Ronald Acuña Jr. takes flight

Former Braves coaches Ron Washington and Eric Young Sr. mentored Acuña to an MVP season in 2023. Can the young outfielder thrive without them?

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During this ongoing journey for Ronald Acuña Jr. toward the other side of baseball’s interplanetary space, there was an asterisk that held him back, but there were two coaches who harnessed his greatness.

Let’s start at the beginning, though.

You’re Acuña, you’re growing up near the underwater ridge filled with Atlantic blue marlin and longbill spearfish in the Venezuelan port city of La Guaira, and baseball is everywhere. Your grandfather, your father, and one of your uncles were professionals in the sport. You have cousins operating as major leaguers or trending that way. You’re in your early adolescence, but you own skills to outrun the wind, throw harder than just about anybody, and crush pitches no matter how fast they swerve or drop.

You can’t remember a millisecond without those baseball things in your world, and before long, you’re attracting major league scouts to watch you dominate others around the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, and you’re sprinting toward signing a $100,000 contract in July 2014 as an international free agent with the Atlanta Braves.

You’re 16 at the time.

You’re thinking . . . what?

“Ever since I was young, I had no choice but to become a superstar,” Acuña told me through an interpreter, about envisioning his destiny soon after he rose every morning. And even though he didn’t say it, you know thoughts of reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame were already swirling around his head. “I had to outcompete everyone. This meant I had to train my mind to become the best, and when working hard, I knew I would be the person I wanted to become if my mind had no barriers when it came to getting better.”

Ronald Acuña Jr.
Acuña says he has developed responsibility and discipline since he joined the Braves in 2018.

Photograph by Kevin Liles/Atlanta Braves

Mission accomplished. In slightly less than a flash, he went from rising prospect for the Braves to supernova from another universe, but only with an asterisk, which we’ll discuss later. He sits among the elite of the game’s elite, and during his sixth year in the major leagues, at 25, he became the 2023 National League Most Valuable Player after a season for the ages.

To hear him tell it, you should hold the applause.

• • •

You’re Acuña, and you know last year was just a tease. You hope the health angels among the baseball gods remain kind to you. That’s because you know that since you damaged your right leg in the summer of 2021, forcing you to miss the rest of that season for the Braves during their journey to a world championship, you’ve been free of major bumps and bruises. You realize that if that trend continues, you’ll have more than a decade left in your prime.

Regardless, you’re already dreaming of expanding your trophy case for league MVP honors beyond this first one. You’re anticipating way more accolades on your future resume than on your current one—the four trips to baseball’s All-Star Game, the three Silver Slugger awards, the two National League stolen-bases titles, and the Hank Aaron Award as the NL’s best hitter, which came in 2023. As the singular member of baseball’s 40/70 Club, you know last season (with 41 home runs and 73 stolen bases) was only a dress rehearsal for much grander achievements.

“Of course, I’ll always be challenging myself,” said Acuña, who delivers his words with confidence but rarely with arrogance. “After my 30/30 season [in 2019], I got a tattoo across my chest: ‘30/30.’ I got it across my chest, one of the most important parts of my body. Recently I had to get ‘40/70’ and didn’t have space left, but made it work. I asked myself, ‘How can I get to 50/100?,’ and then I’ll have to chill.”

Acuña laughed, but take his words seriously, since his rise without limits goes beyond simple talent. There is that asterisk, which brings us to those two coaches. The Great Acuña is a myth, because he has flaws, but he has fewer since encountering those two coaches.

Ronald Washington and Eric Young Sr. These baseball sages have a combined eight decades around the major leagues in some capacity.

“Ron is not just a coach of baseball, but a coach of life. He is a second dad to me,” Acuña told me. He’d been preparing for spring training and the 2024 regular season by doing extraordinary things (okay, Ronald Acuña things) for his hometown Tiburones de La Guaira team in the Venezuelan Winter League. After the Braves were eliminated by the Philadelphia Phillies early in the 2023 postseason, Acuña forfeited his baseball vacation to return to Venezuela, where he spent his longest stretch ever as a pro player displaying his wizardry to friends and relatives—among them, Ronald Acuña Sr., his actual father, who laid the foundation for his son’s success.

