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Jackie Robinson Day: Atlanta Braves' Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton Now Ambassadors of Baseball

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | On April 15, 2013, Major League Baseball commemorates the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the league's color barrier in 1947. Once again, players around the league get the opportunity to don the familiar No. 42 in honor of one of baseball's true pioneers of the game.

While Jackie Robinson Day has become a yearly tradition, 2013 brings with it a little extra level of Hollywood glitz. Thanks to the Robinson biopic "42" being released just three days prior to all of the on-field festivities, it isn't just baseball fans who will be discussing the former Brooklyn Dodgers' star.

But amidst all of the stories of Robinson's heroics and bravery, an unfortunate reality about America's favorite pastime is being simultaneously underscored: the African-American population in the game of baseball is shrinking.

While the exact figures can be debated, it is widely accepted that the highest level of African-American participation in the game of baseball was 27 percent in 1975. In 1995, that number declined slightly to 19 percent. However, on opening day 2013, only 8.5 percent of all Major League players were African American.

In fact, the Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers all share the troubling distinction of having had zero African-American players on their opening day rosters. In a time when black involvement in the game is down, it is even more important to highlight teams like the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves currently have the best record in all of baseball, and a big reason why they are considered serious World Series contenders is because of the three players who make up their outfield. From left to right, the Atlanta outfield now consists of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward. All three are superstar players in the making, and all three are also African-American baseball players. As of April 12, Justin Upton is leading the league in home runs (6).

Former players, such as Atlanta Braves' right-fielder Brian Jordan, have already begun taking notice of Atlanta's special trio. "For me it's such a relief to be able to see [the Upton brothers and Heyward] - I call them the 'Soul Patrol' - in the outfield. I haven't seen anything like this since I was playing," Jordan said.

With Heyward and the Upton brothers, the Atlanta outfield now has the opportunity to become, for a new generation of kids, what Jackie Robinson was for so many of the players who followed him. On Jackie Robinson Day, it isn't so much the MVP he won in 1949, or his career .311 batting average that will be honored, but rather, it is what stepping through the door has made possible for the B.J. Upton's and Jason Heyward's of the game.

"What he went through, I don't think a lot of us today could deal with what he dealt with," B.J. Upton said. "He pretty much gave us an opportunity."

When Heyward first entered the league in 2010, he was cautiously optimistic about his role in growing the game for the African-American community. "I can be a positive role model for a lot of people," Heyward said. "But no matter what I do or how much love I have for the game, I can't choose the sport for anybody else. That's their choice. If I play the game well, it's going to make them think about playing baseball, but it's still their choice to make."

To their credit, Major League Baseball has been trying to reverse the trend of black players choosing other sports. In 1989, MLB founded the "RBI" program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) as a way to bring more black players to the game. In 2010, the RBI program sponsored 300 leagues around the U.S. and partnering nations.

And just to show the potential of these types of programs, the Braves' Justin Upton, himself, is a former member of one of MLB's RBI programs. Perhaps the tide is shifting again thanks to MLB's efforts. In 2012, seven African-American players were selected in the first round of the MLB draft -- which was the most since 1992.

Jackie Robinson may not have known what the game would be like 66 years after he first stepped foot on a Major League diamond, but on the day three No. 42's patrol the outfield grass for the Braves, it should be easy for Atlanta fans to recognize Robinson's contribution to the game, as well as the opportunity the trio of Upton, Heyward and Upton now have to build upon his immense legacy.

Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.

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