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Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton belies first impressions


The junior Bossman wheels his jet black Mercedes G-55 wagon past the posh homes of Harbour Island on a sweltering summer morning. Leaving behind a gated enclave of stucco condos, he steers over the bridge to bustling downtown Tampa, off to a noon meeting at a nearby Tex-Mex restaurant. B.J. Upton has been awake for only an hour or so, but that's long enough to get his day in gear.

He already has played fetch in the back yard of his townhouse with Deuce, his beige Rhodesian ridgeback pup who bounds after a baseball outside his owner's small, screened-in porch overlooking mangroves and a shipping channel beyond.

He has signed an actual base from the 2008 American League Division Series; a souvenir purchased by a fan in an auction from a game in which Upton's two homers helped eliminate the White Sox.

And he has shaken off the unpleasant memory from the night before, when Game 1 of the ballyhooed World Series rematch with the Phillies began with a 10-1 drubbing.

Now Upton has just enough time to talk about buying into a new burger franchise — and still make it to the Trop by 1:30, getting his usual extra early start on game-night preparations.

"Some good things have been happening," says the Rays' 24-year-old centerfielder with his familiar soft-spoken, even-toned voice as he parks outside Tijuana Flats. "It's still a long season."

A season that has not been as smooth and sweet as the multicolored "Ice Cream" design on his black T-shirt might imply.

Following surgery to repair a left shoulder that plagued him throughout 2008, Upton missed spring training and got off to a slow, frustrating start from his new perch in the leadoff spot. But he has gradually begun to look like his old self, raising his average about 100 points to .241 and earning AL player of the month honors in June, hinting at better things to come in the season's second half for both him and the Rays.

Still, being B.J. is more than about striving to reach his offensive peak or the array of breathtaking, over-the-shoulder catches he has made this season, evoking comparisons to Willie Mays.

It is about being capable of creating fireworks in the baseball spotlight while being equally uncomfortable in it off the field.

It is about knowing some fans might misread his quiet personality for aloofness and a lack of passion while he remains determined not to change simply to please people.

It is about feeling the sting of criticism from those who have questioned his hustle, knowing his naturally long, fluid strides often make it appear he isn't always moving full-tilt.

And it is about a family from Chesapeake, Va., where Emmanuel and Yvonne Upton raised two remarkably gifted sons — Melvin and younger brother Justin — and where a story of untold baseball promise began to unfold.

• • •

Inside Shula's steak house on Kennedy Boulevard, a private dining room is packed with major sponsors of the Rays. The annual event is a way for the club to show its appreciation, and two players have come out to shake hands, sign autographs and answer questions.

Reliever Joe Nelson is a born storyteller. He regales the crowd with self-deprecating tales from his career and banters easily with emcee and Rays broadcaster Andy Freed. Sitting next to Nelson, dressed in a dark gray suit and collarless shirt, Upton looks a little out of his element.

When Freed turns his attention to the outfielder, asking about his rapid rise to the big leagues at 19, Upton's quiet voice prompts the sound tech in the corner to rush to the mixing board and push up the volume.

"I was happy to be up at that young age, but looking back on it now, I wish I have had a little more time down there in the minors," he replies. "But it didn't disturb me. I knew I was still young and had a lot to learn. I still have a lot to learn."

Upton holds his own with Freed with answers that are thoughtful and direct but with no emphasis on flashiness or decibel level. The sponsors seem delighted by the presence of a budding star — a player who became the youngest Ray ever when he made a brief debut at shortstop in 2004, who hit seven homers in the 2008 postseason, helping lift the Rays past Chicago and Boston and into the World Series.

At the luncheon, Freed asks Upton about a playoff story he had heard: Was it true that then-teammate Cliff Floyd bluntly told his understudy not to worry about the shoulder pain and just swing hard?

"That's pretty accurate," Upton replies, smiling. "There was a point last year where, obviously, I wasn't hitting up to my capability and my shoulder didn't feel great. And things just weren't working out. I can't sit here and say shutting it down didn't cross my mind.

"But I thought about my team and asked myself if I could get by with it. And I knew my team needed me defensively, so I pretty much sucked it up for the whole year — and saved what I had left for the postseason."

Low-key delivery aside, his words captivate the crowd. The only other sound in the room is silverware clinking on plates.

• • •

When he was a child, he would sit by the front window of the house in Chesa­peake and wait for his father to come from work so they could play catch or hit balls.

