General : : Professional
Tuesday, March 20, 2012

D'Backs' Upton driven to succeed

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In the main office area at Perfect Game’s headquarters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there is a display of what could be called the PG Wall of Fame. Actually, it covers about four walls.

Tacked up on those walls are poster-size photos of many of Major League Baseball’s top stars pictured during their high school years in Perfect Game T-shirts and caps while competing at a wide range of showcases and tournaments.

There are photos of a National Most Valuable Player (Joey Votto), an American League Cy Young Award winner (Zack Greinke), an NL Rookie of the Year (Buster Posey) and an AL Rookie of the Year (Jeremy Hellickson). There are also photos of multi-time big-league All-Stars like Prince Fielder and Carl Crawford.

And also on that wall are photos of a couple of brothers out of Chesapeake, Va.: Melvin “B.J.” Upton and his younger brother Justin Upton, separated by three years but with reputations cemented in history by the fact that they were top-two draft selections in 2002 (B.J.) and 2005 (Justin).

Justin Upton, now 24 years old, was the first overall pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round of the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft and today is the D’backs’ starting right-fielder. B.J. Upton, 27, was made the No. 2 overall selection of the 2002 draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and today is the Rays’ starting center fielder.

Justin Upton, beginning his sixth Major League season here in the Valley of the Sun, has so far had the better MLB career. A veteran of eight Perfect Game showcases and tournaments, he told Perfect Game and that he owes a lot to his older brother, who helped blaze the PG trail.

“I got to see him do it before-hand and that was definitely a plus for me,” Upton said Tuesday from the media interview room on the Diamondbacks’ side of the magnificent Salt River Fields at Talking Stick spring training complex they share with the Colorado Rockies. “That always gave me that extra edge that I needed and the things I needed to know going into those situations, and it was definitely a guide for me.”

Justin Upton is heading into the 2012 season for the defending National League West Division champion Diamondbacks after a 2011 campaign that saw him finish fourth in the NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting while earning his second All-Star Game invitation and winning his first Silver Slugger Award.

 A two-time All-Star, he hit .289 with career highs of 31 home runs, 39 doubles, 88 RBI and 105 runs in 2011, and was also hit by a pitched ball a league-high 19 times.

Upton played only three seasons in the minor leagues before making his big-league debut on Aug. 2, 2007. Coincidentally, B.J. Upton made his Major League debut on Aug. 2, 2004.

It all started for Justin Upton at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake – his brother attended Greenbriar Christian – and also with his involvement in numerous high-profile PG events.

He can include on his impressive resume appearances at the 2003 PG National Showcase in Lincoln, Neb.; the 2004 PG National at Tropicana Park in St. Petersburg, Fla.; the 2004 PG World Showcase at Terry Park in Fort Myers, Fla.; and ultimately the 2004 Aflac All-American Classic played that year at Cal Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md.

“It was definitely an honor getting selected to it,” Upton said of the All-American Classic experience. “Those all-star games are always fun to play in, and that was the biggest stage you could play on in high school. It was definitely a cool experience and you got to hang out for a few days with the guys who were playing at the highest level of high school baseball, so it was a cool experience and I definitely enjoyed it.”

After his appearance at the 2003 PG National just in front of his junior year in high school, a PG scout wrote: “Describing Justin Upton is easy. He’s a true 5-tool player and the early favorite to be the first pick of the ’05 draft. Nobody in high school baseball has better tools and that includes the ’04 class.”

Upton admitted on Tuesday that was pretty heady stuff for a then-15-year-old to absorb.

“It was definitely different when you hear that kind of stuff, but you don’t read that much into it; I definitely didn’t,” he said. “I just enjoyed playing the game at that point … and I just went out and had fun.”

Like most kids his age back in those formative years, Upton only wanted to play ball as often as time allowed.

“I was the kid who always wanted to be in the batting cages and out on the field all the time, so I felt like I was prepared when I went into one of those showcases,” he said. “You can never prepare for tons of scouts watching you, and at that point it definitely brings a (higher) level of pressure, but I felt like I worked hard enough away from the showcases to be prepared for those situations.”

Upton gives a tremendous amount of credit for his successes to his parents, Manny and Yvonne. The parents continue to support both Justin and B.J., even as the brothers have moved into adulthood.

“They were there from minute-1 of my journey to where I’m at now and they always stayed on top of me,” Upton said. “Dad was always in the cage with me and always on the field with me hitting ground balls – back then I was shortstop – but they were there 100 percent and they made sacrifices that got me to this point.”

No one can quite prepare a top prospect for his first taste of national-level showcase and tournament baseball, however. The eyes of kids who were big fishes in small ponds can be opened more quickly than the envelope containing a tax return.

“When you’re in your town, you’re the man. You’re the guy that everybody’s saying, ‘This guy is going to be good,’” Upton said. “But when you go to those showcases you’re almost on the same level as the other guys who are playing at the level you’re playing at. It makes it fun, it makes it interesting, and you kind of see what you can do at that level.”

Upton had committed to North Carolina State before being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, but he realizes not everything is so cut-and-dried for other top prospects weighing college or the pros. The most important thing, he said, is for high school prospects to decide what is best for them in terms of what they do during their summer months.

“I think you need to get yourself into a comfortable situation, whether it is with a travel team or a coach you’re playing for,” he said. “Learn as much as you can, work as hard as you can and have fun with it. When you’re still in high school, those are the best years of your life and you’re having fun playing the game of baseball. Just go out and enjoy it.”

The Diamondbacks have Upton locked up through the 2015 seasons and he is being well compensated. He will make $14 million in each of the final two years of his contract.

The money aside, playing Major League baseball can be a trying endeavor. Upton, who could conceivably be playing for at least another 16 years and is years away from his prime earning seasons, wants youngsters to know a lot can be gained simply by doing your homework.

“Whatever you’re doing now to get yourself prepared, you just get into a routine of it at this level,” he said. “Going through your preparation and what you do day-in and day-out … that’s what prepares you to be as successful as you can in this game.

“It’s a grind, and sometimes there are those little things you used to love doing as a kid but the older you get, it gets a little tougher to go out there and do it. But if you want to play at the highest level, that’s what you have to do.”

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