LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Almost three months after leaving the only major-league franchise he knew, center fielder B.J. Upton smacked balls in batting practice under the Florida sun, his jersey different but his thoughts close with his former home. His swing was crisp and smooth Monday morning, belting the white specks in a slight breeze to deep center field and over the wall in left, past a pocket of fans waiting with gloves on a grassy hill.
These are days of change for Upton. It’s a new start with the Atlanta Braves, a traditional NL East contender that signed the former free agent to a franchise-high five-year, $75.25 million contract in November, his payoff for eight productive seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays that included a .255 average with 447 RBI and 118 home runs. It’s also a chance to look back and compare, and in some ways, miss the comfort he formed in an earlier baseball life.
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“It’s a pretty new chapter, man,” Upton told FOXSportsFlorida.com, before the Braves’ 7-6 victory over the Miami Marlins at ESPN Wide World of Sports. “But I still keep in contact with those guys. I was there for so long that I grew to be friends with a lot of those guys off the field. They’re more like family to me. Obviously, yeah, I miss them. But you know how this game goes. It’s always time for change.”
True, but change is never a one-way consequence. Thirteen days earlier, when Rays manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman entertained questions together before spring workouts in Port Charlotte, Fla., the manager addressed the effect of Upton’s absence. Maddon said “it’s going to be difficult not writing his name in the lineup every day” and that the player’s workhorse ethos, one similar to star third baseman Evan Longoria’s, often went overlooked among some at Tropicana Field.
The afternoon’s prevailing theme was that the franchise must adjust. But like Upton with the Braves, the Rays would discover a new normal with names such as Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings. Tampa Bay’s process, like in springs past, would evolve.
For both Upton and the Rays, though, the process of moving on continues in these weeks. It’s a situation that could linger past these quiet afternoons, into the summer’s more competitive months as the 28-year-old Norfolk, Va., native works to acclimate himself at Turner Field.
As he sat near his stall at Champion Stadium on Monday, holding dark coffee in his left hand, Upton spoke with an interesting mix of anticipation for the future and nostalgia for the past. It was obvious he enjoyed what he once had.
“I think with the players that have come through there in the past, we would have loved for (the Rays) to be able to keep us together,” Upton said. “But obviously, that’s not the way they work. I feel like if they could have done that, we could have won the AL East for years. But that’s not the way they operate. A lot of guys outgrow them, pay-wise, and I think it shows. But they always find a way to win, man, and Joe does a great job with that.”
Such is the Rays’ challenge with their small-market reality: Try to craft ways to remain an AL East threat all while knowing they may lose proven contributors like Upton and right-hander James Shields, who was part of a six-player deal with the Kansas City Royals in December after pitching no fewer than 203.1 innings in each of the past six seasons. In all, the Rays cleared about $28 million from their payroll in the offseason — a necessary exercise that’s part of walking their competitive tightrope.
Upton’s place in the Rays’ evolution reflects his maturation and the potential the Braves see in him. In November, when Upton was introduced in Atlanta, manager Fredi Gonzalez cracked that his club may not need a left fielder between the speed owned by the new signing and returning Gold Glove Award winner Jason Heyward, a right fielder.
Fast-forward to this week, and Gonzalez sees an established major-leaguer in Upton, someone who’s making a smooth transition because of his experience. That compliment hints at Upton’s former value at Tampa Bay, someone who offered a veteran voice among young talent. Upton became the second piece of a three-pronged plan for the Braves’ outfield, which could become among the major league’s best.
Atlanta’s void in left field was filled, of course, when B.J.’s younger brother, Justin — a two-time All-Star — was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a seven-player January deal that united the siblings for the first time in their careers. The move was savvy, one that could ease B.J.’s transition in an effort to replace another two-time All-Star, Michael Bourn, now with the Cleveland Indians.
“He wants to win like all of us here,” Heyward said of Upton. “He has playoff experience, which is awesome. He has a really intelligent baseball mind as well. Again, all of us are saying those goals that we want to win and win a World Series. We want to put our best foot forward in that direction. … I do know that he’s happy to show up on a ballclub that wants to win and expects to win. We’re all relatively young. But also we’re going to have a lot of tools and skills to play this game the right way.”
In what ways will Upton contribute?
“I don’t know if there’s a way he won’t,” Braves infielder Tyler Pastornicky said. “He has everything you need out of a baseball player. He’s a good guy, a five-tool player. It’s a great addition. … You’ve got three potential MVP candidates in the same outfield. It’s going to be pretty crazy. I don’t see many balls dropping out there.”
Still, it’s little surprise that Upton sometimes looks back to what he no longer has. He said he’ll miss Tampa Bay’s culture the most, a situation in which Maddon’s loose rule showed the manager’s trust in players to police themselves. In his short time elsewhere, Upton has learned that approach is rare.
Where else in the major leagues can a player walk past a mounted boar head on his way to the field, laugh and consider it part of the status quo? Where else can a clubhouse be more frat party than formal and produce three playoff berths in the last five years? Where else is fun part of, as Maddon has put it, “a liberal arts” approach to the game?
“Nobody over there was old, but there were guys who had been there and kind of policed the clubhouse and (Maddon) said, ‘Hey, go out and play hard, and I’ve got no rules. You guys have fun,’” Upton said. “That’s a lot of the reason why we won. … It’s night and day for me over here. (There are) a bunch of rules over here that I’m not used to, and I’m still trying to get adjusted to it. It’s just a tad bit of a change.”
Most likely, Upton will become familiar with the change in time. The strange sight of him swinging in batting practice with a darker shade of blue, playing catch with his brother in left field as Enrique Iglesias blares over the loudspeakers three hours before first pitch, speaking of the Rays in the past tense as a valued experience but one gone – all of it will become something else.
His new will become old. Atlanta will become home and Tampa Bay will turn into a fond memory, but a memory nonetheless.
“I think what anybody learns from change is that change can be good,” Justin Upton said. “You meet new people. You come into a new situation, a clean slate, and you learn to form different bonds with people. You form a team atmosphere. You learn to be a part of a team and fit in and be your part, because these guys have been together awhile, and they all know their place with this team. For us to come in and just have to fill in the holes and get to know the guys around us, that’s the most fun part, because you don’t have to do anything. These guys have been together. They’re going to show you the way, and then we’re all going to jump on the same wagon.”
Still, new starts don’t come without a few glances back. For B.J. Upton, Atlanta represents a new chapter, yes, perhaps one that will prove the most exciting of his career.
His former stop, though, won’t be easily forgotten.