DENVER -- The overwhelming volume of calls and texts on Paul Egins’ phone Friday morning brought him back to a phone call so mind-boggling that even he didn’t believe it.
Hank Aaron, the home run king in the hearts of baseball fans, died Friday at age 86. Egins, the Rockies’ senior director of Major League operations, credits his career to Aaron, who brought him into pro baseball with the Braves in 1988.
In discussing Aaron on Friday, the grief gave way to a joie de vivre that grew in Egins’ voice. That’s because one story, like how Aaron taught him to spot a ballplayer, led to the next. For example, as assistant personnel director of the expansion Rockies, Egins was able to help the club pluck third baseman Vinny Castilla -- with Aaron’s blessing, but not with everyone else’s with the Braves.
“There were so many stories, like when he went to the Negro Leagues,” said Egins, whose baseball roles have ranged from athletic trainer to scouting to player development to front office administration. “His mother told the scout, ‘If he doesn’t bat .500, he has to come back home to Mobile, [Ala.].
“The scout said, ‘That’s really, really hard to ask. Nobody bats .500.’ Well, Hank batted .400 or something like that, and she reluctantly let him go back for the next year.”
Those led to other stories, like Aaron’s love of tennis, his penchant for putting on a Dawg Pound mask so no one would notice him at Cleveland Browns football games and him smiling humbly as Rockies stars such as Nolan Arenado and Carlos González melted in Aaron’s presence during a special day at Turner Field.
Then there’s the story of that unbelievable phone call, one that made Egins’ baseball career possible.
Egins, a Columbus, Ga., native who graduated from the University of Georgia, was in graduate school at Florida A&M University. Egins’ mother and the wife of the Braves’ Triple-A manager, the late Jim Beauchamp, worked together at a hospital. Egins would visit Beauchamp’s house during Christmas. Aaron at the time was running the Braves’ Minor League system.
“Jim mentioned that they had a couple trainers jobs open with the Braves and wanted to know if I had interest in doing it,” Egins said. “Honestly, I did not have interest in doing it, but I sent my résumé as a courtesy to Jim for letting me know.”
After some time, Egins packed his car for the trip back to Tallahassee to complete studies at Florida A&M. This was before cell phones, so he might not have heard the phone ring had he not had to re-enter his house for something he forgot.
“I pick it up, and it was Hank,” Egins said. “I had told some friends about [sending the résumé to the Braves], and I thought it was them. … I said, ‘Come on, I need to get off this phone and get to Tallahassee.’
“He said, ‘No, this is Hank Aaron.’ I said, ‘Really?’ Then the bass of his voice kicked in.”
It was a rumble that would guide Egins through his baseball life.
“I came in as a trainer, and he told me I had one of two choices -- Burlington, Iowa, or Bradenton, Fla. Me, being a Georgia boy, I said, 'I want to go to Florida.' He said, ‘No. I don’t want you to go there.’ I said, 'I don’t know anything about Iowa, and Florida is close to home.'
“He said, ‘The difference is Florida is Rookie ball. Burlington would be A ball. And in Florida, you would have to drive the bus.’”
There was a period when Bobby Dews, Aaron’s assistant, could not travel to Burlington. When Dews would call to check in, Egins would answer with insight that was useful to him and Aaron. Dews and longtime Braves official Paul Snyder brought Egins into player development and scouting, and Aaron helped hone Egins’ eye.
“We would sit out in Atlanta Stadium -- the Braves weren’t playing well, so we could sit out in the crowd in right field,” said Egins, whose current responsibilities are in travel and player relations but who still receives special scouting assignments. “We’d evaluate players. I would listen.
“He said, ‘Paul, you will know when a player is good or not. You don’t need all the JUGS Guns. You know when he’s throwing hard. You can tell how it comes off the bat and how hitters are reacting.’ He taught me a lot of things that I would have never learned with me not being a ballplayer.”
Original Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard hired Egins from the Braves in 1991, two years before the Rockies’ first season.
While with the Braves, Egins was assigned by eventual Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox to see if a skinny kid from Mexico who had showed up at instructional camp on a trial basis had Major League possibilities. Little did anyone know that Egins was studying Castilla, whom the Rockies plucked from the Braves in the 1992 Expansion Draft and watched represent them in two All-Star Games.
All with Aaron’s blessing.
“One Winter League down in Mexico -- then, he was just this scrawny kid -- he had 10 homers and 10 doubles, and I told Bobby Cox we’ve got to do something with this kid,” Egins said. “When I came to the Rockies, I always had an affinity for Vinny.
“Everybody knew Chipper Jones was the guy in Atlanta, so Vinny probably wasn’t going to get a good look there. Who was upset with me was Bobby Cox. He called me right after the Expansion Draft and said, ‘I know it was you that took Vinny.’”
Egins and Aaron talked more than baseball. Rockies trips to Atlanta meant the two would make time to eat together and share memories, such as the time Egins was Aaron’s doubles partner and nearly learned what it was like to be hit by a Hammerin’ Hank line drive.
“His friend said, ‘Don’t stand at the net. Hank hits the ball hard,’” Egins said. “Well, I was standing there, and one came by my head. I said, ‘You can score all the points you want because I’m not ever coming up to the net.’
“He had a tennis court at his house, and he and his friend would have epic battles. His friend beat him one time, and Hank said, ‘You can’t get water. You beat me.’”
Aaron told Egins of the fear and pain he felt over the threats he received by mail en route to breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. He was one homer behind Ruth after the 1973 season, which meant a winter of rancor, racism and death threats, all delivered to him through rain, snow, sleet and hail.
“Upstairs in the attic is a big trash can full of all those letters, probably historical stuff," Egins said, "and he said he would go up there every now and then to remind him. He said he knew they would have historical significance.”
One of the Rockies’ last trips to old Turner Field reminds Egins of how innocent children who grew into today’s stars loved Aaron for what he did and who he was.
Egins arranged for Aaron to set up in a separate dressing room while Rockies personnel visited. Walt Weiss was manager, Eric Young and Tom Runnells were coaches, Ellis Burks a front-office assistant. They all came by.
As an added feature, Aaron’s granddaughter, Emily Haydel, who later worked for the Dodgers in in-game entertainment but at the time was a student at the University of Michigan, was at this game. She wanted to meet a couple Rockies stars, González and Arenado.
The two players entered the room and were shocked to see baseball royalty right in front of them.
“They were completely like little kids,” Egins said. “It was amazing.
“All kinds of people were calling me, thanking me for the opportunity to take a picture, shake his hand, talk to him.”
On Friday, Egins and anyone associated with baseball, whether they knew Aaron or not, were saddened.
But listen to the stories and be amazed.