‘cause all I ever had
Redemption songs –Bob Marley
I couldn’t have been more stunned. To say I was skeptical would only scratch the surface of my bewilderment.
A.J. Preller, aka “the gunslinger”, had traded for Craig Kimbrel on the eve of the 2015 season in exchange for a slew of prospects. In addition, he had seemingly been forced to take on the onerous contract, if not the onerous personhood, of B.J. Upton as well.
I barely knew B.J. Upton’s career with Tampa Bay. I knew it was pretty good but don’t get the pleasure of watching many Tampa Bay games here in San Diego. I had however been honored to watch a few Atlanta Braves games in the fall of 2014. A more downtrodden bunch could not be found.
At the center of the Braves’ collapsing black hole during that time stood the enigma that was B.J. Upton. Coming off his fine career with Tampa he had signed a mega-deal with Atlanta that had completely blown up in everybody’s face. He couldn’t hit for average, he couldn’t hit for power, he had no run production and struck out at a shockingly high rate. To make matters worse he was perceived to be aloof, indifferent and had been labeled a “dog” for his lack of hustle. At this point he was perceived to be in it only for the money, a loser of the worst stripe.
When I took in a few games in the fall of 2014 fans in Atlanta booed him at every turn. The local Atlanta broadcasters could barely speak his name without giving off antipathy, even disgust. B.J. Upton was despised in Atlanta and had three years left on his contract at about $16 million a year. It was considered the most onerous contract in baseball and Upton was considered untradeable. He was an enormous boulder in the center of a sinking Atlanta ship.
And the Padres took him on.
I haven’t smoked dope in 10 years and have reveled in my sobriety but this news almost had me reaching for the pipe I’d kept hidden away in my shoebox for just such a moment. I felt I needed a haze to get me through this. Trading away Trea Turner was one thing, this was a whole new level of bold (and/or stupid). Upton had a pre-existent injury and couldn’t join the team until June of 2015. By then we’d all had a time to adjust a bit and the season was already going down the tubes. I attempted to keep my mind open, a practice I consider essential to be a fully formed human being.
Upon Upton’s arrival I instantly liked what I saw. In his first game, ironically enough against the Braves, he pinch ran and scooted home for a key run in what turned out to be an important play of the game. He seemed to hesitate a bit near home which made the play closer than it should have been and social media instantaneously jumped all over him for “dogging” it on the way home. This was a man who had a reputation to live down but I could immediately see what was going on here. The man was a superior athlete. He didn’t run like other people, he glided, his feet barely touching the ground. He didn’t have an ounce of extra fat on him. What looked like a lack of hustle to many was simply a gifted human being getting the job done in his own time and style. I wholly approved.
In what was a completely forgettable season for our beloved Pads, there were hints from Melvin Upton Jr. A few key hits here, a beautifully stolen bag there. Fantastic outfield defense. He seemed alert, looking for any way to put his stamp on the game, to figure out a way to win. Contrary to all the reports out of Atlanta that he didn’t care, even on the lost cause that was the 2015 Padres Upton had put in a good shift when given the chance.
In 2016 he came into spring training knowing if he wanted to play full-time he’d have to win the job outright. Which is exactly what he did. Playing an entirely new position (left field) from day one he didn’t complain one time and set about the task at hand. From the beginning his defense stood out. Despite never having played left field his defense was Gold Glove caliber whether charging a ball and throwing out a runner at home or moving back with the greatest of ease and stealing away an extra base hit at the fence. He did it effortlessly unlike his brother last year when every ball hit to left field seemed to take extra effort and could go either way. There is nothing like watching Melvin Upton play outfield defense, it’s a joy to behold.
His offense was a little slow to get going but that didn’t last for long. On April 17 in a 14 inning game with the Diamondbacks he stepped to the plate a good four and a half hours after the game started. He ended it quickly sending a two-run shot just over the center field wall. The look on Melvin’s face during and after circling the bases was repressed joy. It was almost as if he had to pinch himself, realizing what he had done. I remember watching the post-game interview on TV and he seemed to be trying to play it cool in the way I imagine Melvin Upton does with all things in his life, whether they be baseball things or non-baseball things, that is, to play it cool. But he couldn’t contain the smile. He had hit a walk off, his teammates were spraying him with Gatorade and the fans were standing and hollering his name. What a difference from the fall of 2014.
He was only just getting started. On May 21 he did it again, hitting a 2-run shot off Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers to beat the Padres’ nemesis, 7-6. Jansen is one of the hardest closers in the game to hit a home run off of. Again the look of incandescent yet somehow repressed joy on the look of Melvin’s face. Could this be happening to him? After all he’d been through in those two horrible years in Atlanta where his very character had not only been questioned but trampled upon, was he really finding a second life in baseball? Indeed he was. Just for good measure on July 2, in front of a national TV audience, he hit a third walk off home run, this time against Andrew Miller and the mighty Yankees. Three walk off home runs in a half a season!! Something no Padre had ever done before or will likely do again for quite some time. Melvin had found a home, even if it was only temporary.
The rest of his game was darn good too. He stole bases with alarming ease, especially for someone 32 years of age, including an electric outright steal of home which was one of the highlights of this or any other season. He had a number of clutch hits to drive in key runs. At the All Star break he was on pace for a 30-30 season. His defense remained spectacular. Not only was Melvin’s contract no longer onerous, he was earning every penny of it. Which brings us to the crème de la crème, the cherry of a sail on the sailboat sailing around San Diego Bay. The catch he made against Baltimore on June 29.
It was the top of the 2nd and there was a man on first for Baltimore. J.J. Hardy smoked one off Erik Johnson of the Pads 405 feet dead center straightaway. Melvin was playing in center on this night and had been playing relatively shallow and took off like a bat out of hell. Reaching the wall just as the ball began to disappear over the edifice, Upton leapt like a spider scaling a web for prey. Upton, the wall and the ball all seemed to bounce off each other and Melvin landed on his feet after reaching over and bringing the ball back. Without a moment’s hesitation he wheeled and fired a 250 foot strike to first base to double off the runner. Some long time Padre watchers have called it the greatest catch by a Padre they have ever seen.
Who’s to argue. Even if it’s only in the top three doesn’t make it any less extraordinary. It was a jaw dropping play by a jaw dropping talent and even if he still strikes out a bit much on high pitches in the zone doesn’t make his talent any the lesser. He’s been a joy since the moment he’s been a Padre. He hasn’t loafed, he hasn’t pouted, he hasn’t “only been in it for the money”. He’s worked his arse off, won over skeptical fans (like me) and most importantly earned the respect of his teammates and the Padre organization and, by extension, the rest of the baseball world.
As the man himself put it to Dennis Lin of the Tribune, “For me to be able to work my way back to where teams are interested in me, it’s pretty cool.” Cool to the end but underneath you know the man is feeling redeemed. In the end it is about the human spirit, the human possibilities, the journey along the way. We all deserve second chances for we all fail at least once, and usually multiple times over. Melvin Upton has taken advantage of his second chance and has been one of the best Padre stories of the last year and a half. I don’t know if the gunslinger saw that in him before making the trade but he’s a genius if he did. Either way we, as Padre fans, have been the benefactors and on behalf of all of us I just want to say thank you, Melvin Upton, for letting us give you this second chance and for you taking advantage of it, and best of luck to you in your future endeavors. Keep gliding around those bases and racing back to the wall to rob extra base hits.
Most importantly, stay cool, but not so cool you don’t feel the music playing your redemption song.