Michael Harris II sure looks like he could be a legit big league five-tool star one day—if he isn’t one already. The Braves’ scintillating 21-year-old centerfielder is coming off a phenomenal rookie year, flashing signs of possessing the rare combination of elite speed and power.
But there is a very good chance that the Stockbridge native, who happens to be one of the leading candidates for National League Rookie of the Year, wouldn’t be wearing a Braves uniform had it not been for the “44 Classic,” the organization’s fantastic annual event, one that pays homage to Hank Aaron (No. 44) by showcasing some of the Southeast’s best high school players from diverse backgrounds, whose fourth iteration occurred last month at Truist Park.
It was four years ago, during the inaugural year of the Nike-sponsored 44 Classic, then held at the Gwinnett Stripers’ Coolray Field, that the Braves’ scouts noticed Harris and his undeniable talents for the first time; a year later, Atlanta drafted Harris in the third round of the 2019 MLB Draft. While not every participant in the showcase is of Harris’s caliber, his ability to catch the attention of Braves scouts serves as a microcosm of the event’s underlying purpose.
“You never know that one time that somebody sees something,” said Greg McMichael, former Atlanta reliever who currently serves as the organization’s director of alumni relations, a position which now entails spearheading the 44 Classic. “You’ve just got to impress one person and then sometimes you get a second chance and a third chance and a fourth chance. If they see you, and there’s a little spark there, then they make it a point to see you a second, third and fourth time.
“But sometimes there are guys who are late bloomers. You can kind of see little sparks here and there, but you never know when it’s just going to be a full-on impact.”
The high school ballplayers, of which many came from the Braves’ RBI Fall Development Program and the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association, took part in the two-day event on Sept. 24-25, which consisted of a pro-style workout including infield and outfield drills, batting practice and home run derby, followed by a scrimmage 24 hours later. Many were stepping on a major league diamond—while getting observed by college and pro scouts—for the very first time. In addition to Grissom, fellow Atlanta alums, Johnny Estrada and Marvin Freeman, also graced the coaching staff.
This was the first year that McMichael, the runner-up for the 1993 NL Rookie of the Year and member of the 1995 world champion Braves, was charged with organizing the 44 Classic. He believes that the initiative has succeeded in honoring Aaron’s legacy by providing opportunities for teenage ballplayers from underserved markets to showcase their skills on a more visible platform, a matter of great importance given the declining number of Black players joining big league rosters this century.
Looking ahead though, McMichael would like to see the event’s trademark 44 roster spots filled with even more experienced and polished ballplayers, ones who are accustomed to performing in showcase events and have serious aspirations of playing pro ball. For his goal to come to fruition, it helps having Grissom, the one-time Braves centerfielder who snagged the final out of the 1995 World Series, on his side.
“I know what Marquis stands for,” McMichael said of his erstwhile teammate. “I know what kind of organization he runs and the way he teaches and the way he cares about kids. There wouldn’t be anybody else that I would want to have putting this event on for us.”
McMichael was not associated with the 44 Classic during its inaugural edition in 2018; he’s a tireless supporter of youth baseball and softball clinics and leagues throughout Georgia, which is why the Braves deemed him a natural fit for this post. McMichael was not present to see Harris soar across the outfield to track down 400-foot drives or smoke liners from foul pole to foul pole. But he has spoken with Freeman and Grissom who did see Harris’ dazzling performance in person and are not the least bit surprised that he has blossomed into a Rookie of the Year candidate.
“I think when we see young kids like that [Harris], I don’t think we’re surprised, because you can see the talent,” said McMichael. “Now, it takes a lot more than just talent to make it to the big leagues and make an impact. There’s a bunch of things. You’ve got to keep your head clear. You’ve got to be able to do the same thing when the lights come on. But I think they knew he [Harris] was a pretty special player.”
Now, it takes a lot more than just talent to make it to the big leagues and make an impact. There’s a bunch of things. You’ve got to keep your head clear. You’ve got to be able to do the same thing when the lights come on. But I think they knew he [Harris] was a pretty special player.
Whether more potential impact big leaguers will be discovered at the 44 Classic remains to be seen. Regardless, the event, which, according to McMichael, “creates a bigger worldview for some of these kids as it relates to baseball,” promises to be a critical initiative on behalf of the Braves for the foreseeable future.
“The more I do this, the more I appreciate the Braves organization and how they really are trying to make an impact locally,” said McMichael about a franchise that has shown further commitment to diversity and inclusion by holding its first-ever Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase this past July at Truist. “I’m just really proud to be a part of it and to see how we can continue to make strides in a lot of different areas.
“I think Hank [Aaron] would be proud. It goes beyond just the 44 Classic. It’s kind of an overall initiative on our part.”
- David Ostrowsky
- Michael Harris II
- Atlanta Braves
- National League Rookie of the Year
- 44 Classic
- Hank Aaron
- Truist Park
- Gwinnett Stripers
- Coolray Field
- MLB Draft
- Greg McMichael
- RBI Fall Development Program
- Marquis Grissom Baseball Association
- Johnny Estrada
- Marvin Freeman
- World Series
- Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase