B.J. Upton connected and the ball tore off toward the left field fence. The lanky kid from Virginia paused, bat extended, watching the dot disappear, then took off on a confident trot toward first, more a coast than a run.
Alas, the ball did not clear the wall, and instead bounced off a sign that said "Fulfilling Life's Possibilities." An Angels outfielder hurled it toward second in time for Upton, disciplined twice this month for his lack of hustle, to be tagged out.
The crowd booed into the night, and B.J. Upton, listed third on the Rays batting lineup, took his place on another list: Items for Break Room Discussion.
Because we've all had to pick up after some B.J. Upton, the guy with great talent who clocked out at 4:52.
Chad in marketing. Cliff in accounting. Melissa from the mail room, currently on her sixth smoke break.
These aren't lazy people. Upton himself insists he's not an Upton.
They just fail to run out ground balls sometimes, and their lack of effort draws from us something worse than hatred or disdain: disappointment.
"She could be soooo good," we moan.
"There are people in lots of workplaces who give the company as little as possible . . . and still manage to succeed," says Alan Balfour, 64, chair of management in the college of business at the University of South Florida, who says he would bet his mortgage that he could have made it to second on Upton's hit. "The problem is it's terribly demoralizing on others who are then disincented to work. It shows that rules and expectations mean little or nothing. Then many people reduce themselves to the lower level of performance."
We see the lack of hustle and we cringe.
The question is: Why do they do it? What's at work in the mind of a capable slacker?
We fish for answers in the sea of cubicles, and think of baseball as business.
Paul Harvey, a business professor at the University of New Hampshire, has studied a workplace "phenomenon" particular to Generation Y (anyone born in the economic boom years, roughly between 1980 and 2000) that he calls "entitlement."
Managers in recent years noticed a trend among talented young hires: They expected more than they deserved. They wanted Mister Rogers-esque coddling, and expected the corner office a few months in.
They do work hard, but it's typically when they see a carrot at the end of a stick. Effort for effort's sake is pointless.
"No one really faults them for being lazy," says Harvey. "But they don't realize that talent alone doesn't get you there. You've gotta run out the ground ball."
That makes the rest of us angry, especially when it's tinged with arrogance.
"People tend to like a level of equality and justice in the workplace," says Harvey. "If someone's actually hurting the team . . . and they display an attitude of entitlement, that annoys other people."
Similarly, new research by USF psychology professor Russell Johnson suggests that a person who believes strongly in his own ability may tend to coast.
"They reduce effort," says Johnson. "If they cover a lot of ground at the beginning, sometimes you find that people turn it off. . . . If I'm doing really well at work, maybe I'll spend the next week around the house."
USF's Balfour, who is a Rays fan, sees something else at play. Some employees choose not to hustle because it pleases them to defy authority, or to resist bowing to corporate norms.
"Styling and defying is more important than conforming," he says.
Loafing as a social statement. Browsing the Web when we should be finishing a project to stick it to the Man.
So what to do with an underperformer?
Punishment rarely works for those who feel entitled, the pros say. It just fosters resentment.
After the latest mistake, Rays manager Joe Maddon turned discipline over to Upton's teammates.
"That can be very powerful," says USF psychology professor Paul E. Spector, who wrote a textbook on industrial and organizational psychology. "The teammates can be very tough on the guy, more tough than the manager would."
"What you want organizationally is you want B.J. Upton to hustle, not because Joe Maddon wants him to, but because he wants to," says Balfour. "If his teammates say, 'Look, B.J., this is the right thing to do,' he's going to do it for the team. And this allows him to save face."
After the game Monday, Upton's teammates told reporters that they'd take care of it.
"It's not in Joe's hands anymore," said veteran Cliff Floyd. "It's not in anybody else's hands but ours as players."
On Tuesday afternoon, B.J. Upton apologized. Said he understood the criticism.
"There's no excuse for it," Upton told reporters. "It can't happen, especially in the middle of a pennant race. Every run matters, every out matters."
That evening against the Angels, when Upton stepped up to bat late in the game, a bald man in Section 317 stood up and hollered and waved his arms, trying to get others to stand. They did, all forgiven, and they cheered for him to hit the ball over the fence and run around the bases slow.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.