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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Updated: October 17, 2:58 PM ET
The true meaning of B.J. Upton

By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

Be real: Evan Longoria, regardless of what happens to the Rays, is the new face and future of baseball. He's everything the game needs, everything it's supposed to be about. David Wright should be ticked.

Sitting 15 to 20 feet away from him in the dugout during a game is Longoria's teammate who may be more important to the game than Longoria is destined to be. But little does B.J. Upton know that just as Longoria must realize the game's future is in his possession, the same tag applies to him. As one of the central players in the Rays' remarkable turnaround, Upton has elevated himself during these playoffs as the face and future of "urban" baseball. A face that has been slowly disappearing in the game.

To be considered the future of a sport is a gift and a curse no athlete really wants placed on them. With it comes a quasi-responsibility to "save" something that may or may not be on its way to dying. In Upton's case, he has unknowingly become the one player that Torii Hunter and Joe Morgan have been looking to who can bring the game back to the hood in a way no other young black player in the game has been able to do.

B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton is a making a name for himself with his October heroics.
He has put on display both the feel for the game and the look of the game that resonates with those "young'ns" who have decided that basketball and football provide a brighter future. His Mohawk (which almost the whole team -- including manager Joe Maddon -- is sporting, but there's something about B.J.'s), his style, his slight build, his mannerisms, his persona, his presence, his swag.

The beauty in Upton is that he comes across as both untouched and unforced. Raw organic professionalism is what it is. Polished realness, something Madison Avenue can't create. He's the player the kids who have lost interest in baseball -- or who never had an interest at all -- can see themselves in. The one they can see themselves as.

Maybe not on the same level, but with similar reverence, Upton might become to African-Americans in baseball what Dice-K has to Asian players or what Papi has to players in the Dominican Republic. The player who corresponds with a culture; a player who may not be mentioned by a player in next year's College World Series, but if a team from East St. Louis or Oakland makes it to the Little League World Series five years from now every one of the players will claim they were witnesses to B.J. Upton instead of LeBron.

The fact that Upton's not perfect makes him perfect. His propensity to be lazy (as witnessed in August when he "decided" not to run hard on three different occasions), the fact that Maddon literally pulled him off the field after not running out a double-play ground ball, the meaningless error in the seventh inning of Game 4 that allowed questions about his lack of focus to surface. All display a flaw in him that almost works to his advantage when kids and wannabe baseball players look at him and say "I'm not perfect either, but look, he's still standing."

CLARIFICATION

In my column about B.J. Upton, I wrote something that sparked a reaction.

The paragraph read: "The fact that Upton's not perfect makes him perfect. His propensity to be lazy (as witnessed in August when he 'decided' not to run hard on three different occasions), the fact that [Joe] Maddon literally pulled him off the field after not running out a double-play ground ball, the meaningless error in the seventh inning of Game 4 that allowed questions about his lack of focus to surface. All display a flaw in him that almost works to his advantage when kids and wannabe baseball players look at him and say 'I'm not perfect either, but look, he's still standing.'"

For some readers, my choice of words created a misunderstanding. When the word "lazy" appeared in the context of a story about black youth, some concluded I was implying African-American kids would find the flaw of Upton being "lazy" acceptable and endearing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Upton has survived and triumphed despite numerous flaws. I mentioned several, in an attempt to show that it is his collection of imperfections that make him so publicly "human" -- something not always so clearly visible with athletes today. That is also why I chose to finish the paragraph with the image of a kid -- any kid, regardless of race, color or creed -- who might identify with that humanity, realizing "I'm not perfect either, but look, he's still standing." My point is to highlight that we -- as humans -- can often identify with somebody through both their strengths and flaws, both of which are apparent in the new "hero." And regardless of the color of any kid's skin, flaws can be overcome.
--Scoop Jackson

And he's standing in a way and in a place that no other young homegrown player of African-American descent has stood on this stage at this age since Ken Griff or D. Straw in their primes. And it's happening without Upton's saying he wanted to be the one to make it happen. The kid's simply playing ball and being true to who he is, and he's connecting in a way that could help raise the percentage of black players in the major leagues from a single-digit percentage to double digits in a few years.

Crack. Another one leaves the yard. That one was No. 5 in the postseason. Crack. Another one finds grass. That one made it seven games in a row in these playoffs when he's hit safely. The glide he possesses in center field, the distance he covers, the Willie Mays remix style he has in those over-the-shoulder catches, the arm, the extra.

"He roamed well," Maddon said after the out-of-nowhere 13-4 Game 4 victory that placed the Rays one win away from the World Series. "And we got to see his arm strength." Meaning: In an unnecessary time in the game, Upton showed off his skills for the heck of it.

So hood.

The .294 batting average and .794 slugging percentage this October have become a part of his sway instead of his résumé. In a sport that has almost reached the desperation point in trying to figure out how it will get urban youth back, Upton's postseason coming-out party couldn't be better-timed than a 936 Dow Jones bounce. And even though Longoria's latest heroics have overshadowed the contagious impact of Upton's Game 2 (a third-inning home run that began a 31-14 run over the last three games, and his 11th inning game-winning sacrifice fly that tied the series), it's Upton who may do more for the game in the long run. He's the role model, he's the torchbearer, he's the savior.

Jackie Robinson should be proud.

While the world outside of baseball is now paying attention to and falling in love with the Tampa Bay Rays, don't let a player of this possible significance pass by without notice. Because as much as Evan Longoria will dominate in the years ahead, Upton's emergence can help rewrite the game, preserving a part of a history on the verge of being lost.

When he steps up to the plate against Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 5, this is yet-to-be-seen or realized. You don't see what he's become, or the possibilities he brings to the sport. No one watching him does. The beautiful thing about B.J. Upton is: neither does he.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.