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Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton needs to show more effort

B.J. Upton: This is far from the first time that the centerfielder, being restrained by Willy Aybar after Sunday’s confrontation with Evan Longoria, is under fire for lack of hustle.

DIRK SHADD | Times

B.J. Upton: This is far from the first time that the centerfielder, being restrained by Willy Aybar after Sunday’s confrontation with Evan Longoria, is under fire for lack of hustle.

You play hard. That's the first rule.

You play hard, because anything else is unforgivable. You play hard, because effort really is the one thing you can control. You play hard, because there is nothing worse you can accuse a player of than dogging it.

You play hard, because your team is threatening to drop right out of the playoff race and land on the Orioles. You play hard, because you owe it to your teammates. You play hard, because you owe it to the game.

Yet, here we are, smack in the middle of one of those discussions we didn't want to have again.

B.J. Upton, serial lollygagger, has loafed again.

And what should the Rays do about it this time?

For a start, perhaps they should yell at him some more. Perhaps they should call Upton into a room where executive vice president Andrew Friedman, manager Joe Maddon, assorted players and volunteers from the studio audience could take turns playing the part of Evan Longoria, who made his displeasure obvious during a heated exchange in the dugout Sunday.

As juicy as that video was, however, and as often as it has been viewed, the point isn't that one Ray called out another. Sure, it was good to see Longoria's latest step in his emergence as a leader, and while it's hard to imagine what Upton could say on his own behalf, it was at least interesting to see he said it with some passion. Who knew he had it in him?

But the discussion shouldn't be the argument itself. It should be about the cause of the argument, which was Upton taking a summer stroll in the middle of a game. Again. For crying out loud, there are golfers who go after their ball with more energy than Upton did. The 1919 White Sox hustled more. Upton moved as if he were running a victory lap after winning a marathon.

There is no defense for this, not with your team in a free fall, not with second place turning into third, not when every opposing run feels like 100 more feet of barbed wire, not when the label of not playing hard enough continues to follow you around. After all, this isn't the first time Upton has been accused of playing on cruise control. Back in 2008, he pretty much jogged through the month of August. By the time Longoria got around to being unhappy with Upton, in other words, most of Tampa Bay had been there for two years.

Look, there was nothing malicious in Upton's intent. This wasn't a conspiracy, and it wasn't a protest. Still, there is something that keeps making Upton get in his own way. It isn't his fault that he hasn't become the star everyone predicted. It is his fault he hasn't chased stardom harder.

For goodness' sake, how can a player tolerate a label of not playing hard? How can it not drive him crazy to know that is his reputation around the country?

Look, no one in the stands, and no one watching on television, can play centerfield like Upton. But most of the people watching know what it's like to work hard. Most people know all about effort. Most people know that, at today's prices, a little hustle isn't too much to ask.

What would Upton say to those people today? What will he say to his teammates? And what, in turn, will they say to him?

"You're benched" seems to be a good way to start, doesn't it?

The Rays should sit Upton for tonight's game. Maybe for Wednesday's, too. Maybe more.

I know, I know. The Rays are in Boston for two games, and they could use Upton's glove in centerfield. No doubt about that. But if a team turns its head while its players aren't playing hard, it is inviting trouble to stay for a spell. For the good of the clubhouse, Upton needs to sit over by the sunflower seeds for a game or two.

Upton, of course, said he wants to move on from the issue. Of course he does. But he doesn't get to decide that. A player doesn't get to move slowly on the field and hope the controversy moves faster off it. Once again, Upton has become Charlie Lack-of-Hustle. That's going to stick with him for a long time. People tend to notice outfielders who consider chasing balls in the gap to be a voluntary endeavor.

At this point, salvaging Upton's potential is going to be that much harder for the Rays. When it comes to Upton, that has been the situation for the past three seasons. For a long time, the Rays have had to endure the underachievement and hope the talent inside Upton would emerge. Remember 2007, when Upton hit .300 and had 24 homers? Remember the postseason of 2008, when he hit seven homers in the first 11 games? Remember when Cliff Floyd talked about the Hall of Fame?

Those flashes haven't come often enough to define Upton. His power has disappeared. He strikes out too much. He walks too seldom. His average, currently 167th in the majors, is too low. If he hungers to be a great player, he does not show it. Consider this: In 2007, Upton hit 24 home runs in 129 games. In 362 games since, he has hit 27.

Of all his shortcomings, however, the worst thing you can say about Upton, or anyone else, is this: He doesn't try hard enough.

Here's a question: Does anyone think Longoria was the only guy in the dugout who had a problem with Upton's effort? Of course not. Too much is at stake.

The fact is, if the Rays are going to get back into this race, they're going to need Upton. They could use his glove, his arm, his bat.

Along the way, a little effort would be nice, too.

Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton needs to show more effort 06/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 29, 2010 6:37am]
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