LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It's not quite real yet. It'll be real on Opening Day, when the boys take the field together in Atlanta. But that's not until April, and this is still February, and it's a parent's nature to be cautious. So Manny and Yvonne Upton are trying not to get too excited.
It's hard, though. Yvonne's steps quicken as she gets closer to where the boys are.
Manny and Yvonne have been wandering a while. The players are scattered across multiple fields. They finally come to the batting tunnels -- a big shed covering four narrow cages with pitching machines. It's open in the back and Manny spots his sons.
"Fellas," he says.
They come out separately. Justin, the new left fielder for the Braves, wearing No. 8. B.J., the new centerfielder, wearing No. 2. Each one bends down to Yvonne for a kiss on the cheek.
B.J. made it to the majors with Tampa Bay in 2004, and Justin with Arizona in 2007. Since then Manny and Yvonne have flown up and down and across the country from their home in Chesapeake, Va., hitting all but two major league parks, watching their boys play baseball.
This offseason, their sons became the big baseball story of the winter. In November, B.J. signed with Atlanta as a free agent. In January, Justin was traded to the Braves in a seven-player deal. Manny and Yvonne happened to be visiting Justin when he got the call. They partied in Arizona that night.
B.J., at 28, has three seasons of 20-plus homers and three more of 40-plus stolen bases. Justin, at 25, has already made two All-Star teams. Nearly 100 sets of brothers have played together in the major leagues. But you might have to go back to Paul and Lloyd Waner in the '20s and '30s to find another pair of brothers -- especially hitters -- playing together in their prime. They have a chance to do rare things.
And their parents have a rare chance -- to see both sons on one major league team at the same time.
Yvonne and Manny know how baseball works, so they knew what a long shot this was. But they dreamed it just the same, the same way they dreamed for them through all those tennis-ball tosses in the backyard and those youth-league games in the heat and those AAU weekend trips. They gave their sons baseball, and they dreamed.
What do you do when the dream comes true? You try not to get too excited. Not yet. It is just spring training. The boys have gone back into the tunnels. Yvonne peeks around the corner. This is the first time she has seen them together in Braves uniforms.
She goes for understatement: "Looks good so far."
But her fingers are laced together tight, like her hands are trying to keep themselves from cheering.
* * *
They dated for 10 years before they got married.
"Ask him what happened!" she says.
"She told me it was now or never," he says.
"Now, see, I don't remember saying that. But either way, that's how it turned out."
This is the second day of their three-day visit to Braves camp. They have family passes, but they hesitate to go down to the dugout or into the clubhouse. They don't want to intrude on their sons' business. So they sit in the stands behind home plate and tell their story.
The story always comes back to baseball. Manny was a star outfielder and catcher (played football, too) in high school and at Norfolk State. He wore 21 for his baseball hero, Roberto Clemente. He took Yvonne on many a date to see the Tidewater Tides, the Mets' Triple-A team at the time. Later on, after college, he scouted for the White Sox and Royals.
They got married 29 years ago. When their first son was born a year later, they named him Melvin Emanuel Upton Jr. But that first name never stuck. Manny has always been nicknamed Bossman -- his mother was told she'd never have children, so when he was born, everybody figured he'd be the only one. The boss. It only made sense, then, for Manny and Yvonne to call their firstborn B.J. -- Bossman Junior.
Even before B.J. could tell time, he had an internal clock. Manny was a branch manager for the People's Bank of Chesapeake back then, and just before he got home, B.J. would climb up in the window seat of their townhouse, waiting with his ball and glove. Manny would duck inside, change out of his dress shirt and tie, and go back out to play.
When Justin came along, three years after B.J., the cycle repeated. Manny and the boys played epic games of Nerf baseball in the backyard. They graduated to tennis balls. The boys had brotherly feuds. Justin would pout if he had to play the field; all he wanted to do was hit. B.J. would get mad and drill him with a pitch. Manny let them sort it out. He wasn't trying to push them toward the game. But he saw how, when they swung, the ball flew.
Yvonne was the household enforcer. She made B.J. do his homework over if it looked sloppy. She made Justin pick up his dirty clothes. ("The hamper would be right there! And all the clothes piled up next to it. How hard is it to put them IN THE HAMPER?") She was a health and P.E. teacher, so she played some with the boys. But she didn't want their lives to be just about ball. When she sensed B.J. was losing his focus in high school, she and Manny sent him to a private school to finish up.
Justin, they say, takes more after his mom -- he's quicker to laugh, more likely to start a conversation. B.J.'s more quiet, thoughtful, like his dad.
The last time the brothers played together was a dozen years ago, on a fall traveling team when B.J. was a senior in high school. He was one of the stars on a loaded team -- David Wright (now third baseman for the Mets) and Ryan Zimmerman (now third baseman for the Nationals) played on the same squad. Justin, three years younger, barely got on the field. But he hung around, soaked up the game, and starred for his high school team. In 2002, B.J. was the second overall pick in the MLB amateur draft. In 2005, Justin was first.
