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Hank Aaron Invitational Week Culminates At SunTrust Park

By Robert Grubbs

ATLANTA--Baseball’s history and heritage are wrapped in statistics, perhaps more than any other sport. One alarming stat for Major League Baseball is that the number of black players on major league rosters has dropped from 19 percent in 1981 to 7 percent this season.

To be proactive, MLB has initiated the Hank Aaron Invitational for Diverse High School Players to showcase some of the top high school players in the country. The event culminated Saturday as the elite 44 players showcased their talents at SunTrust Park.

Aaron is more than just the event’s namesake. He spoke to the players on Friday along with former Atlanta mayor and civil rights icon Andrew Young. Aaron also watched the players intently at SunTrust Park.

The goal of the event is to help provide opportunities for a diverse group of baseball players to receive top-notch instruction over a week-long event. The top 44 players from the week-long camp were selected to play in the game at SunTrust Park.

“We need to get our culture back in the game. When the travel ball thing came out, there were finances attached to that. When you have a culture that is 70 percent single family, that eliminates almost a whole culture. We are gaining momentum, but we have yet to create a movement. Once we continue down this road, the numbers will increase. Of the thousand players we have touched, 90 percent have gone on to play at the next level,” said former Mets and White Sox manager Jerry Manuel. Manuel served as a coach and mentor at the event.

University of Michigan coach Erick Bakich agreed, “It is great to see an event like this, some of these kids might not have been seen otherwise. The economics of youth baseball make it difficult for a lot of kids to get exposure. It’s great to see MLB get proactive, the game needs this. There has been some incredible talent on display this week.”

The host Atlanta Braves have benefited from this event firsthand. Michael Harris, from nearby Stockbridge, Ga. jumped on everyone’s radar last year at the event and played that into a third-round pick, where he is currently on torrid start in rookie ball.

“Everybody is aligned on diversity. We want the best players playing our game. There is a lot of competition from other sports and MLB is making a lot of progress. I think you will see this event grow and getting better and better,” Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos said

The game itself lived up to the hype. Pitcher Irving Carter from Boynton Beach, Florida set the tone when he struck out the side in the top of the first. The Miami commit said, “It felt great to be here, it was electric. When you’re little you dream about walking onto a mound in this environment.”

The home team took a lead in the second inning on a two-out opposite single by Eastern Kentucky commit Andreaus Lewis. They would strike again in the fourth when Darrien McDowell from Cantonment, Fla., Noah Smith from Chicago and Lewis all drove in runs to push them to a 5-0 lead. Smith’s RBI was on a sacrifice fly to right field that Ty Collins from Los Angeles laid out to catch for the web gem of the game, providing a highlight in a week of highlights.

“This week has been a growing experience, honestly helping me to become a man. I am grateful for the MLB for allowing me to play in the game,” Collins said,

Green showed speed on the base paths, with two stolen bases in the first inning after walking and then stroked a solid single in the fourth.

“I think these guys respect the game a little bit more. As long as they learn a little bit about the game and a little bit about themselves and take that back home and use to their advantage, this has been a success,” said Marquis Grissom. The former Braves and Expos outfielder was one of the coaches for the event.

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