PITTSBURGH -- He's been booed at home, he's been teased in the trade market. He's been called lazy, he's been labeled a disappointment, he's had his character called into question. So what in the world did Justin Upton think he was doing the other night, picking up his bat and heading into the indoor cages at PNC Park, after his D-backs had pummeled the Pirates? Didn't he know he was supposed to be on the team bus, headphones on and visions of room service or clubbing or late-night television dancing in his head? How dare this kid hone his craft? How dare he care?More
After all, that doesn't fit the narrative of unfulfilled potential and lackluster effort. That doesn't make it any easier to understand why the D-backs would even consider trading him at 24. What do you have to say for yourself, Justin? "I know I'm a hard worker, and my teammates and coaches know that, too," Upton says. "People are misinformed and just talk out of ignorance. At the end of the day, you can't worry about those things. People are going to attack your character whether they know you or not. You've got to know who you are and stick with it." All right, the kid's clearly delusional. "Know who you are and stick with it?" Doesn't Upton know his slugging percentage has dipped more than 100 points from a season ago? Doesn't he know he's got just nine home runs a year after belting 31 and that the pull-side power that once sustained him has now abandoned him? Doesn't he know his best days are behind him? Doesn't he know he's dragging down a D-backs offense that has still somehow managed to score the fourth-most runs in the league? "I'm getting my hits and just trying to get on-base for these guys, trying to contribute," he says. "Kind of setting the table while these other guys have been hot. Hopefully these last two months, I can find my zone where I'm driving the ball. Hopefully roles don't reverse, but hopefully I can jump on the wagon with those guys." Wait, now he's trying to paint himself as a team player? Doesn't he know he's supposed to be a coddled superstar, a former No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft who has had everything -- including a six-year, $50 million contract extension -- handed to him, despite uneven results at the Major League level? Doesn't he know gifted athletes who arrive in the big leagues at 19 and receive absurd amounts of attention from Day 1 are supposed to be selfish? Surely, one of the veterans in this D-backs clubhouse will call him out. Let's see ... how about J.J. Putz? "People in the media, people on the outside, they don't see what we see," Putz says. "They don't see the work he puts in. He's been under a lot of scrutiny and speculation, and he's handled everything like a true professional." All right, so Putz doesn't want to advance the narrative. But what about manager Kirk Gibson, the ultimate old-school grinder. He's a gruff guy, a no-nonsense guy. Surely, Gibby must be frustrated by the "enigma," to borrow an oft-cited term, that is Justin Upton. Surely, the dip in power concerns him, right? Surely, he thinks Upton has taken a step back in 2012, correct? "This kid's been over-analyzed," Gibson says. "In my mind, he's been a better player than he was last year." Wait, now, how can that be? After all, home runs are the only way to impact a game, aren't they? And if Justin Upton isn't hitting home runs, why does he even bother showing up? "He plays the games every day, he has a great attitude, he's a great teammate, he plays with energy, he never asks for a day off, he never runs from anything," Gibson continues, barely pausing for air. "He works on every aspect of his game. He got on base [Tuesday] night, I asked him to steal, and he stole. We asked him to work on his outfield, going back on the ball, and he goes back [Tuesday] night and makes a good throw trying to get [Starling] Marte. "He's a much better ballplayer, all-around ballplayer, than he was last year. He doesn't have as many home runs as last year, so everybody is asking me about it every day. But people say he's lazy and he doesn't work hard, and it's all [not true]." But those trade rumors weren't baloney. General manager Kevin Towers sat Upton down last month and explained to him that if the D-backs were overwhelmed with an offer for him, they might be inclined to take it. And even though the non-waiver Trade Deadline came and went and Upton, who was also rumored to be "on the block" in the 2010-11 offseason, is still donning Sedona red, surely it's possible those conversations will be revisited in the winter. The D-backs wouldn't listen to offers -- and discuss the matter in public -- if Upton wasn't damaged goods, right? After all, Upton's getting up there in years. He turns 25 in a couple weeks. What would lead anybody to believe he'll ever be in the MVP conversation again? I mean, it's been, like, 10 months since he was heralded as the key cog of a D-backs team that won the National League West. That was forever ago. He's no longer a "winning player," or so the story goes. Surely, Upton must feel like his career has completely gotten away from him, right? "At this age, I'm still just having fun," he says. "I don't have any aches and pains. I'm able to roll out of bed and play the game every day. I'm just trying to enjoy that, because hopefully I'm able to play well into my 30s, and by that point, it will be a struggle to get your body going and ready. So I'm just enjoying being 24 and 25 in this game and taking every day in stride." How dare this guy come across as so relaxed, so grounded? How dare he do everything in his power to improve and earn the respect of those around him, day in and day out? How dare Justin Upton let facts and fortitude get in the way of a good, negative narrative?
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less