Astros manager Dusty Baker and Atlanta manager Brian Snitker embrace prior...

Astros manager Dusty Baker and Atlanta manager Brian Snitker embrace prior to Game 1 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday in Houston. Credit: Getty Images/Carmen Mandato

HOUSTON – The presence of a player still considered by many to be the greatest slugger of them all hovers over the 117th World Series.

Much has been discussed – appropriately – in the days leading up to the Series, which started Tuesday night, about the longtime relationship between Houston manager Dusty Baker and Hank Aaron, who passed away in January at the age of 86.

Baker, of course, was a teammate of Aaron with Atlanta and, most famously, was in the on-deck circle April 8, 1974 at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when the latter hit career homer No. 715 to send him past Babe Ruth on the all-time list.

The two remained close friends until the end of Aaron’s life.

"Well, I think about him all the time, especially in a series like this," Baker said on the eve of Game 1. "He had a tremendous impact not only on the baseball field, but in my life and in my family and in business. I'll be forever grateful to him. And he's had probably as great an impact also on Snitker over there because he hired him…So Hank's footprints are all over this series."

Indeed, the Aaron legend looms large in the series.

The Hall of Famer played 21 of his big-league 23 seasons with the Braves organization – from 1954-65 when it was in Milwaukee and from 1966-74 in Atlanta – and he had a direct impact, as Baker mentioned, on the man occupying the manager’s chair in that organization, Brian Snitker.

"I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Hank," Snitker said behind the cage early Monday night as he watched his team take batting practice.

Snitker knew Aaron from the time he joined the organization as a catcher in 1977 (Aaron at the time was the club’s farm director). By 1981 Snitker realized a big-league career wasn’t in the cards but thought perhaps coaching would be.

Aaron, then the team’s senior vice president, hired Snitker, who has been a coach in the organization ever since, ascending to manager in 2016.

"I just think Hank saw something in what I did and how I conducted myself," Snitker said of Aaron’s motivation to give him a shot managing in the lower levels of the Atlanta farm system at such a young age (26 with the Anderson Braves of the South Atlantic League in 1982).

Snitker paused briefly in pondering what he might have ended up doing if not for the opportunity given to him by Aaron.

"I’m not sure," Snitker said. "You know what I think I would be doing? Probably coaching college."

Snitker and Aaron’s friendship lasted 40-plus years, their conversations throughout that time the former never took for granted.

"Every time I would see him and we’d have a conversation at the end, it was always, ‘you call me if I can ever do anything for you,’" Snitker said. "And every time he called me, in the summer or whatever, the first thing was, ‘how’s your family?’ It’s always about that first. He was always a family-first guy and about the people. He was about the people."

Snitker recalled the first time he met Aaron, which was in 1977 at player tryout held at DeKalb Junior College.

"I remember seeing him and being like, ‘Hey, that’s Hank Aaron,’" Snitker said, his 66-year-old self clearly reliving the moment. "And then a few years later I started working for him. It’s nuts."

Though Aaron retired after the 1976 season, Snitker said the competitiveness and fire Aaron was known for on the field showed up when the two started playing the occasional game of racquetball shortly after he started managing in instructional league in Florida.

"We’d play and I’d get in front of him and he’d just smoke you right on the back (of your legs)," Snitker laughed. "Those friggin wrists could not only hit a baseball, they could smoke a racquetball and he couldn’t give a **** if he popped you ,either. It was almost like, ‘you better get the hell out of my way.’"

Snitker paused briefly again when asked to put Aaron’s organizational legacy into perspective and gave a simple yet perfect answer.

"That man," Snitker said, "was the Atlanta Braves."

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