Upton, eyeing return to form, visits with Rays 'family'
Center fielder had sub-par first year in Atlanta after eight seasons with Tampa Bay
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Even though a year had passed, B.J. Upton still looked strange wearing an Atlanta Braves uniform Friday afternoon when the Rays traveled to Lake Buena Vista to play the Braves.
Rays fans were accustomed to seeing the athletic Upton glide through the open spaces of center field, defying opposing hitters to hit the ball in his direction. More times than not, he came away with the ball in his glove. Where run prevention was concerned, few could take runs off the scoreboard like Upton.
He did a pretty nice job of putting runs on the board, too.
In eight seasons with the Rays, Upton hit .255 with 118 home runs, 447 RBIs and 232 stolen bases. Prior to the 2013 season, he left the Rays via free agency to sign a five-year, $72 million contract with the Braves.
Unfortunately for Upton and the Braves, he struggled in his first season away from the only team he'd ever known, hitting .184 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs. While accruing those sub-Upton numbers, he looked for answers.
"Anything you can think of doing, I probably did it," Upton said. "It just didn't work out. I think coming into the end of last year after the season was over with, I pretty much knew what I had to work on. I really wasn't playing that much at the end of the year. So I had a lot of time to get in the cage and just kind of work. That was just to work into this season and just to make sure I didn't go through what I went through last year."
Looking in the rearview mirror, Upton now sees a perfect storm that gathered to help derail his 2013 season.
"I just think it was everything all together, new scenario, being in a new place, trying to get adjusted, trying to live up to the contract, just all of it together," said Upton of the season he'd like to forget. "… I'm pretty good about taking things and kind of letting it roll right off my back. It was obviously tough to go through. But I'm kind of like whatever, it happens. … I finally just feel like I can be myself."
Upton noted that getting used to the National League delivered him a curveball last year.
"That was a little different," Upton said. "Pace of the game is different, seeing different pitchers, seeing a lot of pitchers that I'd never seen before. I just think all of last year was completely new for me."
Upton did like being in Atlanta with his brother, Justin, who also patrols the Braves' outfield.
"It was fun, like being at home," Upton said. "Nothing too drastic, just your brother on the same team."
Getting away from Tropicana Field's artificial surface suited Upton as well.
"That was totally different," Upton said. "Legs pretty much felt good all year not dealing with the rug for the time that I was out there. Felt pretty good on the body."
Jason Heyward is the only Braves starting outfielder not named Upton. Together the troika can be something to behold.
"A lot of ground being covered out there," Upton said. "We've got a good bunch out there. And Jordan Schafer will come and give us some relief. We've got some good guys."
While with the Rays, Upton complemented his immense talents with a world of personality and a sense of fun. That always played well in the clubhouse, where teammates held him in high regard. So he resembled a Vegas greeter around the batting cage before Friday's game as he visited with former teammates, coaches and club personnel.
"You spend 10 years of your life with someone, it's kind of like family," said Upton when asked about the Rays. "… It's a little bit different over there, a lot of different faces. But the guys who've been over there the longest, the coaches, and pretty much everybody, I try to stay in contact with them as much as I can."
Upton allowed that he does miss everyone in his Rays family.
"Like I said, when you've been with somebody so long, it's tough not to, but it's a business and that's the way things go," Upton said.
Among the many Upton visited with was Rays manager Joe Maddon, whom Upton called "unique."
"He looks wonderful," Maddon said. "I know he had a difficult time last year. But I'm really rooting for him to have a good season this year. We have a lot of great memories. He was so instrumental in us becoming the Rays beyond the Devil Rays."