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Stardom seems an easy call for Upton

The Rays' top shortstop prospect is adjusting effortlessly to the pro lifestyle.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The best way to tell if shortstop prospect B.J. Upton is confused, upset or rattled is by his eye blinks. If his cool, calm gaze is broken by a flutter of eyelashes, something's going on in his head.

If he's happy or finds something funny, you might get a smile ... maybe. His father and 15-year-old brother are the same way, and it drives his mother, Yvonne, crazy.

"She has issues," Upton said.

At 18, he is the baby in the Devil Rays' spring locker room, and veteran Greg Vaughn gave him the nickname "Easy," as in easygoing, take it easy, easy does it.

"It's because everything he does is so easy, you know?" said Vaughn, a 15-year-veteran. "Sometimes it can be misinterpreted as a lack of effort, but it just comes easy to him. Everything he does, it just looks so natural, so fluid."

Upton, a 6-foot-3, 170-pounder, was chosen second overall in the 2002 amateur draft and signed for a $4.6-million bonus, the most the Rays have given a drafted player. His well-rounded style has been compared (by himself and others) to that of the Yankees' Derek Jeter, his swing considered even zippier.

As he grows and adds perhaps 20-30 pounds to his lanky frame, his solid throwing arm and natural athleticism could provide some much-needed beef to the Rays' middle infield.

The expectations are high, if not a tad overeager, to get him to the majors quickly.

"We're please with his ability and anxious to get him out there and start his professional career," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "He's got outstanding ability and a good feel for the game.

"I think it's unfair to compare any player with any other player. B.J. Upton will be B.J. Upton, and he's got to work his way up through the minor leagues as Derek did and we'll see what kind of player he's going to be."

Give him about two years. That's the time frame he gives himself to make it to the majors, and he said that realistically, not hopefully. He has been through hard times and he remembers what it was like to be the little guy on the team ... when he was 10.

"There was a time (in Little League) when I didn't start and I'd pinch-run and come into bunt situations," he said. "I had to work my way out of that, and I've got to work my way out of this."

That seemed so long ago to Upton, who began to realize his potential in the 10th grade when he started getting invited to showcase his talent in scouting camps. In two seasons at Greenbrier Christian Academy in Chesapeake, Va., he hit .645 with 24 home runs, 108 RBIs, 70 steals, 45 walks and four strikeouts.

His skills were enough to earn him a starting spot for Team USA's junior national team in 2001 and an enviable lifestyle less than two years later. He might be at the bottom of the spring roster, but he already is several stages ahead of some fellow draftees.

Outfield prospect and Tampa native Elijah Dukes, who is the same age as Upton and was picked in the third round for about $500,000, was sitting near the Naimoli complex fields on Wednesday, waiting for "RBEST" minicamp for young prospects to start. Dukes is the second-youngest player in the Rays' organization, just weeks older than Upton, and can only imagine the pressure Upton might feel.

"He doesn't really talk that much," Dukes said. "We say 'hey' to each other when we see each other, stuff like that. But I don't really want to get in his way. He's a big-league camper. Right now, he's all about business."

The attention Upton got from major-league scouts didn't faze him much in high school, and it doesn't faze him now. He does get kid-in-a-candy-store syndrome once in a while. He loves that his cleats get shined every day at the Naimoli Complex, and he is one of the first to show up to practice every day.

He has taken to heart some of the advice he has gotten from the veterans, as well as some of his friends clawing their way up from the minor leagues. "They told me if you don't have fun, it's going to be hell for you," he said.

In the meantime, he is not complaining. As far as Upton is concerned, his life hasn't changed much. Sure, he has a new Cadillac Escalade, his own three-bedroom, 21/2-bath townhome in St. Petersburg and a few more shoes in his closet. Other than that, he's the same kid who likes to play Madden NFL on PlayStation, listens to hip-hop and occasionally does a little dancing at the clubs.

Despite his quiet, confident demeanor, Upton has the competitive fire to get ahead. Vaughn has seen glimpses of it when the two have played PlayStation together. He also has seen a rare and enviable maturity in Upton.

"If you're 18 years old and get $5-million, you're a man whether you want to be or not," Vaughn said.

Upton's not sweating it. He can handle his new responsibilities, and he believes his focus is where it should be.

"If I stay out of trouble," he said, "I think the rest will fall into place."

For Upton, it's just that easy.

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