn't what you thought he was in the first place."

The game is defined by the struggle, and there are those within it who feel duty-bound to impose its burden on those who appear immune. Men, for instance, who were hired as minor league managers at 26 years old to dispense the game's hard truths and pass down its articles of faith. Snitker watches this game now -- his game -- and sees Acuna flipping his bat like a baton and Albies catching popups like they're insults and Donaldson prancing through the dugout carrying an umbrella after a homer to animate his nickname (Bringer of Rain). It's a whole different world out there, wild and raucous, and who is left to stand in its way?

"I'm looking at all this, and I started thinking: I've gotten to where I can't wait to get to the ballpark," Snitker says. "These guys keep me young. During games I look up and see Josh with the umbrella. I see guys going through the conga line and doing the dances. I look down and think I'm in the dugout with an American Legion team the way they're carrying on.

"There are some things that used to drive me crazy that I'm OK with now. I've reached the point where I see something and think, 'Why the hell am I worrying about this? It ain't that big of a deal.'"

Gradually, joy is winning. Snitker has thoughts about the game and how it should be played, and those thoughts will never change. They're rooted in those years of struggle and persistence. The Game of Failure™ embeds in the brain, and the burden is heavy.

But as he's sitting in the visitors dugout in Washington before the Braves' 149th game of the season, he throws his hands up in surrender. All those years of bus rides and one-star motels go up in the air with them. He takes his cap off and rubs a hand over his bald head. "You know -- shame on me," he says. "You grow up with all this stuff being starched into the game, and now I'm looking at them and thinking, 'Oh, what the hell. It ain't changing because of me, so why not let 'em go?'"

Acuna will go: deep into gaps and over walls to catch whatever's hit; from first to second or second to third even if they know he's stealing; around the bases after homers, always at his own pace. So why not let him go, along with his joy, and see where he ends up? Maybe it'll be a place no one's gone before.