- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The beauty of spring training for some people is that, any minute now, theoretically, they’ll be able to stop shoveling that icy glop off their sidewalk.
The beauty of spring training for other people is: It means It Isn’t Last Year Anymore.
And if there’s a player in baseball more grateful than Dan Uggla that 2013 can be referred to in the past tense, we’d like to meet him.
What would be the best word to describe a season in which he hit .179/.309/.362, with 91 more strikeouts (171) than hits (80)? Would “nightmare” cover it?
“That,” Uggla says, “is a great word. It just [stunk] all the way around.”
But here’s a life lesson that works for just about everyone, no matter what you do: Before you can start looking ahead to a better tomorrow, you need to understand why yesterday turned into a 28-car pileup.
So that’s where Dan Uggla finds himself in the spring of 2014. The Braves second baseman couldn’t possibly be more excited to think about what lies ahead. But that doesn’t mean he is running away from the worst season of his career.
That, he says, just isn’t how life works.
“It’s hard to erase it,” Uggla says, “because it’s still going to make me who I am today, just like all the other years of my career. But my goal is to use it as a learning tool and just better myself from that, as a man and as a baseball player, and learning how to deal with stuff like that.
“You know,” he philosophizes, “everybody is going to go through adversity at some point in time, in everything that they do, whether it’s baseball or whatever it is that they do. You’ve just got to deal with it like a man and move on. You’re never going to forget about it. But you can deal with it and move on and become a better person from it.”
If you examine those words closely, you can see he isn’t talking just about his batting average, his strikeouts or his minus-1.3 Wins Above Replacement. He is also talking about what happened to him in October, when the Braves’ postseason roster was announced -- and he wasn’t on it.
That decision, justifiable as it obviously was from a baseball perspective, still hangs over the relationship between Uggla and his team, and, especially between Uggla and his manager, Fredi Gonzalez.
It’s a topic Gonzalez hasn’t been particularly interested in discussing this spring. But he agreed to revisit it for this story. And it quickly became clear it still pains the manager, too.
“He wasn’t happy, and I can’t blame him,” Gonzalez says. “It wasn’t an easy decision. It might have been the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make as a major league manager. You know how people say the postseason is supposed to be fun? It wasn’t really fun for me, because of that decision.”
Dan Uggla, you have to remember, isn’t just another name on the Braves’ roster. At age 34 (as of March 11), he’s the oldest and most experienced player in this lineup. He’s a leader. He’s a top-of-the-charts teammate.
So forget all the baseball reasons for that decision. And remember there was a human being on both ends of it. Both of those human beings are scarred by what happened. But now it’s a new season. So they have no choice but to go on.
“We talked [this spring],” Gonzalez said. “But you know what? It’s still a work in progress. I think the professional side of it is there, because that’s the way Danny is. He’s a professional. And I’m obviously professional. But it’s still a work in progress, on the relationship side of it.”
On the day that roster was announced last fall, Uggla didn’t mask his feelings. He described himself as “disappointed” and “upset” and “blindsided” by the realization that his team didn’t “think I can help the team win.” But he’s not into baring his soul anymore this spring. And that, he says, because he is heeding the advice of “a man I really respect in this game,” a man he prefers not to name.
“A man that I really respect in this game came up to me [last October],” he says. “He didn’t have to come up to me, but he came up to me and said, in a simple, nice way, to take the high road. And I was really struggling with that the first couple of days, throughout everything, whether I should even show up to practice the next day and stuff like that, with everything I was dealing with.
“But my wife told me, `Just go. You need to be there for your teammates.’ And that day I showed up, he came up to me and told me to take the high road.”
Uggla is still walking that road five months later. It will serve him well. It will serve everyone well.
His hitting coach, Greg Walker, oozes positivity about Uggla's work through the offseason to restore "balance" to his swing and to "stay square longer" in the batter's box. After two years of "flying open way too quick," Uggla has stayed back enough this spring that he's reached base nine times in his first 23 plate appearances (a .391 OBP). On the other hand, he's also hitting .231, with no extra-base hits.
It's way too soon to say if that means anything, or whether we should notice how closely the Braves are paying attention to second-base prospect Tommy La Stella. But regardless, remember that this team wants this to work -- and not just because of the $26 million it owes Uggla through next year.
“He’s a hell of a teammate,” Gonzalez said. “That’s one thing we love about him. And he’s a hell of a clubhouse guy. And that’s why, when people asked me last year, 'Why do you keep playing him?’ I said, 'Because of the other parts. You see the way he hustles. You see the way he plays defense. You see the way he cares. And you’re in his corner.’”
The beauty of spring training is that it allows the manager to be back in that corner, hoping he won’t be forced to leave it any time soon. And it allows Dan Uggla to take what happens from here into his own hands, because “no one else is going to do it for you,” he says. “You’ve got to go out and do it yourself.”
“Hopefully, it’s a clean slate, says Gonzalez. “As I’ve said all spring, you know what? It’s over with. It’s 2014.”
And that’s a beautiful thing -- for both of them.