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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Upton Family

Patrick Ebert        
Multiple family members following their dream of playing professional baseball always provides for a fascinating story. As good as Ken Griffey Jr. is, his connection to his father, Ken Sr., makes an already good story that much better. Before we have had the opportunity to marvel at Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds thrilled fans two decades earlier with 30-30 seasons. The Boone family added another generation, and an extra grandson with Ray, Bob, Bret and Aaron, all four of whom have played in at least one All-Star Game. Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou all enjoyed long, productive careers, as has Felipe's son, Moises. Brothers George and Ken Brett were also All-Stars, and if Ken hadn't pitched at the big league level many believe he could have been a pretty good hitter in his own right.

Brothers B.J. and Justin Upton are poised to be the next family duo to make their mark on professional baseball. Both Upton's have been blessed with superb physical, athletic skills, and with the guidance of their father Manny, those skills have been honed, and continue to be refined, making B.J. and Justin two of the most exciting young baseball players to come around in years.

Leading the way
The older of the two brothers, B.J. Upton, reached the Major League level last summer with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He did so after spending less than two seasons in the minor leagues, soaring through three levels hitting .305 over 857 at-bats. To what does he attribute his incredibly fast journey through the minor leagues? "The people around me," answered B.J. "I've had some great coaches, managers, hitting coaches and infield instructors. I've been around players that are ready to play. I think it's different when all the guys stick together, everybody plays like they want to be there." B.J. Upton

"When you're all young you're all shooting for the same thing," B.J. continued, commenting on the impressive group of young players on the Devil Rays roster. "We try to out-do each other, but it's all in good competition. It's the competitive attitude that we have, it helps you play well trying to be the best."                                                    B.J. Upton

B.J. burst onto the scene during his senior season in high school, and was selected second overall by the Devil Rays in the 2002 June amateur free agent draft. He epitomizes the meaning of a five-tool athlete, with the amazing combination of speed, hitting prowess, power and arm strength. In fact, approaching the 2002 draft B.J.'s arm was compared to Shawon Dunston's, who was selected first overall in the draft by the Cubs 20 years earlier. B.J. didn't sign with the Devil Rays until September later that summer, making his professional debut with the Charleston RiverDogs in the South Atlantic League during the spring of 2003.

Despite signing late, B.J. didn't miss a beat. While most young players are sent to rookie ball to begin their professional careers, B.J. was sent to full season A ball at Charleston, and he responded extremely well by hitting .302 with 35 extra base hits over 384 at-bats. That prompted him to be promoted past the high-A level to AA Orlando to finish the 2003 season. The entire year he not only showcased his amazing talents, but he also displayed his overall refinement, hitting with power to all fields while leading all Devil Ray farmhands by drawing 73 walks. His keen eye at the plate is something his father has encouraged all along. "Pitch recognition is the biggest specific aspect of baseball I tried to teach my sons," said Manny Upton.

After opening the 2004 season back at AA, this time with the Montgomery Biscuits, B.J. was promoted to AAA Durham after 104 at-bats, hitting .327 while displaying the same plate discipline and power he had shown the year before. The AAA level didn't seem to be any more difficult for B.J., as he continued to hit over .300 (.311) while slugging 12 home runs over 264 at-bats. The Devil Rays, who were tempted to start B.J. at the Major League level to begin the 2004 season, had waited long enough, and on August 2, 2004, B.J. made his big-league debut against knuckle-baller Tim Wakefield and the Boston Red Sox in front of the home crowd at Tropicana Field.

"It was different," B.J. humbly said about making his Major League debut, not only against the future World Series Champion Boston Red Sox, but against knuckle-ball specialist Tim Wakefield. "I think I had only seen one knuckle-baller before that. It was much tougher in Fenway (facing Wakefield later in the season) with the wind and the environment. Inside (at Tropicana Field) I think it was a little bit easier, but it was still tough. I think I did ok."

The more you talk and listen to B.J. the more modest you will find him. By doing 'ok' he went one for three, with a walk and a run scored.

