PORT CHARLOTTE – The physical difference in B.J. Upton when he arrived at Rays camp on Sunday was impressive, 7 pounds of muscle added to his sinewy frame after an unimpeded winter of workouts.
But it was the improved mental outlook – the maturity with which he spoke, the perspective he offered and repentance he showed – that was most important. And most imperative to righting his once star-tracked career.
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Upton said that, at age 25, he now realizes the indiscretions of his past, such as the lack of hustle and lackadaisical play, and he’s ready to reform.
“There’s been kind of a cloud over my head, and I just kind of want to push those things behind me,” Upton said. “From 19 to 25, just forget about it and move on from 25 on.”
There will be no further incidents, he assured, of being benched for not hustling, or any similar issues. “I just want to squash all of that and move on,” he said.
Nor, he hopes, will there be another season like 2009, which started with a not-quite-complete recovery from left-shoulder surgery and eventually spiraled into a mess, with disappointing stats (.241, 11 HRs, 55 RBIs), disparaging comments and damaging residue on his reputation.
“Last season just humbled me, opened up my eyes to a lot of things,” Upton said. “Made me go into the offseason and think about some things.”
He has been a regular at the team’s offseason workouts at Tropicana Field, spending lots of quality time with new hitting coach Derek Shelton, and arrived at the Charlotte Sports Park eager and upbeat. “My head’s clear,” he said, “and I’m going to try to keep it clear all season.”
That’s even after the latest controversy, a distasteful arbitration hearing with the Rays over the relatively small difference between their $3 million offer and his $3.3 million request.
Listening for hours to team representatives diminishing his value, Upton could have been further isolated, or at least irritated. But he knew what to expect and, further, realized it wasn’t the first time he heard such criticisms.
“They just said a lot of the things I told myself all last season,” Upton said.
That type of self-realization, manager Joe Maddon said, is a significant sign of progress.
“The thing about B.J., in spite of all these little moments that we’ve had, he’s always accepted criticism well, and he’s always done the right things post,” Maddon said.
“But, again, he’s a young man. Eventually this guy is going to be a superstar, and all that stuff is going to be in the rearview mirror. I anticipate that is going to happen in the very near future.
“So I’m happy that he’s talking that way. I believe in this guy. And I believe he’s going to have a really good year.”
That starts, Upton said, by making his performance the primary point of reference rather than his problems.
As good as he has been in stretches – such as his seven-homer 2008 postseason, his .324/6 HR/22 RBIs AL player of the month award-winning June 2009 – he has yet to put together the one full season worthy of his talent and athleticism.
His potential is so high – “virtually limitless,” Maddon prefers – that a .300 average, 30 homers, 30 steals and Gold Glove defense in centerfield could all be starting points.
And with the shoulder fully healed, with a strong offseason of work behind him, with the altered attitude and positive perspective, Upton is confident that – at age 25 – this can be that season.
And then, and maybe only then, his past can truly be behind him.
“Do that, squash it, there’s nothing else to talk about,” he said.
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