Just as Ronald Jr.’s maternal grandfather, Romualdo Blanco, never pitched beyond the minor leagues during his six seasons for the Houston Astros and the San Diego Padres in the ’70s, Ronald Sr. was a career minor league player from 1999 through 2006. The older Acuña didn’t rise above Double-A with the Mets during most of those years. He told his son (18 years his junior) that the reasons for his stagnation in the game involved the need for more physical strength and an attitude adjustment.

• • •

Ronald Acuña Jr.
Ronald Acuña Jr.

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Washington also gave deeper baseball messages to No. 13, which serves as the lucky number for Ronald Jr. The younger Acuña thought about his slew of talks with Washington, then said of his second dad, “He taught me many valuable lessons, but I think the most important is, if you take the game too seriously, you’ll forget how beautiful the game actually is,” said Acuña. “‘Just be yourself,’ he would say. ‘And when things get hard, just remember there are kids in the stands watching you, with 13 on their backs.’”

Well, that was the clean version of Washington’s words to his unofficial son. No one would ever accuse this 71-year-old straight talker from Louisiana—known as “Wash” among baseball folks—of keeping his considerable opinions to himself. He has much to say as a lifer in the sport. He spent 10 seasons as a major league infielder for five different teams through 1989, and he had two decades as a major league coach, including seven seasons with the Braves through 2023, before he became manager of the Los Angeles Angels. He also spent eight years through 2014 as Texas Rangers manager, highlighted by back-to-back American League pennants. He remained “Wash” regardless of his position, which means that when he speaks, he often does so bluntly enough to cause Sunday school teachers to cringe.

Therefore, Washington’s assessment of the Great Acuña wasn’t surprising, especially regarding that asterisk and those flaws.

“This past year, Ronald studied the game, and I hope from this point forward that’s the Ronald Acuña that you will get every day, because he’s still a very young man. But now he doesn’t have Eric around, and he doesn’t have me around, so let’s see how they handle him now,” said Washington, whose reference to “they” meant those around the Braves organization not named Ron Washington or Eric Young. “Let’s see how they handle Ronald, because believe me, he’s going to walk around like [okay, here’s the censored version of what Washington said of Acuña: He could go barefoot across the Chattahoochee River without falling in]. He don’t take nothing from nobody in that clubhouse, and the only people who could settle him down were Ozzie and E.Y.”

That’s Ozzie as in Ozzie Albies, the Braves’ 27-year-old second baseman from Curaçao. He’s Acuña’s closest pal on the team, and you know as much, since they are rarely more than the length of a Louisville Slugger away from each other inside any ballpark. That’s E.Y. as in Eric Young. Since Albies wasn’t as prominent as those two names in working either to eliminate or to control the flaws around the Great Acuña, Washington continued to speak of Acuña’s evolution as a supernova by saying of Young and himself: “It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Ronald now that we’re gone, about whether or not he’ll be able to take the things we talked to him about and have them carry over into the future.”

Washington, as a guru of inside baseball, is qualified to say such things. With the Braves, he spent Acuña’s major league existence through the 2023 season coaching third base and the infielders at such an extraordinary level that opposing players and coaches sought his wisdom. Then he left during the offseason to take over the Angels, becoming only the second Black manager in the major leagues.

During Young’s six years with the Braves, he coached first base and the outfielders, which included Acuña in right. But when the Angels hired Washington, after Acuña did much last season to help the Braves surge to an MLB-high 104 victories, Young bolted Georgia for California as Washington’s guy to become one of the game’s few Black third base coaches.

Actually, with Washington and Young as Ronald Acuña Whisperers, there was a pecking order.

“Eric was the guy. Eric was the main guy who worked with Ronald. He’s the guy who was directly responsible for him,” said Washington of Young, who stepped into Acuña’s shadow in his rookie season and never left. Their relationship began on day one, during spring training of 2018 in Orlando, where Young sauntered into the Braves’ Disney World complex to encounter the minor league outfielder considered the top prospect in the game by Baseball America. The folks at MLB.com ranked him as only the second-best prospect, but that was excusable: Their number one player was some Japanese pitcher/slugger named Shohei Ohtani, another supernova-in-waiting.

