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B.J. Upton under fire (and he knows it)

By Jeff Schultz - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



When a professional athlete is given a contract that ensures tremendous wealth, only to then fairly stink at his craft, there are two absolutes: 1) He won’t receive sympathy (see: wealth); 2) He will be booed by fans and see his cyber-self body-slammed and dismembered in the dark underworld of social media (see: stinks).

B.J. Upton lives in this mixed-blessing world.

It’s only Game 2 of Year 2 into his Braves’ career. But $75 million doesn’t buy a lot of patience. All a $75 million contract does is raise expectations, ensuring public rage when that same player bats .184 in his first season, strikes out 151 times, ranks ninth on the roster with 26 RBIs (five ahead of a utility player ) and hits .108 with runners in scoring position.

Upton (and the Braves) expressed confidence in spring training that he had fixed his swing, eliminated bad habits and gone back to the things that made him successful early in his career with Tampa Bay. But the first game didn’t confirm any of that: He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and stranded three base runners in a 2-0 loss to Milwaukee on Monday.

Immediately following the game, Upton sat at a table in the Braves’ clubhouse, studying tape of his at-bats.

“I had a feeling what I was doing wrong, and I was right,” he said. “Pitch selection. I didn’t have that many good pitches to hit. Even the balls I felt I took a good swing on were borderline strikes. Just a minor adjustment.”

Then came Tuesday.

In his first at-bat, he worked the count full and took a called third strike. In his second at-bat, he swung and missed at a third strike with a runner on first. The Braves won 5-2 but Upton went 0-for-4, bringing him to 0-for-8 with four strikeouts in two games.

Maybe more minor adjustments are needed.

What happened to this guy?

There was a time when Upton was viewed as a franchise centerpiece. He was like The Natural in his first two full seasons with Tampa Bay. He drove in runs. He hit doubles and homers. He stole bases. He led the Rays to the American League pennant over the Boston Red Sox in 2008 with four homers and 11 RBIs in the series.

Over the years, there have been questions about whether Upton truly was playing up to his potential. There were a couple of incidents in Tampa that called his effort into question. There certainly were debates about whether the Braves had gone too far with their financial commitment.

But nobody expected … this.

Upton is aware of the public criticism. Actually, he’s probably too aware. Be careful about venturing onto Twitter or onto the Internet when your career looks like a grease fire because you’ll find no comfort there.

“Oh yeah. They’re all over me already,” Upton said about fan criticism Tuesday. “Whatever. They don’t have to come out and play.”

So you go on Twitter a lot?

“I check it every once in a while. If you don’t check it out, it backs up (with messages) and you have to scroll all the way to the top. So I see it. But that’s the thing about social media these days. Everybody has something to say. But like I said: They don’t have to play, and I don’t have to see them. I play for these 24 (players) and these coaches.”

Some unsolicited advice: Stay off Twitter, B.J.. Really, it’s OK if messages back up. Wall Street will not shut down.

He said the criticism fuels him.

“Obviously, I’m a competitor,” he said. “But there will be a time when … there will be a time when they’ll stop.”

Because?

“I feel good. I’m in a good place. Things are going to be all right.

“There’s a reason only 8 percent of the world can play this game. It looks real easy watching from the outside. But until you’re in it, you don’t know. Everybody’s got an opinion, and they’re entitled to it. … I take this to heart. It’s your livelihood. You work hard all offseason because you want to do well. If there’s anybody who cares it’s me.”

Caring helps. But he has a lot to prove.

Hitting coach Greg Walker says he still sees “some spinny swings” but that Upton “has worked hard to tighten things up. Last year he had a lot of timing problems.”

Upton was a career .255 hitter in Tampa Bay. His averages dropped significantly from .300 in 2007 and .273 in 2008.

“I think it’s been building over the years,” Walker said. “He’s turned into a streaky player. When you look at his talent, there’s no reason he should be where he is. His talent is elite. He’s fighting the fight. But I don’t want to make too many judgments right now.”

Upton acknowledges that coming to Atlanta was a bigger adjustment than he expected.

“It was all foreign to me,” he said. “I was in one place for 10 years, and that’s all I knew. But I’m good now.”

We all await the evidence.

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