The present and future faces of black baseball

By Paola Boivin
Updated: November 10, 2008

ARIZONA — You begin to tire of it, really, all the marketing people whispering in your ear about how accommodating B.J. and Justin Upton are.

“They always show up on time.”

“I’m not used to athletes being this polite.”

“Not one complaint while they’ve been here. Not one.”

It’s a perfect day for baseball at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The sky is robin-egg blue, the sun’s thermostat two weeks removed from broil. Although many of the major leagues’ young stars — the Uptons, Ryan Howard, Joba Chamberlain — are walking around, no games are being played, only athletes modeling and posing for Adidas’ “Know the code” advertising campaign.

The pitch, about the unwritten rules of baseball that help players excel, is well-suited for B.J., a Tampa Bay center fielder, and Justin, a Diamondbacks right fielder. Both easily pass the Major League Baseball eye test, but it takes more than skill to succeed at this level. Natural talent is one thing, but it often implodes without the persistent presence of checks and balances.

“There’s no doubt the reasons these kids have progressed at an early age is because of their parents,” Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. ‘They’re very talented, and the fact that they have a great family is no coincidence.”

Their father, Manny, a former football and baseball player at Norfolk State University, and mother, Yvonne, instilled in their sons the importance of respect and work ethic while nurturing the boys’ love of baseball in the backyard of their Chesapeake, Va., home. Justin, 21, tried to keep up with everything B.J., 24, did.

B.J., for example, would never simply lob the ball to Justin but throw it at him hard. For B.J., there was the motivation “of not letting little brother beat him,” Justin said.

“I think that’s what makes us able to play at this level, a competitive nature that still hangs with us today.”

With success comes expectations. Justin is the key figure in a core of young players that the Diamondbacks are banking on to excel next season, because there won’t be a rash of big moves in the free-agent market.

It’s heavy stuff for someone with just one full season under his belt, and even that was interrupted by an oblique injury. The Diamondbacks envision a rebound like that of shortstop Stephen Drew, who turned heads during his 2006 rookie season, struggled in 2007 and bounced back nicely in 2008 by hitting .291 with 21 home runs.

“I really want to see what I can do when I’m healthy,” said Justin, who hit .250 last season.

After starting the 2008 season strong, Upton battled with his mechanics, hitting coach Rick Schu said. Confidence was never an issue, but Upton did struggle to handle his failure.

“He can get upset and sometimes he gets in his own way,” Melvin said. “But there’s not a (pitcher) out there he doesn’t think he can hit.”

There’s no reason to believe Upton won’t turn it around, in part because he often puts in extra work. He’s excelled at every level at which he’s played and is a true student of the game.

Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes has said that Upton is one of his favorite players to talk shop with, despite his age.

No doubt Upton was inspired by his brother’s run of late. Justin has spent much of his off-season with B.J., who was a key figure in Tampa Bay’s postseason run that ended with a loss to Philadelphia in the World Series.

Even with a bum shoulder, B.J. finished second in the American League in steals (44) and fourth in walks (97). He rose to the occasion in the playoffs, though, with seven home runs (just two fewer than his regular-season output), 16 RBIs and six stolen bases.

His four World Series steals landed his spikes in Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

“It was a cool experience, being able to watch him play and see what he did,” Justin said.

It was a surprise last week to hear B.J.’s name mentioned in trade talks during the managers’ meetings. It sounds unlikely until you remember that the Rays dealt Delmon Young to Minnesota last November.

Neither brother is big on addressing speculation. They like to live in the moment and play a game that will endure because of its simplicity. It’s one of the few sports in which enjoyment can be found without knowledge.

Watching the Uptons play it makes it all the more entertaining.

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