“Everybody kept telling me, ‘Wait until you see this Ronald Acuña kid,’ and then I saw this skinny, young kid wearing No. 88, and I introduced myself, and he was very shy, very quiet,” Young said. High uniform numbers are typically given to rookies with zero chance of seeing the big leagues, at least for the immediate future. “We had guys in the locker room, and I’ll never forget this, some players yelled, ‘Hey, Numero 88,’ and I remember Ronald turning around and saying, ‘Not for long. This will not be my number. I guarantee you that.’ Like, he said it in Spanish, and I turned to somebody, and I said, ‘What did he say?’ I was told, ‘Not for long.’ I looked at Ronald, and I said, ‘Mucha me gusta [I like it a lot],’ and he smiled at me, like, Oh, he knows a little Spanish. Okay. That’s when I stuck out my hand, as if to say, I like the confidence, especially when it comes from young players.

“If young players have confidence, you can push them to another level. If I have to work on the confidence and on the skill work at the same time, that’s going to take a little longer, but I realized this kid had a lot of confidence, and that was before we even got on the field. Now, once we got out there, starting when I began working with him in the outfield, you could see the talent, and it’s like, there’s no question this guy’s going to be special.”

Ronald Acuña Jr.
Ronald Acuña Jr.

Photograph Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Acuña was that, with only an asterisk.

He had those flaws.

This heightened those flaws: From the first time “Ronald Acuña Jr.” graced an MLB box score for the Braves in 2018, the coronation began. The bat, the glove, the arm, the speed, the wows along the way to the wows. It was the Great Acuña this and the Great Acuña that. Even so, the most dynamic player of his generation (you know, beyond that Japanese guy) wasn’t perfect, and those flaws were irritating, especially for baseball traditionalists like me.

For starters, where have you gone, Peter Edward Rose, otherwise known as “Charlie Hustle” for his energy during every aspect of every game in every one of his seasons?

Ronald Acuña Jr. wasn’t exactly Charlie Hustle Jr., especially during his opening five seasons in the major leagues, but I’m biased. I spent part of my youth in Cincinnati, where both of my younger brothers joined me in nearly living each summer at Crosley Field during the 1960s and around Riverfront Stadium in the 1970s. We worshipped and studied the immortal likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and the superheroes for our own Big Red Machine. Those Reds won more games in the 1970s than anybody (including six division titles, four pennants, and back-to-back World Series titles), and they had Baseball Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez, and Joe Morgan, as well as perennial All-Stars Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster, and Dave Concepción.

Most prominently, there was my guy, the constantly moving Pete Rose, who ran to first base after walks and who used to say he’d knock over his grandmother to reach home plate. Let’s save that gambling matter for another day to remember that he’s baseball’s all-time hits leader, who approached the game with the enthusiasm of a T-ball player, and he wasn’t alone.

The overwhelming majority of Rose’s peers among baseball legends combined their brilliance with eternal hustle.

Eternal hustle for Acuña? Well, um. Prior to the 2023 season it was only there in spurts, compared with the baseball supernovas of my youth. They ran out every hit ball at the plate. They gave their all every time on the bases. They chased down every fly and every grounder in the field. They also deferred to substance over style every time the situation was in doubt.

So much for baseball’s Neanderthal days.

Acuña lives in baseball’s new world order, where eternal hustle has given way to frequent hustle.

Or no hustle at all.

“Ronald wasn’t running balls out. Hitting balls in the gap, and not running the balls out, because he thought they were out of the ballpark, and he got embarrassed a couple of times like that, not displaying himself the right way to kids coming to the park to see him play,” Washington said. “He did a bunch of [ahem, things] that people [on the team and in the organization] didn’t like, but all you can do is help him to grow, and you don’t beat him down from doing those things. I remember one time somebody said to me, ‘Well, how many times you gonna tell him to do this and to do that?’, and I said, ‘As many times as it takes.’ This boy’s too good to not let him keep learning from his mistakes.”