Not only did he face such a unique pitcher in his debut, but he was doing so under the guidance of legendary manager Lou Piniella, all before he had reached his 19th birthday. "I think Lou loves the young guys," B.J. offered, commenting on the youth movement Tampa Bay is undergoing. "Lou's a great manager, he expects you to go out and play everyday and play hard for him. When you don't do that that's when he gets on you."

And along with all of the young players B.J. plays with, the Devil Rays have also mixed in a good group of veterans to help provide the veteran leadership any good young player can benefit from. The mix of his manager, the young and the older players helped B.J. mature more than most teen-agers. "I got to play with Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff, John Halama and Brook Fordyce," B.J. said. "Coming up those were names I always heard about. By playing with guys that are much older than you, you have to adjust to the environment, and you have to mature more quickly because of that."

"Maybe I can gain a little piece of what they do that can elevate my game," B.J. added, commenting on the offseason addition of Roberto Alomar.

While I've already touched upon B.J.'s ability with the bat, his defense remains a question mark. "Defense is the focal point right now," B.J. said. "That's the biggest thing they've (the Devil Rays) wanted me to work on this offseason. And that's what I've worked on. I'm going to go down (to spring training) early and take ground balls, get there (to the daily practices) early and take ground balls, and do whatever I have to do to become the starting shortstop on opening day."

Being a constant work in progress, he has also adjusted his stance to better prepare himself against inside pitches. Scouts and coaches have always praised him for his lightning quick wrists and overall bat speed, which produces easy power to all fields, despite a tall and wiry frame. "Ever since I came up, a lot of pitchers threw inside," B.J. said, "because my strength is hitting the ball the other way. In the big leagues pitchers try to pound on you inside more than they do in the minors, and once they find your weakness that's what they go for all the time."

"This offseason and heading into spring training that's what I've been working on," B.J. continued. "I have my shoulders and feet set up a little bit differently so I can turn on that inside pitch a little bit easier."

More importantly, B.J. knows about the day-to-day rigors of being a big-league ballplayer, and has worked hard this offseason working out in the gym with his younger brother Justin. "Whether I'm in the lineup or not, I know I have to be ready to play every day," B.J. said. "Sometimes you see guys start off strong, but after the All-Star break their bodies are worn down. That's why they call it the grind."

With two months and 45 big-league games under B.J.'s belt, he's poised to make another step forward, proving that his rapid ascent through the Devil Rays system was a sign of better things to come. If he can sustain 'the grind,' and continues to make the necessary adjustments at the plate while improving his defense, B.J. has all of the tools to follow in the footsteps of his childhood idol, Derek Jeter.

Next in line
Two months after B.J. was drafted second overall in the June draft, his younger brother Justin put his name on the scouting map with an eye-popping showing at the Area Code Games. No, Justin Upton wasn't getting ready for the 2003 draft, he was just getting started, all of which occurred during the summer after his freshman year in high school, playing with and against players more than two years older than him.

Playing against older competition has never been an issue for Justin, who has been playing with the best competitor he could have ever asked for. While his big brother looked up to Derek Jeter growing up, Justin didn't have to look far for inspiration. "I look up to my brother of course," Justin said. "But, I'm trying to look more within myself than looking up to someone else. The only motivation my brother and I ever needed was the competition between him and me." Justin Upton

The bloodlines, high expectations and motivation between the two have led to quick comparisons between the two brothers. "We really have two different body types," Justin replied to the usual question he receives about the comparisons between him and his brother. "I was always the shorter and stockier one."

What does Justin do better than B.J. at a similar age? "I'm faster than he was at my age," Justin responded. "I'm stronger and bigger than he was, and hit for more power than what he did."                                                          Justin Upton

B.J. won't argue with that when he was asked to compare him with his brother. "I think overall we're pretty much the same at the same age," B.J. said. "He's a lot bigger than I was, he has a lot more power and is faster than what I was. I may hit the ball the other way a little bit better than he does, but then again he pulls the ball better than I do."