As the boys' lives changed, so did Manny and Yvonne's. They tried to visit each son once a month on the road. (The hardest part was catching both on their birthdays -- B.J.'s is Aug. 21, and Justin's is Aug. 25.) Yvonne (now 56) retired, and Manny (now 55) took a more flexible job as a mortgage broker. (He's also a longtime college basketball referee.) They learned to expect late-night calls when the boys needed swing tips from their father, or advice on "girl things" from their mother. They watched nearly all the boys' games on TV. They have one TV with a satellite dish and another with cable in case the satellite goes out.
But now, here in Florida, they're watching live. The boys are taking batting practice on the main field. B.J. is tall and ropy -- he looks sort of like Eric Davis, the Reds' star from the '80s. He's one of those guys who runs faster than everyone else even though it looks like he's running slower. Justin is a couple inches shorter and 20 pounds thicker. Manny knows the nuances of their swings, how B.J. holds his hands a little higher, and Justin's follow-through is a little longer. But to an untrained eye, their swings look nearly the same. So do the results. Ball after ball cracks off the video screen in left-center.
Yesterday, after watching them hit, Manny gave them a C-plus. "Looking a little better today," he says.
"You think they're gonna make it?" Yvonne says.
B.J. rifles one over the heads of the kids on the lawn beyond the left-field fence.
"Yeah," Manny says, "I think they'll be all right."
* * *
"They were always laid-back about baseball," Justin says. "They wanted us to do well, but it wasn't everything."
A few hours later, in a separate interview, B.J. says: "It wasn't so much about baseball. It was just how to live the right way."
He and Justin are grown men with their own lives. They're not going to live together in Atlanta. If you were a millionaire in your 20s, would you want to live with your brother? But here at spring training, their lockers are side by side. Every morning, after the team stretches, they jog to the outfield and play catch. After B.J. signed with the Braves, he told the team they should go after Justin. All this means more to Manny and Yvonne than it does to their sons. But B.J. and Justin wanted it, too.
They've had similar careers. One minute it looks like they're going to break into the ranks of the league's very best; the next they're hurt, or slumping. The Braves have made big bets on them -- $75 million over five years for B.J., $38 million over the next three for Justin (picking up his Arizona contract). The brothers are parked in the middle of a lineup of All-Stars (Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla). They're part of a stable franchise with a winning tradition. They're set up to succeed.
They've never bragged to each other about stats. It's always been about league vs. league -- B.J. crowing about the American, Justin standing up for the National. "I'm going to have to give that one up," B.J. says.
The real trash talk happens on the golf course, and Manny gets in on that. They spend the whole round trying to walk around in one another's heads. No strokes given, no topics sacred.
"I took 'em down the last time we played," Manny says. "Got up eight strokes before they knew what happened."
I relay this story to B.J. in the locker room. Until now, he's been polite but quiet, a lot of shrugging and staring at his shoes. But now he looks up and laughs.
"Is that what he told you? We played three days. I won the first day, Justin won the second day, he won the third day. Of course that last one is all he remembers."
I take that story back to Manny.
"That's what I said," he says. "I won the last time we played." He winks.
They played those rounds out in Arizona, where Justin hosted Thanksgiving. Before he left, Manny took the scorecard of the round he won and put it on Justin's refrigerator.
It's still there.
* * *
The last day of Manny and Yvonne's spring-training visit almost starts with disaster. They come up to the players' entrance -- a gap in the fence out in left-center -- right as batting practice is starting, and somebody hits a shot Manny and Yvonne don't see until it's right up on them. They barely have enough time to jerk back out of the way.
Once it's clear they're all right, Justin walks over to B.J. off to the side of the batting cage. It's hard to tell from my spot up in the stands. But there might have been a little laughter.
The brothers have been good to their folks. Justin just paid for Yvonne and three of her sisters to take a vacation in Aruba. It's nice, when you're a grown child, to pick up your folks' tab for a meal, or maybe buy them a nice gift. The untold subtext is, you can never get all the way square.
It would be astounding, but beside the point, to put an hourly rate on all that time Manny and Yvonne spent teaching their kids about baseball and life, hoping the boys would live like they swing, balanced and patient and powerful. They're still on the clock.
Practice is over now, and like they have thousands of times, Manny and Yvonne wait in the stands. Their sons have one more thing in common -- for whatever reason, each one has always been the last player out of the locker room. Now that they're on the same team, it seems one will have to give up the title.
They come out together.
The brothers walk across the outfield toward the players' entrance. Up in the stands, where some more family and friends have gathered, some people have to go to the bathroom and some others don't know if it's OK to walk on the field. Everyone scatters. B.J. watches all this from a couple hundred feet away and opens his arms wide in the universal gesture for "WHAT are you doing?"
But a few minutes later, everyone gathers in the parking lot. It hasn't been this way since high school, everybody hanging out together at the ballpark. There's a little small talk, some logistics about where to go for lunch and who's riding with whom. Nothing special. Just family stuff.
Yvonne stands back from the circle for a second. Her fingers are laced tight again.
"This is nice," she says.
And the Uptons climb in their cars and head off together.
* * *
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. Manny was amazed to find out that there's a web page for his stats as a basketball referee.