‘Best ever’? Ronald Acuña 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.'”

 

Story by: Tim Keown

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