The clouds have parted. The sun is out. So says Bossman Junior. There was a time last season, before his big finish, when he figured he'd be gone. We did, too. The Tampa Bay Rays would find someone else. Some people hated the idea, some loved it.
"There's no in between when it comes to me," B.J. Upton said.
The longest tenured Ray had his foot up on a chair in front of his locker and gladly leaned into the conversation.
"I'm past all of that, beyond it, really," Upton said. "With me, there's this side or there's the other. They either love me or they hate me. Thing is, right now, where I am, either one I'm cool with. I was talking to (Don Zimmer) the other day. I told him this is the most excited I've been about a baseball season my whole life. I'm so at peace,"
The $7 million the Rays are paying Upton to patrol center field and probably bat second this season might be one big reason. It certainly can't be the certainty over his future, as Upton will be a free agent after 2012. B.J. lovers and haters will be at odds all summer long. Upton says he finally doesn't care. He knows he can't convince everyone _ too much history, too magnified _ and that nobody feels sorry for millionaires anyway.
B.J. supporters see 23 homers, 81 RBIs and 36 steals last season. They see that Upton hit .356 down the stretch in the Rays' big comeback, a tear that reminded them of his 2008 postseason. They see someone whose legs and glove routinely turns would-be doubles and triples into easy outs. They see the only guy in the majors to have at least 50 homers and 100 steals across the last three seasons. They someone who is still just 27. They see that breakout on the horizon, still.
B.J. naysayers see a career .257 hitter. They see the .243 average in 2011, or 161 more strikeouts. They see the same mistakes he made three years ago. They see lazy, no drive, someone who can't erase his lapses, a few loafs, whether they were four years ago or two years ago or whenever. They see what B.J. Upton hasn't done, not what he has.
I think the real Upton lies somewhere in between.
"You know what? I just cleared my mind," Upton said. "I got eaten up by some of that stuff. Trade him, I don't do this, I don't do that, it was always something. And it ate me up. You can play like that, but you can't play well like that. You can say it doesn't bother you, but we're all human. Yeah, you learn to let a lot of it roll off, but not all of it."
He admits there were times last season when he'd arrive at work already beaten.
"You feel like there's this cloud over you, just waiting for you to do something wrong," Upton said. "You feel like you got to watch your every step, you're walking on egg shells. There are days when I'd come in and as soon as I parked my car, it was like tiptoeing around. They want me to perform, I'm not performing. What are they going to think? … When you listen to people's expectations, you do tend to start asking yourself why? Why haven't I done that, why haven't I done all those things? I know I can do it."
"Whenever you see that kind of talent, in some minds, unfulfilled, you question it, you look for the reason," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Maybe the reason is he was just a young guy, he just hasn't matured mentally and physically to the point where he can utilize, to his advantage, all those God-given gifts. Sometimes there are epiphanies ... There are no timetables for them. As young men go, sometimes the epiphany shows up later in others."
"I don't think I've had my best season. No, not even close," Upton said.
Of course, an Upton career-year now, with free agency looming, would make B.J. haters rise in unison:
Ah, now he does it!
B.J. Upton will never win over everyone. That he finally knows it might be a big step.
"I think that last month and half, two months of last year gave me an idea of what I want to do," Upton said. "My biggest thing this year is to keep it consistent. I can't worry about what people think, how they perceive me. I've never been comfortable in my own body, in my own skin, like now. I'm at peace with myself."