Why the Atlanta Braves’ all-black outfield is big for baseball
“I can’t remember looking forward to opening day so much before in my life.”
Those are the words of one of my best friends, who also doubles with yours truly as a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, after hearing the news on January 24th that former Arizona Diamondback outfielder Justin Upton would be bringing his talents from the desert in Phoenix to the mecca that is Atlanta.
The emotion that came from my buddy was something that was virtually unrecognizable, he was so upbeat and eager about what was put together by the Braves management; three young black superstars were put together in one outfield in Atlanta.
Start of something historic
Upton, who at age 25 is already a five-year pro with a fully developed five-tool game, was just one of two major moves that took place in Atlanta’s outfield, as the Braves were committed to keeping things in the family. Just a few months prior to the trade for Justin, the Braves struck a free agency deal with his brother B.J.; the former phenom Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Upton signed a 5-year, $75.25 million dollar contract with the club to be their everyday centerfielder at age 28.
The talented brothers from Virginia Beach are now reunited in Atlanta and will join the third Braves outfielder with the longest tenure, even if he is just 23 years old.
“He has the hardware,” said Justin after agreeing to play left field instead of his natural right field position. That’s the amount of respect that Jason Heyward, the 2012 Golden Glove winner (awarded to the person who plays the best defense at their position) has earned from the older Upton brothers. Heyward, who doubles as a homegrown hero to his native McDonough, Georgia, might be more talented than both Uptons, although he’s still figuring out how to put his talents to use consistently at the major league level.
However, the 6’5” 240-pounder has proven formidable with his sheer athleticism and his discipline. From covering ground like a cornerback in the outfield to his discipline at the plate, there’s plenty of things to love about Heyward’s game.
Seeing the new outfield trio take shape has many Braves fans excited, and for some, it’s a reminder of what used to be a recognizable entity for an Atlanta team a few decades ago. While Major League Baseball was introduced to their first all-black outfield back in 1951 by the San Francisco Giants (featuring Hank Thompson and Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays), the Braves seemed to always have an abundance of black outfielders.
Braves fans expect greatness
Between being encouraged (forced) to root for the Braves by my grandfather, who was a die-hard Hank Aaron loyalist, and the fact of growing up and watching the team on TBS while being a fan living in Oklahoma, rooting for Atlanta was my divine right. Yet, something was significant when I first began to turn the channel to TBS. Seeing Ron Gant, Otis Nixon and David Justice patrol the outfield in the early 1990’s was empowering.
It wasn’t anything my grandpa had to say to me, because I could feel it immediately. Those guys look like me, at least they do in skin tone. They looked like the older men in my family, and I immediately took to looking up to them in that way a kid could only look up to an athlete.