ATLANTA (AP)Hank Aaron’s imprint is firmly stamped on the World Series.
His No. 44 has been painted on the grass in center field at the Braves’ Truist Park all season. It remains in big, bold green for Friday night’s Game 3 against the Houston Astros.
The impact of Aaron, the Hall of Famer who died on Jan. 22, is seen in much more than the number.
”Hank’s footprints are all over this series,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said.
The Braves honored Aaron before the game, playing a video tribute to The Hammer. Aaron’s family, including his wife Billye, was on the field for the ceremony. His son, Hank Jr., got a hug from Baker on the mound and threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Braves star Freddie Freeman.
If not for Aaron, it’s possible neither Baker nor Atlanta manager Brian Snitker would hold their current jobs.
”I would assume he helped mold both of us, Dusty as a young player and me as a young manager/coach,” Snitker said Thursday. ”He was very instrumental, I know, in both our careers because I know both of us just loved the man to death for what he did for us.”
Aaron was responsible for convincing Baker to sign with the Braves as a teenage outfielder in 1967. Aaron, already an established star, promised Baker’s mother he would take care of her young son.
Aaron kept the promise – and kept up with Baker’s mom, even after Baker’s playing career ended.
”Going over the conversations we would have had, we probably wouldn’t have much about baseball,” Baker said Thursday. ”First thing he asks, he asks me about my mother. … Like I said, he promised my mom when I was 18 years old.”
Baker was only 19 when he made his major league debut with Atlanta in 1968 – against the Astros, then a National League team.
As the Braves’ farm director, Aaron set the path for Snitker’s long career as a coach and manager. When it was clear Snitker had no future as a catcher or first baseman, Aaron offered an opportunity to remain in the game as a coach.
Snitker has remained in the organization as roving instructor, coach and manager for 40 years, including six as Atlanta’s manager.
Baker, 72, and Snitker, 66, are trying to win their first World Series championship. Each said he feels Aaron’s presence. Each wants to make his mentor proud.
”I think about him all the time, especially in a series like this,” Baker said. ”I feel his presence, especially him and my dad.”
Similarly, Baker keeps touch with Aaron’s family. He said he called Aaron’s son, Hank Jr., on Thursday.
Baker was on deck when Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th career homer at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974. On his way to the plate, Aaron told Baker he was going to hit the homer in that at-bat.
Aaron hit 755 homers, setting a record broken by Barry Bonds in 2007. Aaron still has the most runs batted in, total bases and extra-base hits of any player in the major leagues.
Aaron played his final two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, returning to city where he made his debut with the then-Milwaukee Braves. The Brewers paid tribute to Aaron this season by wearing 44 patches on their jersey sleeves.
MLB honored Aaron with a video tribute at the All-Star Game in Denver, originally scheduled to be played in Atlanta, this summer. Every All-Star player wore No. 44 in Aaron’s honor during workouts and the home run derby. Aaron’s number was painted on the grass in right field for the game.
Aaron retired in Atlanta and remained involved with the Braves as a senior vice president until his death at 86. Baker was a pallbearer at Aaron’s Atlanta funeral.
One of Aaron’s last public appearances came when he received his COVID-19 vaccination on Jan. 5, hoping to send the message to Black Americans the shots are safe.
Aaron said the vaccination ”makes me feel wonderful” and said ”I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this.”
A memorial to Aaron still sits in front of the old Atlanta-Fulton County stadium wall. On a cold, rainy Thursday, the display was adorned with flowers and baseballs, many carrying messages to Aaron from his fans.
Baker and Snitker understand and share that devotion to Aaron.
”He’d definitely enjoy this,” Baker said Thursday of the World Series matchup.
Baker said if Aaron were still alive, ”He would call me, and then first thing he would do is call me Mr. Dusty Baker, and then he’d start laughing.”
Aaron also would often call Snitker with congratulations about the Braves’ big wins.
”I think he’d be very proud of what we’ve done,” Snitker said. ”… And I know he was very proud right now. I’m sure he’s bragging a lot to anybody who will listen. It’s cool to know that he is doing that.”
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