tampabay.com

Nice job, kid; now comes the hard part

By GARY SHELTON
Published August 2, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Guardians of protocol that they are, the fans of the Devil Rays really gave it to B.J. Upton on Tuesday night.

Heck, it might have been the toughest nine seconds of the kid's career.

Bottom of the second inning, and as Upton walked toward the plate, he might have noticed that no one was referring to him as the future anymore. He was a villain, and fans who have heard too much from the minor-leaguers of the Rays seemed intent on making him feel the same.

It wasn't much of a crowd, and therefore it wasn't much of a heckle, but what it lacked in long and loud, it made up for in short and sweet. This was the sound of a crowd protesting spoiled brats and mouthy prospects and unpaid dues. This was a crowd booing false entitlement and cocky kids and cutting in line. This was ...

Crack...

And that was the sound of the ball leaping off Upton's bat after he drove the first pitch he saw into rightfield for a single. By the time the ball bounced, the crowd was cheering.

Want to know how a kid turns around a perception gone wrong? Want to know how he wins back the crowd? Want to know how he overcomes the controversy?

Simple as this: Keep hitting it, keep catching it and keep silent about it.

Upton was quiet in all the proper places Tuesday. His voice was about a two on the volume knob, so low you had to lean forward to hear him. He didn't demand to be promoted to the next level. He didn't thump his chest. Upon closer look, his shoulders appeared to be chip-free.

By golly, he is happy to be here. By gum, he just wants to help the team. Willikers, he has a lot to learn. And, boy howdy, he loves to play third base. Upton was about one cliche away from making you check to see if he had played for the Durham Bulls or in the movie Bull Durham.

"Anyone who knows me knows I'm a good guy," Upton said quietly. "I have always been a good guy."

And, yes, those who know Upton will tell you that he has usually sounded that way inside the Rays' clubhouse, either in spring training or in his brief stint of 2004. It is only lately that a DUI made it convenient to lump him in with Delmon Young, who throws bats around, and Elijah Dukes, who throws teammates around.

"With B.J., it's guilt by association," Rays outfielder Carl Crawford said. "He's really a good guy. I don't think he'll have a problem here."

Ah, but sometimes, perception is as important as reality, and the Rays' minor-leaguers have spent most of the season yapping like newborn puppies. Fans were bound to look skeptically at Upton. Maybe some teammates were, too.

"What he said wasn't nearly as inflammatory as the other guys," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But he's been painted with the same brush. It isn't fair, but we have talked about that.

"Looking in his face made it easier for me. I could see a good person. We're not going to have any problems whatsoever. If I was a betting man, I would say that you won't hear a negative thing about this person for the rest of his career."

Well, not if he can hit.

And not if he can catch a couple of ground balls.

Let's face it: The fans are the easy part. Field a couple of ground balls cleanly, the way Upton did Tuesday night, and they'll get off of your back. Get a single and a double, as he also did, and amnesia will run wild.

For Upton, and for the Rays, there are bigger concerns. Offensively, Upton's numbers took a nosedive this year and defensively, his errors still came in bulk. When a guy loses 34 points in his average and plays his way out of shortstop, it suggests that maybe the guy isn't the same prospect he used to be.

So what happened? There are those in the Rays' office who think that three seasons in Triple A was too much time on the vine for Upton, that somewhere along the line he stopped getting better. Maybe his focus was off. Maybe he pressed too much. Maybe he became frustrated by his fielding struggles.

Either way, Upton has some ground to make up to reach his promise. When Maddon first saw Upton, his speed and his pop and his grace, he was sure he was seeing budding greatness. Maddon says he still sees that. Good thing, because it is up to Maddon to make sure the rest of us see it, too.

For Upton, third base once sounded like a terrible idea. These days, it may be the position that rescues him. There, without the defensive pressure of short, he can be comfortable in the majors and worry about his hitting.

Funny, but the better Upton plays at third, the more likely he is to move back to short. After all, he is worth more as a shortstop to the Rays than as a third baseman, and no one questions his range. If he plays poorly, well, then it's off to the outfield. For Upton, third base may only be a way station.

For now, however, it is home. It is a place to regain his footing, a place to put back the luster on a reputation.

If some boos find their way that direction every now and then, well, that's fair.

But just wait until they get a load of Delmon.