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Aaron says Heyward can help 'what ails baseball'

ATLANTA (AP) — Jason Heyward's debut has Hank Aaron convinced that the rookie can stir up more excitement about baseball in the black community.

The legendary Atlanta Braves slugger told The Associated Press Tuesday that Heyward, who is black, "can mean an awful lot to what ails baseball."

Aaron shares a growing concern that there are too few African-American players in the game. It's a concern he expressed again during spring training. He says it's a common problem that baseball has been slow to address.

Aaron isn't wasting anytime promoting the Braves' newest African-American star.

After Heyward's debut on Monday — which included a three-run homer on his first swing — the Hall of Famer was even more optimistic that the 20-year-old rookie can make a difference.

"You don't know how excited I was, and not only me," Aaron said. "I was talking to (civil rights pioneer and former Atlanta mayor) Andrew Young about the same thing, and he wants me to bring him out there to meet Heyward. It's beginning to move through the black area. People are getting excited."

Aaron, 76, says the buzz makes him feel good.

"He can certainly bring the excitement back, not only for Atlanta but also for African-American players," Aaron said. "We do need to have many, many more Jason Heywards."

Heyward has shown interest in promoting baseball. He is associated with a program co-sponsored by the Braves which offers free instruction to Atlanta inner-city middle school and high school kids. The program called L.E.A.D. — Launch, Explore, Advise and Direct — aims to help players earn college scholarships through baseball.

Today, the NBA attracts more black athletes than Major League Baseball. And though Heyward — 6-foot-5, 240 pounds — chose baseball, Aaron said his first impression of him was that he "looked more like a basketball player."

"But he carries it well," Aaron said. "He moves around well. He can glide along and catches a lot of fly balls and he runs the bases very well."

Aaron said it's a bonus that Heyward is from Henry County, about 30 miles south of Atlanta. "He can be the kind of player that everybody dreams about, and coming from Georgia certainly has its advantages."

A fact that's not lost on the Braves.

Atlanta set up the Heyward era with a bookend pairing of the its first and newest right fielders. Aaron, who played right field in the team's 1966 inaugural season in Atlanta, threw the ceremonial first pitch to Heyward before Monday's game.

"He said have fun and told me I'm ready to do this," Heyward said. "He said go out there and enjoy it."

The largest crowd to ever attend a day game in Atlanta was with Heyward from the start. He received a loud ovation from the 53,081 fans during pregame introductions and then was serenaded by "Let's go, Hey-ward!" chants in his memorable first at-bat.

Aaron said he was impressed with the discipline Heyward showed, taking two balls before his first swing against Chicago Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano.

"They were not too that far away from being called strikes," Aaron said. "He's a rookie and you've got a veteran out there pitching. Seems to me like being a rookie you'd go up there swinging the bat.

"But he knew exactly what he wanted to do and he got his pitch and he hit it out of the ballpark. That was a demonstration to me that this kid had everything under control."

The left-handed hitting Heyward sent a Zambrano fastball on a line behind the 390-foot mark on the right-field wall. The roar from the crowd shook Turner Field.

"I think I'll remember that the most, how loud it was," Heyward said.

Fans will get to see what Heyward can do for an encore when the Braves and Cubs resume their three-game series on Wednesday.

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox doesn't know what exactly to expect, other than it will be good.

"He'll have his struggles, probably, like any other 20-year-old that's in the big leagues, but he's a very talented kid," Cox said. "And when he's not hitting, he's going to help us in the outfield. He's a very gifted athlete."