Atlanta legend and current Braves senior VP Hank Aaron, right, honors future Hall of Famer and veteran third baseman Chipper Jones during last season.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Hank Aaron is excited about the Braves’ revamped roster and the addition of two African-American outfielders, brothers Justin and B.J. Upton.
“Not so much just any players, but I think the two that they got are two All-Star players,” said Aaron, the legendary Braves slugger said during a visit to the team’s spring-training camp Thursday.
He was outspoken in the past about the declining number of African-American players in major league baseball. The Braves seldom had more than one black player in their lineup in recent years, particularly noticeable in a city with one of the largest black populations in the United States.
Now they’ll have the first all-black outfield in the majors in more than a decade as the Uptons team with right fielder Jason Heyward.
“I’m pleased, and I hear people from my area talking about how pleased that they are,” said Aaron, the Braves’ senior vice president. “So I’m hoping that they show their appreciation by coming to the ballpark.”
The last big-league team to have three black outfielders in its regular lineup was the 2001 Minnesota Twins with Jacque Jones, Matt Lawton and Torii Hunter.
“I don’t know anybody that had the combination of speed and power and all of the things these three kids can do,” Aaron said of the Braves outfield. “Here again, they’ve got to go out there and prove it.”
Aaron knows about brothers as teammates, after having brother Tommie Aaron on Braves teams for parts of seven seasons.
“Sometimes playing with your brother has its ups and downs, but I understand that these two kids are very close to one another,” Aaron said of the Uptons. “I think that at this level, both of them have been successful in the big leagues, I see no reason at all that they can’t have a lot of fun playing with one another...
“The only time I played with (Tommie) I was a little despondent because I didn’t think my brother played as much as he should have. I looked at it after my career and (realized) there was a lot of pressure on him to continue doing what I was doing, and it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t that easy.... Both (Uptons) have had success in the big leagues. That helps quite a bit.”
While pleased the Braves were able to trade for Justin Upton in January, two months after signing older brother B.J. to five-year free-agent contract, Aaron wasn’t thrilled to lose versatile veteran Martin Prado in the trade.
“You hate to lose Prado,” he said. “He was one of my (favorites). I think you’ve got to go a long ways in order to beat him, to find somebody who can play all the positions as well as he plays them. To bring what he brings to the clubhouse, and the way he plays the game.
“We needed a ballplayer and we went out and got one, and it cost us dearly. Because this kid [Prado] can truly play ball. He’s going to be missed and I wish him the best of luck. I hope he goes there and hits .400.”
Aaron flew to Orlando Thursday along with other Braves executives aboard team CEO Terry McGuirk’s private plane. Aaron shook some hands and filmed a commercial with Heyward.
After struggling in 2011 during his injury-slowed second season, Heyward bounced back in 2012 with career-highs in doubles (30), triples (six), home runs (27), RBIs (82), stolen bases (21) and slugging percentage (.479).
“I was tickled to death,” Aaron said. “I always felt like he was going to be the kind of ballplayer that he should be. It was just a matter of him getting some at-bats and having some good success. Jason can be probably one of the greatest ballplayers in the league.”
Aaron commented on Heyward’s 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame -- “He looks like he’s grown a couple of inches; my God...whew” -- and said his advice to the 23-year-old McDonough native is basic.
“He’s been through some things most young players go through,” Aaron said. “Getting disgusted with not playing; somebody might pinch-hit for him against a certain pitcher, where when he was coming up as a young kid he never had that happen. But I think his mentality really has improved as far as that’s concerned.
“The only thing I’ve talked to him about is, this is the game of baseball, it’s 160-some games, you’re not going to have good games all the time. People come out here to watch you play and you might hit a grand slam one day, and the next thing that same customer might come out and see you strike out with the bases loaded and everybody starts booing. You’ve got to be prepared for all of that.”