Justin does have the added benefit of the advice he receives from B.J., who tries to help prepare Justin for what he can expect for life involved with baseball at the next level, whether it be as a professional or in college. "He's given me a lot of advice over the past couple of years since he's been playing professional ball," Justin said. "In particular he's helped with the mental approach to the game. A lot of small things, small mental things that people my age usually wouldn't think about since we don't know what it's like to play on the next level."

His father, Manny Upton, has also added his advice. "He's picked up a lot of things along the way, especially with hitting," Justin commented of his dad's baseball background. "He's pretty much been my hitting coach during my baseball career."

All of the advice and workout routines have paid off very well for the younger Upton. Justin too is a rare, true five-tool athlete that combines an amazing collection of speed, power, arm strength and overall hitting prowess. Scouts agree with both Justin and B.J. that Justin's speed and power are better than B.J.'s at the same age. Unfortunately, they also have the same reservations about Justin's defense.

"I've been working hard to keep my hands down," Justin commented about his defense. "In the offseason I just work as hard as possible."

"A lot of it is a matter of me growing into my body," Justin added. "I feel better with myself this year. As I grow into my body and continue to work as hard as I can I will continue to improve. I've been told by a lot of different people that have played on the infield that it's just repetition, and that's what I'm working on."

B.J. added his insight to that aspect of Justin's game as well. "I think a lot of it is just in the mind. Once you get it out of your mind, and you just do what got you to where you are, everything will be fine."

Similar to his older brother, Justin seems to be taking it all in stride. Of course, he could be used to the attention, because of his older brother and because he has been prominently atop the scouting map for more than two and a half years. Still, with both his high school graduation and the baseball draft ahead of him, it is going to be an exciting spring. "My family is pretty laid back, and we try not to talk about it much," Justin casually explained his situation. "When I'm not on the baseball field I try to lead a normal life."

Another fresh breath of humility from the Upton brothers.

Proud Papa
The proud father of two extremely talented and down to earth young men, Manny Upton has been able to pass down some of his baseball knowledge and experience. An athletic and talented baseball player in his own right, Manny starred at Norfolk State, not only in baseball, but in football as well. While his baseball playing career did not continue past his four-years in college, he did return to Norfolk State to coach before becoming a scout for the Chicago White Sox and then the Kansas City Royals.

On the field Manny knew practice makes perfect, so he tried to make sure he got both of his sons as much time on the field as possible. "Repetition is the most important factor for any young player," Manny said. "Particularly hitting and taking ground balls."

Manny quickly recognizes that the mental aspect of the game is just as important, and along with the repetitions his sons received on the field, they would also watch a lot of baseball games together to soak the game in. "When they were younger we used to sit and watch baseball all of the time, talking about different aspects of the game, particularly in-game situations," Manny said. "We would try to cover everything that happened in a game."

He added, "For example, before each pitch, know where you're going to throw the ball if it comes to you. Play out each play before it even happens in your head, and pretend that every ball is indeed going to come your way. If they do that long enough, along with the actual in-game repetitions, after a while those situations become second nature."

While many want to give Manny as much credit as possible for the development of both B.J. and Justin Upton, Manny gives his sons all of the credit for what they have become today. "They take the initiative to play a lot of games on their own," Manny said. "You've got to get out and play, and that's what they've done all their life."

He definitely helped point them in the right direction, giving them the attention and time not only on the baseball diamond, but at home talking about baseball hoping to prepare them for not only baseball, but for life. "My philosophy has always been that you want to be a better person than you are an athlete," said Manny. "Given the tremendous skills they've been blessed with, that's a pretty high standard. I have also instilled in them to be very humble individuals, and to be thankful for where they are. I'm very proud when I go to a game and hear, 'He's such a good kid.' That makes me feel good."

While Manny's playing, coaching and scouting experience has been helpful to both of his sons, his experience with his sons could be beneficial to other parents and young players. "Don't pressure them," Manny said. "I always told my sons to go out and play hard and to enjoy their teammates and their senior year, because the next year it's going to be more difficult. Whether you play college or pro baseball, it's going to be a job."

