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Upton Finishes On Top
By Alan Matthews
GREAT BRIDGE, Va.—The clock high on the gym wall ticks toward 1 p.m., when the first name of the 2005 draft will be announced. Since he was 14, most people have expected the name to be Justin Upton’s.
The culmination of three years of anticipation is almost palapable in the hallways at Great Bridge High, yet less than an hour before the audio from the draft conference call comes crackling through the speakers of the school’s library laptop, Upton could not appear less affected. He's wearing a wide smile as he casually serves a volleyball over a net at the far end of the gym during his second block of classes.
“He’s like this every day of the year,” says Joe Kidd, the school’s security officer and Upton’s daily lunch partner. “The one thing about Justin that everybody should understand is that he’s down to earth. He’s always trying to deflect attention off himself. No matter what all goes on today, he’s still just going to be Justin.”
Just being Justin means being the most coveted amateur player in the country—for three years running. It was Upton who hopped a flight to California in August 2002 for his first real taste of the pressure-packed showcase circuit that thousands of high school players subject themselves to each summer.
In an effort to make a positive impression on the hundreds of scouts armed with radar guns, stopwatches, notepads and pens—the kinds with permanent ink that don’t have erasers—the top rising seniors gathered at the Area Code Games in Long Beach that weekend. For most of them, just getting noticed would be an accomplishment. But Upton, who was entering his sophomore year, couldn't help but be noticed.
It would be the first time the baseball fraternity would realize Upton’s skills were comparable to those of the player who had been picked second overall earlier that same summer: Justin’s brother B.J. Justin was under the microscope from that day until this one. But unlike so many other proclaimed prodigies who withered under the constant scrutiny, Justin's status as the consensus top player never wavered.
Shortly before noon, the school’s media center begins filling up with Justin’s friends, family, teammates and teachers. At least a dozen reporters and local television talking heads maneuver between tables and bookshelves to grab Justin and ask him the same questions he’s been answering for at least a month.
“What’s to be nervous about?” he deadpans. “I’ve done all I can do. I’m just looking forward to it all being over.”
Though later he acknowledges apprehension in those moments leading up to the first pick, for a player with his pedigree, keeping cool is all part of the package.
Justin's father Manny, a former associate scout with the Royals who now works as a college basketball referee, sits near the back of the library, cell phone cradled in his right hand. It has been ringing incessantly in recent days, but when it rings at 12:46, he walks over to Justin and puts his arm around him. A hush comes over the room . . .
“Is it the call?” a TV reporter shouts.
“Oh no,” Manny reassures everyone. “It’s not the call.”
Going second in the draft would be OK with the Uptons. Warm and engaging best describes the family that now owns the honor of baseball’s highest-drafted brother combination. But this call--from the Royals, saying they're prepared to take Justin at No. 2 if Arizona chooses to pass him up--serves as reassurance but little else. The Uptons lack pretension, but not ambition.
They’ve spent the past four days bouncing between Phoenix, Kansas City and Chesapeake. Justin’s season ended six days before the draft, and almost immediately a series of phone calls ensued between Manny, Justin’s adviser Larry Reynolds and Diamondbacks and Royals officials. Workouts were scheduled in Phoenix on Sunday, then on Monday morning in Kansas City.
Manny whispers softly to a family friend a few minutes before the draft begins, commenting on how well Justin’s workout with the Diamondbacks went. Afterward, Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick shared lunch with the family, but they still headed off to the airport without any certainty Justin would be their choice.
The Uptons’ Monday afternoon flight from Kansas City was delayed because of bad weather, making the eve of the draft an eventful one. On their way home from the Norfolk airport Tuesday at 1 a.m., Manny answered one of four calls he had received from Diamondbacks officials between since their Sunday visit. This time it's team president Jeff Moorad, who hints Justin would be their man. But no promises are made.
Everyone has crowded around the laptop screen displaying the online draft coverage. Less than five minutes before the Diamondbacks make their pick, MLB.com shows a recorded clip of B.J. in his Durham Bulls uniform discussing the advice he’s passed along to his younger, but bigger, brother.
