NEW YORK -- In a whispered monotone drawl, B.J. Upton, lounging in his clubhouse chair, achingly laid back, says about the only truth he knows, the only truth he lets clutter his brain to explain what exactly happened in a miserable 2013 season when he was statistically one of the worst offensive players in the game.
"Baseball is kind of built for you to fail."
It should be quite the gut-punch realization for someone who has devoted his whole life to the sport. It should be a harsh reality for someone who, prior to last year, had always experienced success at the highest levels. But it doesn't seem to faze Upton.
Upton's observation is a severe take on the old baseball adage that "baseball is a game of failure." At least that cliche leaves room for the sport to be forgiving. Baseball is a game in which failure can happen, but it doesn't mean it has to happen, and it certainly doesn't take any satisfaction when it does.
But in Upton's version, baseball is inherently cruel in that it wants you to fail. Its sole purpose is for you to fail. Success is fleeting, and misery is just around the corner, in the next at-bat, the next pitch. And you can believe anything you want about the game -- how it's a lovely exercise in skill and patience, how it is played in the most pleasant time of the year -- but ultimately, for the people on the field, it's about how they handle the inevitable failure that comes their way.
For Upton, 29, he chose to ignore the failure of having batted just .184 with a .557 OPS last season for the Atlanta Braves after having signed a five-year, $75 million contract. He didn't become obsessed by it. He lived his life the way he had always lived his life, which was to be as laid back as possible, and when this season started, he began from scratch without any lingering effects from last season.
"I haven't really looked at anything from last year," Upton said. "Last year, I just couldn't put a finger on it. I'm pretty good at letting things roll off my back pretty easy, so it wasn't anything I was worried about."
And that may be the biggest issue with Upton's career. He may be committed to success, but he isn't driven by failure.
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Almost all the best athletes are consumed by failure. Michael Jordan famously fed off slights -- some perceived -- from the media and from his high school days to fuel his performances. Alex Rodriguez was so obsessed by failure and acceptance that he has practically sabotaged his own career because of it. Kobe Bryant so fears the perception of losing that he's criticized lesser talented teammates on some of his losing teams for the sole purpose of protecting his own greatness.
But you get the sense that B.J. Upton doesn't care about what you think of him, or whether the numbers consider him a failure or not. He wants to win and he wants to succeed but not at the expense of sacrificing who he is as a person: the chillest, illest, most laid back person in the game. Failure be damned. Upton isn't going to change.
In any conversation with him you don't get the sense that he's holding something back. You just get the sense that he has nothing to offer in terms of moments of enlightenment.
The numerous ways in which he spoke about 2013:
- "Last year is in the past."
- "I made some slight adjustments, but other than that I haven't really changed anything."
- "To be honest with you, I haven't really thought much about last year."
- "Last year was last year and that was it. When that last out was made last year, it was over with for me."
- "I didn't take any different approach. I'm just laid back."
In the middle of the worst season of his career, Upton would arrive to the stadium with the same demeanor, regardless of whether he had played well the previous day or not. Teammates didn't know whether to encourage him or feel sorry for him.
"He's the same guy when he comes in every day," said teammate and brother Justin Upton. "It's hard to tell [whether he's happy or not]. But that's a good thing in baseball, to be the same guy every time you show up."
But it wasn't so good for Upton last year because he failed no matter what he did.
For so long, people have wondered whether Upton, the overall No. 2 pick in 2002, really cares about baseball. Although he's had a good career, he's never quite lived up to expectations.
"All sorts of tools, can win games on some days yet a lot of seeming lapses in effort and focus," said one American League team report on him from this spring.
But Upton's problem might not necessarily be about effort. Several teammates, including brother Justin, said that they sympathized with B.J. last year because he had put in the required work to make himself better. It just didn't happen.
"Mechanically coming into the season some things weren't right," Justin Upton said. "When you have to go out there every single day and play, it's tough to change some of those things that weren't going right. Sometimes when you get messed up mechanically it's tough to fix it on the fly during the season."
The moment B.J. Upton began to care about the expectations of having signed his big contract was the moment that he began to fail. It was a quick lesson. He vows never to do it again.
"You always want to so-called "live up to the contract." but that's behind me," Upton said. "I'm not worried about that anymore."
It had been a lot of change at once for Upton. For his entire career, Upton had lived in the bubble of having played in Tampa, where expectations are minimal and the pressure is negligible. In one swoop he switched teams, he made more money, he went to a different league, and his whole world suffered.
"Honestly, I had been playing somewhere for 10 years, that's all I knew," Upton said of his time with the Rays. "Any change for me was pretty drastic."
But he acknowledges that it shouldn't be an excuse.
"I still should have had a better year than what I had last year," Upton said. "I think all those changes kind of played into it. But like I said, it's over with. I'm not really worried about it."
Upton stresses many times that he doesn't really worry about much, which is why at no point during his year-long slump in 2013 did he consult his brother, or anyone else for that matter, on how to do better at the plate. The perceived beauty of the Uptons arriving in Atlanta at the same time was that they would be there to support one another. But anybody who truly knew the brothers was aware that this fairy tale version was not based in reality.
While Justin Upton spends his time prior to the game walking around the clubhouse interacting with teammates, B.J. Upton mostly sits quietly at his locker. He's not anti-social, but fiercely independent.
"We're a lot alike, but we're definitely different," Upton said. "He knows how I handle things, and I don't really talk about much. I just go about my business, man, and try to figure it out. I kind of kept to myself, man. I've always been that way my whole life. I kind of kept things to myself and tried figure out my own way."
Upton just might be too laid back, too reserved, too stubborn for his own good. But Justin chose to see B.J.'s reluctance to talk about his struggles as a sign of valor. So Justin left his older brother alone. And he really didn't know if it was the right decision because B.J. wasn't going to show it one way or another.
"You have to be stubborn in baseball to be able to go out there and play every night," Justin Upton said. "You have to be stuck in your ways and stuck in your routine. I think it was kind of good for everybody. I think that's the way he looked at it. He didn't want to flood everyone else with his problems. He kept it away from the team. He continued to battle every day for us. It's all we could have asked for."
In the Division Series loss to the Dodgers last year, Upton had just three plate appearances. He had been relegated to the bench. But he didn't complain or sulk. He was the same guy.
"Obviously it's a humbling process but it's more frustrating than anything, especially being one of the guys on this team to have some playoff experience and not to be out there and help the way I wanted to, that was really frustrating," Upton said.
So where does B.J. Upton stand now?
He is still failing, and in some ways even worse than last year. The batting average is marginally better (.203 entering Tuesday's game), but some of the peripheral numbers seem to dictate that he's done worse. He's swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone (28.2 percent compared to 25.7 percent last year according to PITCHF/x data from fangraphs.com). And you can tell he's not worried about it because he hasn't done much to correct any deficiencies from last year.
"Honestly, I just kind of kept the same thing but worked on using my legs more in my swing, but other than that I didn't really change anything," Upton said.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez likes to believe that even the best players have bad years. If you flip to the back of someone's baseball card, Gonzalez says, you can find fault in anyone's numbers for one season.
"I believe that was his bad year," Gonzalez said. "And now we're going to have the B.J. Upton that he has been in the past."
But if baseball is a game that wants you fail, what happens when you aren't worried when you do?