The Perfect Game experience
The need for repetition prompted Manny to pursue the ventures of Perfect Game USA, knowing that both B.J. and Justin would benefit playing with and against the best players in the country. B.J. in particular was helped by the exposure he received by playing in Perfect Game showcases and tournaments. "Nobody knew about B.J. until he went to a Perfect Game event," Manny said. "For any young player, if they want the exposure, whether you're going to play Division I, Division II, Division III or professional baseball, you have to play against that type of competition. Perfect Game provides that for every player, regardless of where that player is going to end up playing. They were certainly instrumental in helping B.J. get to where he is today."

B.J. echoed that thought: "It played a big part of my career. I think I went to four or five Perfect Game showcases and that pretty much got my name out there. Playing with the caliber of players there: Delmon Young, Zach Greinke, Scott Kazmir (etc.), there are still a lot of guys that I am playing with and against today that I played with and against at Perfect Game events. With all of the scouts and college coaches there it's a great place to be if you want to be exposed."

"When you have that many eyes on you it helps get you ready for what you want to do," B.J. continued. "Every baseball player eventually wants to be in the Major Leagues, to be in the Major Leagues you have to be able to play in front of 50,000 people. You've got to be able to play in Yankee Stadium and Fenway, where the fans are heckling you. Being at Perfect Game at that age is kind of the same thing playing in front of scouts and all of the people that are there."

Justin has been well known for several years now, partially in part to his big brother, but more importantly due to his aforementioned emergence during the Area Code Games after his freshman year in high school. That doesn't mean the Perfect Game experience wasn't beneficial to him as well. "You learn how to play against best competition and you learn how to play in the spotlight," Justin said. Justin has attended six or seven Perfect Game events and PG has ranked him #1 in his class for four years.

Justin's stature as a prospect led him to being selected by Perfect Game to participate in the 2004 AFLAC All-American Classic in Aberdeen, Maryland. The younger Upton was the talk of the event, as he showcased his amazing physical talents. "The game itself was a lot of fun," Justin said. "Hanging out with all of the top players from around the nation was a blast."

While B.J. was playing under the guidance of Lou Piniella with some of the veteran players mentioned above along with young stars such as Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Scott Kazmir in early August, Justin along with his talented prep teammates were receiving words of wisdom from baseball legend Cal Ripken, Jr. "That was a huge thrill," Justin said of the experience meeting the 'Iron Man' of baseball. "He told us that if you ever get the opportunity to play professionally, you have to keep a cool head because you only get so many chances."

And Justin received the biggest honor of all as part of the festivities at the AFLAC All-American Classic: The Inaugural Jackie Robinson award, presented by both Cal Ripken, Jr., and the widow of Jackie Robinson, Rachael, which according to Justin was, "the biggest highlight I've ever had in my life."

"Of any award that you can receive, that's the best one," the proud father Manny added. "It not only encompasses what they do on the field but what they do off the field as well."

Manny added about the entire experience, "Perfect Game was great for us. It wouldn't have mattered if my kids were going to a Division III college or going pro. They do it the right way, and they treat people fairly."

Giving back
Living by their father's words of being better people than they are baseball players, both B.J. and Justin understand the importance of embracing what they have, and recognizing where they have come from.

The Jackie Robinson award embodies that spirit for Justin, who currently is taking a class in which he helps young children at an intermediate school. B.J. is never shy about handing out an autograph to a youngster, remembering what it was like trying to get autographs from his favorite players at Norfolk Tide games growing up. B.J. also plays charity golf tournaments, and recently signed autographs at a local restaurant, along with fellow big-leaguers and Virginia natives Michael Cuddyer and David Wright, to help raise money for a young child that was in need of a double lung transplant.

"Anything to give back," B.J. said. "Our community around here is very supportive of us, I just want to thank them for that support."

Given his unique perspective by staying interested with today's youth, B.J. also added some words of advice to his young fans: "Keep working, never stop working. When you're on top in baseball you could just as easily be at the bottom. My mom (Yvonne) always told me the people you pass on the way up you can pass on the way down too. Keep working, and don't let anyone tell you, you can't do it."

B.J. and Justin Upton are not only poised to be fine young ballplayers, but fine young men.

Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and, and can be contacted via email at
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