Hank Aaron's legacy lives on at 44 Classic

September 24th, 2022

The Braves began their fourth annual 44 Classic on Saturday, held for the first time at Truist Park. The event, named in honor of club legend Hank Aaron -- who wore No. 44 -- furthers his legacy to increase diversity in baseball by highlighting top, diverse high school baseball talent from the Southeast, including players from the Braves’ RBI Fall Development Program.

"Jackie Robinson integrated the game of baseball, and Hank Aaron just took it to a whole other level to where he went out and dominated the game, given the opportunity," said Marquis Grissom, President and Founder of the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association and former Major Leaguer. "So this [event] is all about giving an opportunity to play the game, and giving our kids a chance to play the game at their highest level."

The 44 Classic is two parts. The first, which took place on Saturday, sees players go through a pro-style workout, including infield and outfield drills, batting practice and a home run derby, intended to showcase their talents in front of college and professional scouts. It also gives players an opportunity to work with coaches and former players to improve their skills ahead of Sunday's scrimmage, during which participating players are split into two teams and go head-to-head.

"A lot of kids don't have an opportunity to play travel ball, and even those kids that do have an opportunity to play travel ball, there's not a lot of practice going on," RBI Program coach Ronald Smith said. "So they don't always get a sense for that development, so we really focus on those key fundamentals of the game to help them go forward."

While the Classic generates a platform for players to display their talents, its legacy is one of opportunity, specifically for players of color.

Of the 975 players on Major League Opening Day rosters and inactive lists this year, 38% came from a diverse background (Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American) -- a slight increase from 37.6% in 2021. So, the purpose of this showcase is to give minority players an entry point into a space that isn't easily accessible.

"We really want to grow the game," Smith said. "Hopefully, as we continue to grow this program, we'll see those numbers in the big leagues increase. It's going to start here, in these grassroots events like this, to be able to bubble up so that we can see that impact at the highest level."

Although the chances of playing professional are generally slim, the 44 Classic has produced some of the most electric young stars, including the Braves' Michael Harris II.

"What an example Michael Harris has been to his community," Smith said. "A lot of these kids that we have in our RBI program come from his area [and] are familiar with Mike or know Mike personally. It's always good when you can have somebody to be a role model that's around your age. To have somebody their age that they're seeing on TV right now gives them hope and inspiration that they could one day do that."

While the stadium was rather empty for the Classic, compared to when the Braves host a game, this event is "not just about baseball." Every person on the field or parent in the stands seemed to know one another and were able to reconnect like a family reunion. But the connection between the coaching staff and the players was the most impactful.

"We coach these kids for years," Grissom said. "And I think it's all about the relationships that we have with these kids. We can have a relationship between us and baseball, to try to match that up to where he'll trust in and appreciate the information I'm trying to give him, and he'll try to listen and learn and retain it.

"I think it is a family atmosphere. And I think the Atlanta Braves have done an outstanding job of allowing us to do these venues and participate in everything they do to take care of the community."