"B.J. had an internal clock, and as soon as I walked in the house, I'd have to be prepared for a ball coming at me," says Manny Upton, a former star baseball and football player at Norfolk State, laughing at the memory.

A mortgage loan officer and ACC basketball referee, Manny had long been nicknamed Bossman. So after his first child, Melvin Emmanuel, was born Aug. 21, 1984, a friend suggested the nickname Bossman Junior. That was quickly shortened to B.J., and it stuck.

His mother, Yvonne, had been a standout softball player and went on to become a phys ed teacher at Chesa­peake's Hickory High. She knew her oldest son had a special gift.

"B.J. was a child who'd be outside, and whether he was playing with a group of kids or by himself, he had a ball and glove in his hand," she says. "And he did that nonstop. You had to make that kid come in the house. We knew he had talent, and we noticed he was a little more talented than most kids his age."

But one child showed similar passion and promise — Justin, born in 1987. Justin always tagged along after B.J., begging to play.

"He allowed me to hang around and play with the older kids, but he was tough on me," Arizona's All-Star rightfielder says. "And that made me tougher."

"When he was old enough, my mom would make me take him everywhere I went, and I think that's why we're as close as we are today," B.J. says. "He's always had a little more fire than I did, and I think that's partly because of me."

The family consensus: Justin took after his mom's emotional side; B.J. after his dad's calm, laid-back demeanor.

Yet they shared a love of baseball, even practicing their sliding technique nonstop on the living room rug.

"I remember Justin running and me sticking my foot out to trip him, things like that," B.J. says. "But I think going through all of that made us who we are today. And we love each other to death."

A new MLB ad features B.J. and Justin — drafted second and first overall, respectively, higher than any baseball sibling combo ever. The spot showcases their close relationship through old home videos on the ballfield.

Back then, B.J. was unstoppable. He had played on a top-notch Hickory High team with future Mets All-Star David Wright, but Yvonne was worried about his grades. So she and Manny enrolled him in much-smaller Greenbrier Christian Academy.

It was a tough transition, but B.J. pulled his grades up and as a junior led the team to the state title, batting .647 with 13 homers and 47 stolen bases. As a senior, he hit .641 with 11 doubles, four triples and 11 homers as his team went 25-1, losing in the semis.

He had planned to attend Florida State, but getting drafted so high changed his mind — and the course of Rays history.

• • •

The wiry athlete in blue jeans and the black designer T arrives for his lunch meeting at a crowded Tijuana Flats, where a handful of lunch customers appear to recognize him but give him his space.

Joined by his marketing manager, Mike Dillon, Upton sits down with Steve Finelli, owner of five franchises. Finelli has invited the ballplayer to become a partner in Stacked Burger Cafe, a Five Guys-Hooters hybrid with locations planned for Tampa and the ultimate goal of going national.

They met at the Trop in 2007, but Finelli, a season-ticket holder, wasn't initially a B.J. fan.

"When I first met him, my impression was bad, like this guy's standoffish, and I think the average person may look at him in a game situation and think he's kind of emotionless and nonchalant," Finelli says. "It's just that he's a little shy and guarded. But once you get to know him, he's actually an engaging and very smart guy. He's just got to get comfortable with you."

Upton doesn't disagree.

"I'm definitely a little shyer than most, but once I get to know you, you get to see the real me," he says the next day, sitting in the Rays dugout. "I'm a laid-back guy. There's not much that gets to me, and if it does, you probably won't see it."

At the same time, he realizes his personality might cause people to judge him incorrectly: "I've heard the words arrogant, cocky — and that's not me. Me being shy is just the way I am.

"It gets judged on the baseball field, too," he continues. "Just because of the way I carry myself, some people say I'm lazy. I've heard that my whole life. Or I don't work hard, or I don't play hard sometimes. I can't help that I make some things look easier than they really are."

That said, Upton is fine with manager Joe Maddon's benching him twice in '08 for lack of hustle while running out a grounder and double play.

"I think the situations last year were well-deserved," he says. "But those things still happen to the best. And I really didn't feel like it was a fair assumption to just say, 'Okay, that's the way he is. He doesn't hustle.' I made a few mistakes. Joe Maddon addressed them, and that was the end of it. And I've learned from it since then."

"People can make their assumptions," he continues. "But those other 24 guys in the clubhouse know exactly what I'm about — and know how I like to play the game."

Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton belies first impressions 07/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 10:48am]
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