Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 4/16/12
PHOENIX -- As all of Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on Sunday, the 65th anniversary of Robinson breaking the game's color barrier, Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton reflected on his small place in Robinson's legacy. In 2004, Upton won the inaugural Jackie Robinson Award as the national high school player of the year, as decided by Perfect Game and Baseball America. The award annually recognizes a high school senior for outstanding character, leadership and dedication to academics and community. Upton, an African-American himself who played shortstop at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Va., traveled to Baltimore to accept the award from Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, and iconic Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. It was an experience that's meant more and more to Upton every year since, particularly on April 15. "Just seeing the meaning of (Jackie Robinson Day) every year in the big leagues, it's an unbelievable feeling that I was a part of that -- on a much smaller stage," Upton said. "Being honored that way just an awesome thing and it's something I won't forget." Perhaps the most memorable part of the experience for Upton was meeting Rachel Robinson, who met Jackie Robinson in 1941 while both attended UCLA. Upton recalls being in awe of her and still seems so when speaking of their meeting. "It was kind of a surreal feeling," Upton said. "Knowing that she was such a big part of his life when he was going through the tough times breaking into baseball and being able to shake her hand just made that a day to really appreciate, because not a lot of people get that chance." The D-backs joined all of baseball Sunday in honoring Robinson by wearing No. 42, which was retired throughout the game in 1997, during their game in Colorado. On Monday, the team honored Robinson at Chase Field prior to their game with the Pirates. As part of the home celebration, the D-backs had ceremonial first pitches thrown by three members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military and a group who fought in World War II at a time when the military was still segregated in some states. Upton, along with teammates J.J. Putz and Gerardo Parra, crouched behind home plate to catch one of the pitches, a small way to do his part in furthering Robinson's legacy. Though Upton was not the first player to be recognized in Robinson's name -- baseball's Rookie of the Year Award was renamed for Robinson in 1987 -- nor did he break any barriers as Robinson did, the honor has had a lasting effect. "It was an awesome experience," Uptin said. "I was so honored. When you're a young kid, you hear about Jackie Robinson, but you never get the appreciation until later. I'm at this level where Jackie broke in and it makes it a lot more special now. "It was just one of those things you can't really put into words until you look back on it a few years later." Upton knew plenty about Robinson before receiving the award. Growing up, his parents taught him about Robinson and the struggles he faced to reach the major leagues and the adversity he battled once he got there. Still, forging a small connection to the pioneer of integrated baseball made him appreciate Robinson's impact on the game even more. As he proudly wore No. 42 across his back Sunday, Upton thought back to the day he accepted the Jackie Robinson Award. He was a young player yet to begin his professional career, a career at least in a small way made possible by Robinson's courage 65 years ago. "On a special day like that, you think about it," Upton said. "It's an awesome thing to be part of it every year, just being able to honor Jackie and what he did for the game."
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