I've been going to anywhere between 70 and 100 baseball games a year since I was a teenager in the mid 90s, and in any given season I interact with several thousand players. I can tell you one thing I've learned over the years, baseball players are, in general, good guys. And no team seems to put more effort and care into making sure their organization is full of good guys than our beloved Atlanta Braves. Growing up and watching the team on TBS made me a fan, but the outstanding people in the Braves organization refresh my fandom each year.
Back in 2010, I posted my list of the Top 10 Good Guys In The Braves Minor Leagues, where I highlighted the players in the organization who were, on a personal level, the best the organization had to offer. It wasn't an easy task, there are over 150 players in the organization, they're all wonderful people, and I feel awful that I was only able to list a handful. Not awful enough that I didn't do it, and not awful enough that I haven't done it again. Five players from the original list, Cory Gearrin, Myke Jones, Matt Kennely, Adam Milligan, and Julio Teheran, are still in the organization, and each of them would easily be able to make the list again. But, for the sake of new blood, I'm going to make them ineligible for our new list. I'm also limiting myself to people in the Braves Minor League system, so Major Leaguers like Jonny Venters, Brandon Beachy, and Luis Avilan, who absolutely belong on any list of good guys, will be ineligible as well.
With all those caveats, here's CB's Top 10 Good Guys In The Atlanta Braves Minor League Organization, listed alphabetically, split into two parts, with the second part to be released on Thursday.
Johnny Almaraz - Johnny is the Braves Director of International Scouting And Operations, so he's the guy in charge of all the top international talent the team brings in as well as making sure things run well at the Dominican and Tenerife academies. He's also an amazing ambassador for the front office, as he's constantly taking time to interact with fans. One of my favorite parts about heading to Spring Training each year is knowing I'll get to talk with Johnny, but I've also been lucky enough to run into him at a few Minor League games during the season. He has a wealth of baseball knowledge and insight, and he's more than happy to share it openly and frankly. When people like him are the decision makers in the organization, it's easy to see why the Braves make character and personality a priority.
Evan Gattis - I could only smile when I heard that Gattis' teammates in Venezuela had nicknamed him El Oso Blanco. Nicknames are usually only given to players that are beloved, so it was no surprise to me that Evan was given a friendly moniker. Talking to him for any length of time, it's hard to believe that at one point he struggled with anger and addiction. He's friendly, encouraging, and goofy in the best kind of way. It's very obvious he really cares about people and he'll always ask what's going on in your life before he'll even think to talk about his own.
JR Graham (@JRGraham013) - If you only ever saw JR on the mound, you'd imagine him to be gruff and intense, with wild, crazy eyes. Really, that couldn't be further from the truth. He's a friendly, soft-spoken, extremely intelligent, and just nice guy. Of course the intensity and drive is there, but he knows how to be a player and a person. Every time I've talked with JR, he's spent more time talking about one of his teammates than himself, so he's not only great to the fans, but to his teammates.
Robby Hefflinger (@RHefflinger) - Like JR, if you only saw Heff during a game, you'd think he was a brooding hulk capable of shaving a bat down to size with his bare hands. Well, he is a huge guy, but he's also one of the friendliest players in the Braves organization. He regularly spends time before the game getting to know the fans and he's rightfully become a favorite in Rome. Heff is willing to openly vent his frustrations with the rigors of Minor League ball, but just as quick to point out how lucky and happy he is to get a chance to play.
Barrett Kleinknect (@bkleinknecht) - I hate to play favorites, even when I'm already playing favorites with this list in the first place, but Klank is one of the best. He's just a fun-loving, funny, great guy. And he's a ginger, which automatically makes him better. The first time I met him was in Danville, the same day he won an award for being the team's fan favorite, an award he could easily win wherever he goes. On the field, he's turned himself into a utility player, and that mirrors his personality as an all-around great guy. Klank is my buddy, and guys like him and the rest of the players on this list, are why I love baseball, because without it I'd never have met him.
CB Wilkins is the author of the baseball novel Four-A.