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In Upton's defense, he's just making it look easy

B.J. Upton is incredulous after being called out at first by umpire Jerry Meals in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Angels.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

B.J. Upton is incredulous after being called out at first by umpire Jerry Meals in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Angels.

In the past few days, he has become famous for not caring.

Yet he sits before you now with eyes growing red, voice dropping low and resolve seemingly fading. And you begin to wonder if perhaps B.J. Upton has been judged too harshly, after all.

Since Aug. 5, the Rays' 23-year-old centerfielder has been humiliated by his manager, booed by Tampa Bay fans and benched twice in three separate instances of lackadaisical play. And, make no mistake, his guilt is clear in all three of these cases, and a few more before that.

The problem today is in the extrapolation. The presumption that loafing his way into a double play last week means he is lazy. The suggestion that his nonchalant out at second base on Monday means he does not care. The growing perception that the Rays have another budding malcontent on their hands.

"Obviously, the booing stings a little bit," Upton said quietly before Tuesday's game. "It leaves a bad taste only because I know that is not me. For people to perceive me that way, it hurts."

He comes across sincere, if a little defensive. Proud, if a little shellshocked. Yet, the thing is, Upton is not the only one saying these things. You hear it from the teammates he supposedly let down. And the manager he obviously ticked off. They are not defending the mistakes, just the person making them.

"B.J. is a tremendous person. A good teammate. He wants to win as badly as anybody else in the clubhouse," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "The misperception with what's going on right now is that he is none of those things. I believe very strongly that it's just the opposite."

So how did it get to this point? If he is such a good kid — and not a single person at Tropicana Field has suggested otherwise — why is he committing the one sin no fan is likely to tolerate?

There is no simple answer. No single explanation that ties up every loose end. It has to do with Upton's personality, which is more low-key than demonstrative. It involves his remarkable talent. And it may even be an indictment on the way the Rays rushed him through the minor-league system several years ago.

You have to understand that Upton is a unique player. He has the potential to be among the greatest talents in the majors. The game came easily to Upton, and it showed in his graceful, gliding manner.

He could always afford to be more cool than gritty. He was like the brainy kid in class who could ace a test without ever cracking open a book. Upton was able to succeed with less sweat than most, and that reality did not go unnoticed.

"To be honest with you, that's been my M.O. my whole life," Upton said. "A lot of times, when I'm working hard, it just doesn't look like it. I don't know, maybe my body is so long, it looks like I'm doing things" halfway.

"I've heard people say that about me my whole life. And just when you think it's gone, it comes back up again."

Upton was the first high school player taken in the 2002 draft and, at 19, was rushed to the majors by a last-place franchise desperate for star quality.

The problem is he never learned to play the way a major-leaguer should. His skills overshadowed his lack of instincts. That could explain his failure as a shortstop in the minors. It could explain why he has been caught stealing more than any player in the majors. It could explain why he is never in a rush, because it has never been required before.

"He is a wonderful athlete, but he's still attempting to become a good baseball player. And he's attempting that on the brightest stage there is," manager Joe Maddon said. "You could argue there are still a lot of parts of his game that belong in the minor leagues, but he's had to learn here because we had a job opening and he's got so many skills.

"So, yes, on the field he still needs to learn to become a baseball player. He's made mistakes. But as a person, and the family he comes from? Fantastic."

The trick is pushing a player hard enough without losing his trust. Among the team's young stars, Upton is the only one not signed to a multiyear contract, although he will remain under Tampa Bay's control for at least another four years.

So the Rays are trying to balance discipline with support. This is why Maddon was willing to take the extreme step of pulling Upton from the field last week but chose to downplay Monday's blunder on the bases. Instead, the manager went to veterans Cliff Floyd and Carlos Pena and asked them to intervene.

Pena ended up calling Upton on his way home from the park Monday, and they talked late into the night.

"He was hurting. I know that for a fact," Pena said. "He's made some mistakes, but they're not mistakes that he purposefully made. That's why it hurts. Because he's a great kid, and I know he cares."

In the second inning Tuesday night, the day after he was booed in his home park, Upton charged a ball in centerfield and threw an Anaheim player out with a bullet to the plate.

It was a nice play, but the fans at Tropicana Field offered a standing ovation, almost like a peace offering. Upton turned and walked back to his position as if he didn't care.

By now, we should know better.

In Upton's defense, he's just making it look easy 08/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 2:53pm]

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