Washington attributed those mistakes to an understandable lack of maturity from a player whose talent meant a rush to the major leagues. “He’s 18 years old, and then he’s 19 years old, and then he’s 20 years old,” Washington said. “And he’s a star. Come on, man. I don’t know how much of an education he got back home in his country, but it wasn’t a whole lot. And he had to live in this culture over here, which was different. So you can get a big head, and there were times when he did get a big head. But during those times, we always had a conversation when his head got big, and it wasn’t a conversation where we beat him down. It was a conversation about growth, about how people look at you, what you want to portray of yourself, and he took it, and he took it well, because he knew it was the truth.”

“Those were the types of things we were hitting Ronald with, and let me tell you something. He was getting it from both ends. He was getting it from me, and he was getting it from E.Y., too.”

Like Wash, E.Y. often pulled Acuña aside in private to discuss the hustle (or lack thereof) thing, and then there was the flair thing. In baseball’s new world order, where the bat flip is now a cliché, Ronald José Acuña Blanco Jr. still owns the role of master showman of the major leagues in a variety of ways.

The Braves’ colors are red, white, and navy blue, but among other things, Acuña wears yellow elbow pads and yellow foot guards in honor of Venezuela. He does his NBA tributes: For Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young, he performs the “Ice Trae” move of folding his arms across the front of his body as if he’s shivering. For LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, Acuña imitates his habit of pressing down his hands a few times while raising his legs to begin trotting. He eases into the Griddy with his mixture of skipping, toe and heel action, and the swinging of hands when reaching the plate after home runs. He keeps a bunch of buttons undone near the top of his jersey, to display his dangling chains filled with diamonds. He runs with flair, and he does the same on slides.

Oh, and Acuña has flipped his share of bats after a home run, to the chagrin of the opposing team.

“I was old-school, so I wasn’t about all that flash, and I wasn’t taught that,” said Young, 56, a New Brunswick, New Jersey, native who was a baserunning ace for 15 years for seven different major league teams until 2006, spending most of the years since coaching in the big leagues. “We were taught you did the flash at the big moment. So I watched him, and I had to tell him that this might be an issue, with you celebrating home runs and doing this and that on the field. Other players may perceive that as you showing them up, so don’t be surprised if you get hit [by a pitch while batting]. When he did [the bat flipping and the other flashy stuff], and he would get hit, we would talk about it the next day. I would go, ‘Hey, you do those things, guys are going to hit you.’

“But you have to understand something here. With Ronald coming from Venezuela, that’s just what they do in winter ball. They showcase when they steal. They are [pumping up] the crowd. That’s what they do. So, I also had to understand those things, because I wanted him to remain Ronald Acuña, and I didn’t want to contain him in a box. I had to see how I could work those things together with my old-school ways. So, we just kept talking.”

• • •

Acuña never rebelled against his tough-love sessions with Young and Washington, and by the 2023 season, he had had a baseball epiphany. He told me those conversations had a cumulative effect. “It really came down to understanding everyone’s situation and American culture,” said Acuña. “I came over here not knowing anything, and while I am here to play baseball, I had to take on life. I had to support my family. I was the one supporting everyone and everything, and it taught me something very important in life. That is responsibility and discipline. I was just a kid, but had to become a man . . . quick.”

Ronald Acuña Jr.
Acuña was receptive to tough love from coaches Eric Young (left) and Ron Washington.

Photograph by AP Images

There was that, and there was also this: Acuña had a purpose for mixing at least some of his play with theatrics. “My flow has always been important to me. The saying ‘Look good, feel good, play good’ is something I go by,” he told me. And I get it, especially when you consider the lack of sizzle for his predecessors on Braves teams that formed a National League dynasty by winning an MLB record of 14 consecutive division titles, beginning in 1991.

Yes, I know. The early part of that run for the Braves had Neon Deion Sanders and his Prime Time thing, when he wasn’t moonlighting with the Atlanta Falcons. David Justice was another Braves outfielder for those teams, and he gave them a spark of celebrity after he married movie star Halle Berry. Eccentric owner Ted Turner also had a Hollywood wife in Jane Fonda. Even so, since those Braves did more flopping than thrilling in October, they weren’t hugged tightly by the public despite having Baseball Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz among their starting pitchers. They had another Cooperstown guy at third base in Chipper Jones, and another one at first base in Fred McGriff. Overall, they grabbed five pennants and the 1995 World Series, but they spent the last stretch of their streak lacking box-office appeal. Fans at playoff games in Atlanta often cheered louder for visitors than for the home team.

