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'This is the year of Hank Aaron': Braves hold emotional tribute to baseball icon before Game 3 of World Series

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ATLANTA – Nine months and one week after his death, Hank Aaron was nonetheless impossible to miss as the World Series returned to Georgia on Friday night.

His No. 44 was cut into the center field grass at Truist Park. His wife of 48 years, Billye Aaron, accompanied their four children to the mound where Hank Jr. threw out the first pitch to current franchise icon Freddie Freeman.

And in the drama of the moment, Dusty Baker could not help himself.

Aaron's longtime friend and now the manager of the opposing Houston Astros, Baker stood on the top step of the Astros dugout, pointed and thumbs-upped toward Billye near the on-deck circle, and the four children on the mound.

And finally, he departed the dugout, crossed the baseline as if to make a pitching change, and delivered hugs to Aaron's children.

Hank Aaron Jr., son of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, throws out the ceremonial first pitch.
Hank Aaron Jr., son of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, throws out the ceremonial first pitch.

The capacity crowd here, along with a nationwide television audience, was treated to a two-minute video tribute of the man who hit 755 home runs – and became a civil-rights legend of sorts in 1974, when he withstood death threats to hit his 715th home run down the road at Fulton County Stadium – unseating Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader.

Yet the ceremonies and tributes can’t fully express the overriding emotion those close to Aaron felt knowing that his Jan. 22 death at age 86 came just months before his Braves would return to the World Series.

After the Braves' 2-0 victory to give them a 2-1 Series lead, Braves manager Brian Snitker needed a moment to compose himself while reflecting on the pregame ceremonies.

"You know," Snitker said, before pausing several seconds, "I got to hug Billye.

"And tell her how much I missed Hank."

“That man loved every single one of us,” Freeman said before Game 3. “Whoever came in contact with him, he made you feel love. I wish he was here to be able to watch this. I got chills right now thinking about it.”

Aaron played 21 seasons with the Braves, going along for the ride from Milwaukee to Atlanta before finishing up with two final years with the Brewers. The 25-time All-Star remains baseball’s all-time leader in RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856) and ranks third all-time in hits (3,771).

He was front and center, too, the last time the Braves played in the World Series, as Major League Baseball trotted out its All-Century team before Game 2 at Turner Field in 1999. Somehow, Pete Rose, banned from baseball for gambling on the game and given a rare reprieve from the permanently banned list by commissioner Bud Selig, got a louder ovation than Aaron that night.

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His reach in the game is such that 22 years later, this World Series was contested with many of Aaron’s closest associates involved.

Aaron hired Snitker into the organization, and after nearly a half-century with the franchise, Snitker is guiding the club at the highest level, on the game’s biggest stage.

“I think about him as just a really, really good friend first and foremost,” Snitker said Friday. “He was a good friend, was always there any time I ever needed anything. I can remember back when he would call me as a young manager, and the first thing he'd want is ‘How's the family doing? Is there anything you need?’ When I'd see him in the off-season, we'd always part, and he's like, you let me know if I can ever do anything for you.”

On that April 8 evening in 1974, when Aaron’s home run topped Ruth and Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully intoned that “a Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol,” Baker awaited on deck.

Now 72 and the Houston Astros’ manager, Baker was faced with balancing the emotions of managing Game 3 as his longtime close friend was honored.

“This is the year of Hank Aaron,” says Baker, who talked to Billye Aaron earlier Friday. “So, looking forward to seeing them during the game and giving them the love and support that they've always given me.”

Aaron won one World Series title, with Milwaukee’s Braves in 1957, and the Braves never captured another until the 1995 squad won the only title in a run of 14 consecutive division crowns.

They are back now, and even without the franchise patriarch, his presence remains undeniable.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Series Game 3: Braves hold emotional tribute to Hank Aaron