Lake Buena Vista — B.J. Upton admitted there were times last season, his first with the Braves, that he missed the Rays.
"It's tough not to," he said.
After all, Upton, 29, grew up with Tampa Bay, spending a decade in the organization after being drafted No. 2 in 2002. So it came as little surprise that Upton shared many laughs and hugs with former Rays teammates and coaches before Friday's spring training game. It was their first reunion since the centerfielder signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves after the 2012 season.
"You spend 10 years of your life with somebody, it's kind of like family," said Upton, who went 1-for-3 in the game. "So it's always good to see them. It's a little different over there, a lot of different faces. But the guys that have been there the longest, the coaches and pretty much everybody, I tried to keep in contact with them."
Upton hasn't strayed too far, keeping his Tampa apartment while he's building a new home on Bayshore Boulevard. He watched the Rays' wild run into the American League playoffs last season.
"Absolutely," Upton said. "I was definitely pulling for them."
And the Rays are rooting for a bounce-back year from Upton, whose 2013 season included hitting a career-low .184 and getting benched late in the season. Not even the storybook pairing with his younger brother, Justin, could make up for the struggles (nine homers, 26 RBIs, striking out once every 2.9 plate appearances).
"I think it was everything all together: new scenery, being in a new place, trying to get adjusted, trying to live up to the contract," Upton said. "All of it together. I just finally feel like I can be myself."
Upton said there were many adjustments he had to make in the National League, from the different pace of the game to seeing pitchers for the first time. "(I) think all of last year was completely new for me," he said.
Especially the results. Upton, who had three seasons of 20-plus homers and five seasons of 30-plus steals in Tampa Bay, couldn't get himself out of a seasonlong funk, no matter what he tried.
"Anything you can think of doing, I think I probably did, it just didn't work," Upton said. "But I think coming into the end of last year, after the season was over with, I pretty much knew what I had to work on. I really wasn't playing too much at the end of the year, so I had a lot of time to get in the cage and work … to make sure I didn't go through what I went through last year."
On Friday, Upton manned the same centerfield at Champion's Stadium where it all started for him, at least at that position. When Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli suffered what turned out to being a season-ending hamstring injury May 15, 2007, in a regular-season game at Lake Buena Vista against Texas, Upton replaced him. By mid July, it was Upton's position for good.
"The rest is (history)," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Though center was the natural position for Upton, he was drafted as a shortstop and also played third, second and leftfield in his early years. Maddon said the Rays used Upton as a superutility player, like they did with Ben Zobrist, to get his bat in the lineup.
"I was the original Zobrist," Upton quipped.
Said Maddon: "He could have been Zo before Zo."
Maddon said he reached out to Upton last season, wanting to make sure he knew he still had their support. And Maddon reiterated his well wishes after a pregame hug Friday, asking Upton about his almost 4-year-old son, Riley, and baby daughter on the way. Maddon said he hasn't forgotten what Upton did for him, all the great memories, and being "instrumental in us becoming the Rays, beyond the Devil Rays."
"I know he had the difficult time last year, but I'm really rooting for him to have a great season this year," Maddon said. "I want to believe he's going to rebound and get back to where he had been, because he can definitely be a force for them."