Devil Rays handling Upton with kid gloves

Originally Published: March 4, 2005
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Even before the position players reported to camp, the first two Devil Rays on the field every morning were a shortstop and a coach. Tom Foley hit ground ball after ground ball to B.J. Upton, whose goal this spring is to prove to all doubters that he is indeed a shortstop.

B.J. Upton
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesB.J. Upton can be both brilliant and baffling defensively.

That is in doubt after last season. Upton struggled mightily on defense, partly because he was 19 years old. The Devil Rays had rushed him to the big leagues because they needed to create a buzz for their bad, boring club, and because he had hit wherever he had been. But his progress as a shortstop was slowed when, after several defensive mistakes, he was tried at third base, in the outfield and at DH. The moves, however inappropriate, were done in the name of winning, which is why manager Lou Piniella was brought to Tampa-St. Pete.

Now comes damage control, but so far, so good. "I've got to concentrate this spring on my defense, that's my focus,'' Upton said. "You've got to work on your weaknesses.''

Foley has been extremely impressed so far. "He's willing to work, he wants to work, he's begging to work,'' he said. "He's a different person. He's the same player, but he's a different player because of his attentiveness. He has got the fire. Everyone in camp sees it.''

Upton hadn't always needed the fire because everything came so easily to him. Until last year, that is. So Upton adjusted his thinking, which led to a meeting this winter with the greatest defensive shortstop of all time, Ozzie Smith. "The most important lesson he taught me was about repetition and consistency,'' Upton said. "He said to make every ground ball a part of your body. And make every ground ball a part of your everyday life.''

That was not the case last year. Upton made seven errors in 16 games, but there were other mistakes that didn't go as errors. He had difficulty going back on pop-ups, showing none of the aggressiveness that take-charge shortstops are supposed to show. On a swinging bunt in front of the plate, catcher Toby Hall came up ready to throw to second for the force, but Upton never moved from his position. That's shortstop 101: move to the ball.

"The little things were not sinking in, that's what we're working on this spring,'' Foley said. "The pre-pitch foot movement. Looking the ball into the glove. Coming to get the ball. In the middle infield, you have to be strong defensively. You have to catch the ball. A lot happened to him last year. It was a whirlwind year. This year, it has been calm for him.''

Chances are, it will remain that way. Chances are Upton will start the season at Triple-A Durham, playing shortstop while Julio Lugo plays shortstop for the Devil Rays. Lugo played it well last year, and shouldn't have been moved to second (when he went back to shortstop, he labored on defense); Upton should not have been rushed to the big leagues, but once he was, he should have been left at shortstop to see if he could play. But almost immediately, his defensive problems began. His stride, scouts said, was too long for a shortstop. Members of the organization thought he'd be better off at third base or in the outfield.

Upton said the position switches didn't set him back. "I want to be a shortstop, I know I can play shortstop,'' he said. "A lot of big guys (he's 6-foot-3, 185 pounds) have played shortstop.''

But almost no shortstop in the game could have made the play Upton made last year at Yankee Stadium. He went into the hole and backhanded a ball, but he didn't plant and throw straight overhand as Cal Ripken did so well; and he didn't jump in the air and throw, as Derek Jeter does. Upton threw across his body, sidearm, like a rocket to first base to retire Alex Rodriguez. Jeter, who saw it, was astounded. So was everyone who saw it.

"It just happened,'' Upton said.

That's how talented he is. He's going to play shortstop in the big leagues, short term and long term. With a hitter like him, why not play him at shortstop? "He has great ability,'' Foley said. "He's going to be a major-league player. He could be a star. Can he play shortstop? With the changes he has made, yes he can.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.