B.J. glances over his mother’s shoulder at his brother, making sure Justin takes note of his kind words. For all their lives, B.J. has driven his brother to succeed. Compliments don't come any more often from these competitive siblings than others their age.
Justin sat alongside his brother three years ago when the Devil Rays made B.J. the second overall pick. Chance made B.J.'s presence possible today. When the season started, he hoped to be settling into Tampa Bay’s everyday lineup. Instead, he's still sharpening his skills in Triple-A. About a week before the draft, he glanced over the Bulls’ schedule and noticed Durham was at Norfolk on June 7.
Being in the minors this season hasn't been easy for B.J., who sped through the Devil Rays system, earning a callup last September. But the twist of fate that allowed him to be here today serves as some solace.
"It's fortunate I could be here to see him," B.J. said. "I wasn't too happy that I wasn't going to be able to see him, and he got to see me on my day. I think if I was up, I wouldn't have gotten to see this. I went out of my way to get here, but I know he would have done the same for me."
B.J. was determined to make sure he shared the moment. While Justin and his parents were sitting in an airport in Kansas City Monday night, B.J. and the Bulls were on a bus from Ottawa--where they wrapped up a series that afternoon--to Syracuse in an effort to catch an earlier flight to Norfolk. But the team wasn't scheduled to arrive in Norfolk until noon, making it unlikely B.J. would make it to the school in time for the draft. So around midnight he booked his own flight, departing at 6:19 a.m. out of Syracuse. He got three hours of sleep and caught a cab to the airport.
It's clear the brothers' bond goes beyond their baseball talent. B.J. included Justin in almost everything he did growing up, and today he sits back in the corner of the library and reflects on their childhood as he watches Justin greet his family and friends. Though B.J. is just 20, he takes a paternal satisfaction in his development, both as a player and a person.
"It's good to see him succeed," B.J. says. "Going from playing baseball in the front yard and us fighting over it, and then he ended up being the number one pick . . . I'm just real happy for him."
"B.J. pushed his younger brother to be better," says Manny. "And consequently Justin learned that work ethic from when he was 3 and 4 years old. B.J. didn't take it easy on him and made him play and do all those things that big brothers do."
Though lately phone conversations offer a chance for both of them to escape their daily routines of baseball, Justin says a talk with his brother early during his senior season helped him deal with the pressure of this spring. For the first time he could recall, Justin was in a slump. He was playing with the scouts behind the fence at the forefront of his mind. A 15-minute chat with his brother turned things around.
"I think we talked about baseball only twice this year," B.J. says. "One of the few times we did talk baseball was in the beginning of the year and I just told him, 'There's no reason to put pressure on yourself. It's still the same game we used to play in the front yard seven or eight years ago. Just go out there and have fun.' "
Not only does Justin possess instincts and ability superior to any player his age, but he also has his own guide as he begins another chapter of his career. His hands, footwork, range and arm strength are exceptional. But just as the case has been with his brother, Justin's throws to first base have been erratic. As B.J. tries to sort out his own struggles at shortstop in the minors, he has learned to filter all the instruction and advice he receives.
"The biggest mistake I made, going into pro ball, was I wanted to listen to everybody, listen to everything everyone said," B.J. says. "Not that you don't respect it, but you've got to know what's going to help you what's not going to help you. And if I could do it all over again, that's one of the things I would do over again is just take bits and pieces of what people were telling me, instead of taking all of it and trying to throw it in my game.
"Because we're both brought up to always listen to people, we tend to take it all in. It's one of the things I'm going to tell him for sure: You can't change everything from what you've been doing your whole life."
Finally, the announcement comes. At 1:08 the Diamondbacks make Justin the first pick. As soon as the first syllable of his last name comes out of the speakers, the room erupts. Flashbulbs pop and TV camera crews scramble to get a shot of Justin's reaction.
The player everyone knew would be the next No. 1 pick has fulfilled the promise. After years of groundballs, batting practice and interviews, a cathartic exhale from Justin would be expected. Instead, as the applause grows louder, Justin gives a sheepish grin and rises to his feet to embrace his mother.
It's ingrained in his personality not to make too much of a fuss about things, and despite being the center of amateur baseball's attention for the past three years, Justin's most comfortable just being Justin.