Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – The biggest Brave stopped by spring training Monday, and Hank Aaron made it a point to walk through the clubhouse for what he said was the first time in 20 years.
“I’ve been in the clubhouse, but not during spring training,” he clarified, adding that the sights and smells brought back memories. “I remember going through the clubhouse and my hands were bleeding and tired and everything was sore. But I kept right on going.”
Aaron, 76, fielded questions on a wide range of topics including top prospect Jason Heyward, who could open the season for the Braves in right field, Aaron’s old position.
Heyward, too, is a black Southerner — from McDonough, an Atlanta suburb. Aaron has voiced concern in the past about declining numbers of blacks in the majors, and the Braves haven’t had more than one or two blacks on their roster in recent years.
He was asked if he was encouraged that Heyward could be the new face of the Braves.
“It’s encouraging, but I’d like to see more,” Aaron said. “I think we’re on the right track, but it dampens my spirit when I come up to spring training and I look at the kids – I’m not talking about tomorrow, I’m talking about right now – and don’t see any black kids….
“And this is a scene that you see all over the major leagues. This is not only with the Braves. You can go to any ballclub and you see the same thing… Something needs to be done about it.”
There is no simple solution, he conceded.
“I’m trying to figure out what is being done,” he said. “I don’t know how [to fix it], really. The game of baseball is very expensive, that’s number 1. It takes money for a kid to develop. Look at ballparks in Fulton County versus Buckhead. You’re talking about a field [in Buckhead] that is manicured; coaches are there, equipment is there. You go to Southwest Atlanta … The parents just don’t have the money to pay for it.”
This wasn’t what Aaron expected when he retired from playing at a time when blacks represented a much higher percentage of major league players.
“Black kids still play the game,” he said. “Somewhere along the line you lose them, between the ages of 12 and 17. What happens is those kids migrate and start playing football. They go to college on football scholarships. Mothers and fathers, the black parents, don’t have that kind of money to send kids to four years of college. A college scholarship, that’s where they’re going.
“There’s a lot of reasons [for the decline]. But we’ve got to try to figure out what’s the main reason and baseball has got to dip its hands in the pool and help out a little bit.”
Among other topics he discussed were the current Braves, manager Bobby Cox’s final season, and Mark McGwire and steroids.
• On Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson: “Oh, God, this kid has the world in front of him. If everything stays on par and he pitches the way I know he can pitch, I think the Braves have a bubbling superstar in their pitching. They already have [Jair] Jurrjens. I think this kid [Hanson] is going to do well. He’s built like a pitcher; he’s not big but he’s big enough. He throws the ball very well and looks like he’s got all the mechanics of being a great pitcher.”
• On steroids in baseball: “I think baseball is cleaning up its act a little bit, I really do. I’ve said this, and I’ve repeated it over and over again: This is the most forgiving country in the world. If you come clean and tell the truth, you’re going to be forgiven. The kid with the Yankees, [pitcher Andy] Pettitte, came out and it was a week of news, then after that it was over with. We all make mistakes. I’d like to see anybody who did enhancing drugs, whatever they did, they should come clean.”
• On McGwire’s recent steroids confession: “I would have loved to have seen him do it a long time ago. But since he did it, I think that he would tell you himself he’s able to sleep at night, he’s able to look at his teammates.”
• On Cox’s plans to retire as manager after the 2010 season: “Bobby’s just been wonderful, not only to this organization and the city of Atlanta, he’s been good for baseball…. You hate to see Bobby go. You know what he means to the organization, what he’s done — championship after championship, and he’s helped so many ballplayers. You hate to see somebody like that go. But we all have to change and keep moving.”
• On advice for Heyward: “The advice I would give to any kid coming to the big leagues nowadays, is they have to remember this is the major leagues. Whether they’re playing against St. Louis, Chicago – whatever team they’re playing against, that’s the best that that team has to offer. And if they go out there and go 0-for-4 or somebody gets a home run off them, remember that those kids are in the major leagues just like them. Profit from you mistakes. The next day, the next time, don’t make the same mistake.”
• On Heyward’s minor league achievements: “Things like that don’t impress me, minor league credentials, what a player does. The thing that impresses me is when a player gets to the major leagues, how well he adapts to the major leagues. I’ve seen a lot of guys come up that had great potential — and I’m not saying he’s going to falter, by no stretch of the imagination; I think he’s going to do well, but I don’t get too excited until after I see them perform in the major leagues.”
• On being considered the “People’s Home Run Champ” by those who see Barry Bonds’ record as tainted by his alleged use of steroids: “Regardless of what happens, I’m not going to hit another home run. That’s all I’m going to hit. [Aaron laughs]. Not in this world. I may do it somewhere else, but right now that’s the end of my [home runs]….
“You know you have people like — [to a Japanese reporter] are you from Japan? – from her hometown like Mr. Oh, Sadaharu Oh, who has 800 home runs. He did it right. He was great. Sometimes, you have to remember that you don’t have to cheat in order to do something right. You can be successful in baseball, football, basketball, whatever you want to be. You just have to learn to do it right.”
Photos from AJC.com: Hank Aaron’s career – The Hammer turns 75
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