The Braves had become so dull by the time they were embarrassed in the 2013 National League Division Series in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers, that a team official told me he would implode the roster. Not only was he peeved over the Braves’ seventh consecutive loss in their first series or Wild Card Game during the playoffs (and eighth such loss in the team’s last nine appearances), he admitted another maddening truth: The Braves were boring.

The dismantling began quickly, and four consecutive losing seasons followed. But then came 2018, and with it excitement for the Braves, wrapped in the six-foot, 205 pound frame of Acuña. Not coincidentally, the Braves have won six consecutive division titles since his arrival. He missed the latter half of the 2021 season after he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament that July chasing a fly ball, but the Braves still won the World Series.

Weeks before Acuña’s injury, I vented to a Braves official—the same one who told me eight years before about the need for a roster that didn’t regularly produce yawns. I said I admired Acuña’s talent, and that I enjoyed chatting with him through an interpreter in the clubhouse. Then I said—as a baseball traditionalist who remained a disciple of the Big Red Machine—that I couldn’t handle his flaws. I told him that Acuña spent too much time at the plate, on the bases, and in the field as the antithesis of Rose in the hustle department, while flaunting the bling in his game.

That Braves official put his hand on my shoulder and said, after a nod in the direction of Washington and Young working with players on the field at Truist Park, “Don’t worry. Wash and E.Y. have things under control. Believe me, they’re on it.”

They stayed on it.

• • •

Ronald Acuña Jr.
Ronald Acuña Jr.

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

With help from the Ronald Acuña Whisperers, there was his 2023 season for the ages, which began during spring training. Acuña’s 2022 season had been disappointing, with the knee injury, and he knew expectations were high. He was determined to meet them, and more.

“He wanted to prove to people that that wasn’t him, and he came into spring training with a different attitude,” Washington said. “He and E.Y. went in there and studied film on pitchers, and they worked hard on his defense, and they worked hard on his base stealing. He was just more attentive to what was going on.”

Acuña also dialed back his flash just a bit. Come to think of it, he did so a lot, and he moved closer to eternal hustle. Not coincidentally, he produced otherworldly numbers: a .337 batting average, 41 home runs, 106 RBIs, 73 steals, 217 hits, 149 runs scored, and 383 total bases. He led the major leagues in steals, hits, runs scored, and total bases. He went from outstanding that spring and summer during his pursuit of NL MVP honors, to outrageous in early September.

Hours after he married his longtime girlfriend Maria Laborde, with the couple’s two children in attendance, Acuña smashed his 30th homer of the season beyond the left-field fence at Dodger Stadium for a grand slam. The Braves eventually won a thriller in which Acuña became the first player with at least 30 homers and 60 stolen bases. He later reached 40/70, and he attributed his success not only to his physical gifts and his Whisperers, but to his family.

“It made me happy I could have my family continue the journey with me. My family is my world,” Acuña told me. “Your family is truly the rock you need to do this job. They keep you humble, and give you pure and innocent love. You know, when you travel so much, and play hard every night, the most simple times to sit down, have a meal, and spend time, is truly your peace. It’s all you want.”

Acuña’s family remains nearby for the 2024 season, but his Whisperers are off to Southern California, where they’re seeking to transform the Los Angeles Angels into something from nothing. Acuña was beyond wonderful before Washington and Young came along, but they molded him into something greater.

What happens now?

“Ron and I had so much faith and love from all of those guys with the Braves during our six years there, and with the way they built that clubhouse, with the maturity and with the guys who know how to win, I don’t see a problem for Ronald,” said Young emphatically, but the other half of the Ronald Acuña Whisperers was just as strong with caution.

After a pause, Washington said (and here’s the clean version, by the way): “We will find out if those guys that are left there—the ones that have been afraid to question Ronald when he is not doing what he is supposed to do—we will find out if they will do it, if they will be willing to question him. Because I’m going to tell you this: When Ronald got out of line, and he needed somebody to tell him why he was out of line, E.Y. did it.”

So did Wash.

This article appears in our April 2024 issue.

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