PORT CHARLOTTE — B.J. Upton is trying something else this year.
His batting stance is going to look a little different, the product of some slight adjustments after offseason work that included a two-day private tutorial with Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew.
So, too, is his approach, stripped down to the simplest of goals:
"The past couple years have been up and down for me," Upton said. "Have parts of it been fun? Yeah. As fun as I want it to be? No.
"You've got to get over it, put it behind you. I think the main thing for me this year is to have fun. I think everything else is set into place. I know what I need to do. I just need to have fun doing it."
No longer, Upton said, will he allow his failures to torment him, saying, "I can't beat myself down from the neck up."
Nor will he care about the frequent fan criticism, acknowledging, "In the past I've worried about what people have said instead of worrying about the task at hand."
He is not concerned about stepping into a primary leadership role among his Rays teammates, admitting, "I don't want to drive, I like the back seat ride."
And, perhaps most significant, he has decided that the best way to finally post the breakout season that would end the ongoing discussion about his failure to live up to potential is to stop thinking and talking about it.
"Yeah, I was supposed to have that year two years ago," Upton said. "I was supposed to have that year last year. I've gotten to the point where I just kind of block that out and go, 'Go play.'
"It's going to happen. I feel like I'm in a good place right now."
So far, the Rays like what they've seen and heard from their fleet centerfielder.
"I've already noticed a difference in him," manager Joe Maddon said. "Just watching him (Tuesday) in batting practice and talking to him, he's wide open. He's very receptive. He's eager and he's ready. He's got a different look about him right now and I'm very impressed with it."
Upton should get it by now — he's 26, entering what will be his fifth full major-league season (and seventh overall), has a younger brother (Justin) in the majors and a son (Riley) in Tampa and knows the league and himself (for example, adding 10 pounds to stay stronger during the season).
The primary flaw in his offensive performance has been inconsistency, raising the question of whether his dazzling 2007 season — a .300 average with 24 homers and 22 steals — was the exception rather than a sign of what's to come.
He hasn't had anywhere near that kind of sustained success since, apart from his torrid 2008 postseason run when he hit an AL record-tying seven homers and batted .288 in 16 games despite a left shoulder that required offseason surgery.
The shoulder has remained more of an issue than he has let on, and he said it's just this winter that he was able to return to the position at the plate where he is most comfortable and, in theory, more consistent in his timing and smoother, with less movement, in his swing.
As disappointing as last season appeared to be with a .237 average, he otherwise put up impressive numbers, one of two big-leaguers (along with ex-Ray Carl Crawford), and just the 19th in AL history, to compile 60 extra-base hits and 40 steals. So he prefers to ponder the positive possibilities of extrapolating those numbers with a higher average.
But there are still some areas of concern, specifically the repeated episodes where Upton showed a lack of hustle on the field, leading to several benchings and last season's much-publicized dugout confrontation with teammate Evan Longoria (who remains a close friend and whom he just accompanied to the Daytona 500).
Though Maddon said he'd "really like to believe" Upton is beyond any further such issues, he also admits it's as much a matter of Upton's perspective on the subject as anything: "He just did not see it that he was not hustling; I really believe that." And Upton said that though he plans to avoid any further controversies, he can't guarantee it, for much the same reason.
Nor does he regret what has happened.
"Obviously you wish things could have gone a little bit different, but that's part of life," Upton said. "You live and you learn. If I hadn't gone through those things, I don't think I'd be the person I was today. Can you say I regret it a little bit? Maybe a little bit. But I learned from my mistakes, and that's pretty much all that matters."
Pretty much. That, and having a little fun.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]