Doug and Dixie Mullen are serious as a snake bite about their Arizona Diamondbacks baseball. They pad their right-field bleacher seats with commemorative 1998 opening-night cushions. Doug brings a scorebook. He doesn’t miss a pitch.
The Justin Upton white rally towels that they picked up along their serpentine major league journey, well, those have been repurposed.
“I think they’re bar towels now, cleaning rags,” Dixie said.
There you have the evolution of the modern American sports star as told in terry cloth. One day an object of excitement, the next a soiled remnant.
Doug and Dixie reside on the edge of what used to be Uptown, the right-field section that was annexed in Upton’s name by a team eager to trade on his precocious talent. He made his major league debut in 2007, 23 days before his 20th birthday, and was rushed into the breach for a franchise in search of a face. He even had a section of the stands named after him, where, literally, they used to have his back.
When he employed his many tools to hit .289 with 31 home runs and finish fourth in the MVP voting in 2011, Upton was as close as he would come to fulfilling everything this town had planned for him. Nagged by injuries, his numbers and his stock dropped precipitously the next year.
With the Braves, he returns Monday night to the park where he spent his first, formative five years as a pro. Two miles away is the youth field that bears his name, the one built in partnership with the Diamondbacks. A few more miles than that is the big off-season home he’s building. And there will be plenty of connections more complicated than those in tow for this three-game series.
“I’ll be glad when (the series) comes and goes away,” Arizona general manager Kevin Towers said Friday. He knows that Upton’s return is sure to roil up all the old conjectures about this franchise’s soured love affair with Upton, as well as the still-simmering debate over the trade that sent him to the Braves.
Out in the precinct formerly known as Uptown, Doug and Dixie were doing their best to warn Braves fans about not getting too excited about Upton’s fast start. (With his 12 home runs and his .734 slugging percentage, he was the National League’s player of the month in April).
“He’ll get back in a slump. He’ll start striking out and get in a slump,” Doug said.
“He had a lot of pressure on him here, and he couldn’t take it. He can’t be the No. 1 guy on a team. That’s all we heard about for years, his potential,” Dixie said.
In the stands for a weeknight game against Philadelphia, Upton jerseys were not exactly plentiful. Terry Gott, sitting behind home plate, wore one of the few and spoke up for his man. “I still have a lot of good feelings for him. Yeah, I’ll cheer for him when he’s here,” he said.
Between the poles of opinion likely lies the core truth about the man the Braves are now enthusiastically embracing as a potential breakout player.
Upton’s arc in Arizona was steep in both rise and drop.
First came the big buildup — and Upton’s was huge, to the point of distraction. “A crown was bestowed upon him at a very young age and expectations were through the roof on him, which is tough on a young player to handle,” Towers said.
Then came the festering sense of disappointment when he was unable to meet an ever-sliding scale of expectations. When he was then finally traded, he left town one step ahead of a mudslide.
In Upton’s case, the criticisms came in multiple forms. Luis Gonzalez, a former Diamondbacks star turned special assistant, questioned his attitude and leadership. Other unattributed complaints included the view that Upton wasn’t hard-nosed enough for manager Kirk Gibson, that he was not making the sacrifices necessary to build upon his talent, that he had no interest in being the cornerstone of this franchise.
An item in this week’s Sports Illustrated set the backdrop to the deal that featured Upton for Martin Prado thus: “Last January after a year of chipping away at their right fielder as both a player and a person, the Diamondbacks traded Justin Upton to the Braves.”
Upton’s father Melvin said the ever-present trade rumors wore on the family, but what really stung was the claim that his son didn’t work hard enough at his craft. “When you start attacking someone’s work ethic and character I think that’s outside the lines. Especially when there’s no truth to it,” he said.
Asked about the Arizona stop before the Braves embarked on the current road trip, Upton himself was in a diplomatic mood.
“Obviously it will be cool to play in the stadium I’ve played in for five years, but at end of the day we’re there to win three games,” he said.
“They didn’t think I fit. I fit over here with the Atlanta Braves. I’m enjoying my time here. I don’t hold any grudges. I don’t have any reason to. I’m in a good situation here. You can’t hold onto that stuff. There’s no point to it.”
As square peg was poised to return to round hole this week, a general conciliatory tone was being sounded.
“The relationships were good. I had a good relationship with Justin. The perception was that Kirk didn’t. I think they had a very good relationship,” Towers said.
Gibson, the coarse grit manager, even drew a comparison between his departure as a player from Detroit in 1988 to the hubbub around Upton’s trade.
“When I left, it was good riddance. I busted my ass there. Justin Upton busted his ass here, let’s not forget about that,” Gibson said. “Guys are going to get traded. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing; it’s baseball.”
Reports that manager and player could not co-exist “have no basis to them at all,” Gibson said.
“That clear?” he added.
Towers characterized the trade as a must move for both the player and the team.
Adopting a philosophy diametrically opposed to that of the Braves, the Diamondbacks were intent upon remaking themselves into more of a small-ball team. They would prize Prado’s more circumspect approach at the plate above Upton’s freer-swinging ways. They would value defense and consistency over the big-bang theory.
“In our eyes we saw (Upton) as more an average defender. We thought he would be a better left fielder than right fielder (as the Braves are playing him). He’s got incredible power, but can be streaky and there are strikeouts. And we have been slowly trying to get away from the strikeouts,” the general manager said.
It was not the Diamondbacks’ first priority to further Upton’s career, but that was exactly the result of the trade, Towers insisted. In Atlanta, playing with his brother B.J., enjoying a change of scenery, with a franchise that has another player it would like to make into a flag bearer (Jason Heyward), Upton had no excuse not to flourish.
“When we weren’t winning, it was always because of Justin. That’s tough. And it wasn’t going to change,” Towers said.
There are two time zones and 1,600 miles between Atlanta and Phoenix. Yet their baseball teams are bound by an exchange of players and by a stark contrast in operating models.
For a season, and maybe more, each will be tempted to compare its results with the other. For three days in May — and for three more at the end of June when Arizona comes to Turner Field — the comparisons will be up close and personal.
The entire exercise intensifies considerably if there are any further meetings postseason.