Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Devil in BJ Upton

One of the biggest problems with baseball is that it’s long season tends to grind out all sense of personality. While players start the season with pep and vigor, by the dog days of summer most of their individual uniqueness is all but washed away. There are some traits however that endure the season. Some of these labels even stay attached to a player for their entire career.

These traits and how players perform under their guise is what makes a player’s career all the more interesting. If we say Derek Jeter is a leader, and he fails to motivate the Yankees to overcome some obstacle, is he still a leader? If so, how will he be defended? If we say David Eckstein is a scrappy hustler, how do we react when he doesn’t dive during a day game in August in St. Louis where the temperature is over 100 degrees? Do we let him slide? And then of course, there is a label of “clutch”, which seems to have a life of its own, clinging like kudzu to players who have come up big at some point in their career.

There is no more labeled player on the Tampa Bay Rays than BJ Upton. Since becoming a regular in 2007, he has been the most fascinating player to watch. Sure, Evan Longoria has become the Hollywood face of the team, Carl Crawford has been a model of consistency, and not since the early 90s Braves staffs, has a pitching staff wowed the world with its youthful talent. However, it is BJ that remains the most interesting.

BJ is a collection of skills and personality rarely seen on a baseball field. Where there are similar comparisons is on the hardwood. Basketball players such as Allen Iverson, Greg Oden, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James have all had their talents and motivations poked, prodded, and analyzed to the point of overkill by dozens of writers, commentators, and the blogging bourgeoisie. Among the best of these is, a collection of intellectual bloggers who take a meta view of the NBA and its employees.

BJ Upton is a FreeDarko writer’s dream subject.

BJ is a similar to basketball player standing 6’10 with insane ups, a smooth jumper, a knack for rebounds, excellent ball handling, and the ability to thread the needle with a key pass. He has all the physical tools to be great, yet never achieves perpetual greatness. The NBA is full of players like this. Players who, if they had the killer instinct of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, would redefine their position and possibly the game.

BJ Upton is Lamar Odom in cleats.

Whereas Lamar Odom has found a place in the shadow of Kobe Bryant and in matrimony to Chloe Kardashian, where the occasional superstar performance is enough to suffice, BJ Upton is still stuck with the “loafer” label. It was a label also stuck on former Met outfielder Kevin McReynolds throughout his career, even as he finished third in the 1988 MVP race.

Like BJ, there was talk McReynolds wasn’t “in love” with baseball. That he would rather be doing something else, but baseball paid the bills. With McReynolds, it was hunting and fishing. BJ, meanwhile, is filming commercials to gather support to bring the World Cup to Tampa Bay and is involved in other soccer-related promotions. Perception is a cruel wind to temper.

Upton detractors also have two other arrows in their quill. One resides on the societal third rail of race and the other is based on BJ’s own flesh and blood.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention BJ Upton as a reflection of our still-lingering perceptions on race. Although made mainstream by African-American writer Scoop Jackson in a poorly worded October 2008 ESPN article, the BJ race issue has taken on many of the same traits of the Obama presidency. Like him and be labeled a “new wave intellectual”. Attack him and face being labeled a racist. There was a definite irony in last week’s rumors that had Upton, a Virginian, in a trade for a white man named Lee.

From the seed of Father Bossman comes another obstacle in the acceptance of son Melvin Emanuel, Jr.  As his own sibling prospers in the same chosen field, many have compared one to the other, even going as far as claiming the Rays got “the wrong Upton”. That is amazingly unfair. There are very few instances where the comparison of brothers is warranted. As far as I know, the Upton family didn’t tinker in the field of genetic manipulation and create two clone sons and DNA doesn’t work like that. Just ask the Brothers Aybar, who are seldom publicly compared.

There is more to BJ Upton than any stereotype, be it familiar or racial. He is, as I discussed, a complex collection of physical attributes. His one weakness, however, may be that he relies heavily on the approval of his peers. He was the little brother to Cliff Floyd during Uncle Cliffy’s time with the team and still appears to follow the lead of Carl Crawford, especially on the field.  This is important as only four years ago BJ was surrounded by the nefarious trio of Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, and the ghosts of Josh Hamilton’s career.

Barring any drastic change in personnel or personality, 2011 will be one of the most interesting years in the career of BJ Upton. If Carl Crawford departs as expected, BJ will be the senior Ray. Will he ally with Evan Longoria in Crawford’s departure? Will they be the Castor and Pollux of the Rays, the twin constellation in a galaxy of Rays stars? Or will Upton still bear his crosses, struggle with perception, and carry with him the stigma of being one of the few position players left to wear the title “Devil Ray”?