The World According To Hank

By Mark Bowman
Updated: February 24, 2010

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Hank Aaron, always a crowd favorite when he shows up at the Braves’ Spring Training site, made an appearance on Monday to talk to fans, speak to current players and offer his thoughts on the state of the Braves and baseball.

Aaron, who said he was visiting a Spring Training clubhouse for the first time in about 20 years, watched batting practice, signed autographs and touched on several subjects when talking to reporters:

• Aaron said when he ended his legendary playing career in 1976, he never envisioned he would return to Braves camp more than 30 years later with concerns about the number of African-American players he sees on the baseball field. He said he finds himself troubled by his belief that today’s African-American children aren’t following the paths that he, Jackie Robinson and so many of yesteryear’s black players cleared.

“It hurts because you feel like Jackie Robinson a long time ago paid his dues, and of course you had Willie Mays and other great ballplayers before and now we don’t have many,” Aaron said. “This is a scene that you see all over the Major Leagues. This is not only the Atlanta Braves.

“You can go to every ballclub and you see the same thing — that not too many African-American kids are playing baseball. That’s not very good. Something needs to be done.”

Aaron’s comments came after he watched the final workout reserved solely for pitchers and catchers. He said he is looking forward to seeing Jayson Heyward join the Braves’ workouts on Tuesday.

Widely regarded as the top prospect in baseball, Heyward, who is African-American, will join the Braves’ other position players during the club’s first full-squad workout on Tuesday morning at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex.

This event will provide Aaron his first opportunity to see the 20-year-old outfielder, who has a chance to return to Atlanta as his hometown team’s starting right fielder.

“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 get to Spring Training and I look around here and you don’t see any black kids.”

According to a study done by The Associated Press, the percentage of black players in Major League Baseball increased from 8.2 percent in 2007 to 10.2 percent in ’08.

This kind of progress provides encouragement for Aaron, who believes economics lead many young black children to stop playing baseball during their teenage years. He also cited a belief that many of these kids choose instead to play football because of the better opportunity to get a full scholarship to college.

Aaron has routinely discussed this issue with Commissioner Bud Selig and has recently worked with the city of West Palm Beach, Fla., to improve some of their baseball fields with the hope that it will influence more young black kids to choose to play.

“There’s a lot of reasons, but we have to figure out what is that major reason,” Aaron said. “So [MLB] needs to dip its hand in the pool to sort of help out a little bit.”

• Aaron said he never imagined he would spend part of the past decade fielding questions about the effect performance-enhancing drugs had on the game of baseball and the impact on how his accomplishments and those of other great players from previous era are viewed. Aaron believes stricter drug testing has allowed MLB to move away from the cloud created during the PED era.

“I think baseball is cleaning its act up, I really do,” Aaron said.

“This is the most forgiving country in the world. If you come through and tell the truth, you’re going to be forgiven.”

• Aaron said he was pleased to see Mark McGwire publicly admit he used steroids during his playing days. But he added that he wished McGwire had talked about this issue much sooner.

“I would have loved to have seen him do it a long time ago,” Aaron said.

“But since he did it, I think that he himself is able to sleep at night and be able to speak to his teammates. He’s done everything that he can do.”

• “Sometimes you just have to remember that you don’t have to cheat in order to do something right,” said Aaron, whose 755 career home runs stood as a hallowed record before the mark was broken by Barry Bonds.

“You can be successful in baseball, football, basketball or whatever you want. You just have to learn to do it right.”