“Justin Upton busted his ass here. Let’s not forget about that.”
That’s what Kirk Gibson had to say on Thursday afternoon, but that’s not the storyline you’ve been force-fed.
Justin Upton wasn’t gritty enough. He didn’t play Gibby ball.
That’s more like it.
If you insist on keeping that word in your vernacular, let’s discuss those notions.
Three games into the 2012 season, in the seventh inning of a game versus the division-rival Giants, the Diamondbacks trailed 6-5 with the bases loaded, one out, and Miguel Montero at the plate. Upton stood on first base.
Montero, a slow-poke even among catchers, hits a groundball to short and Upton — in an attempt to break up a potential inning-ending double play, takes a hard slide into second base. Giants’ second baseman Emmanuel Burriss drops the ball, everyone’s safe, and the Diamondbacks go on to win the game.
On his takeout slide into second, Upton injured his thumb and the team considered placing him on the disabled list. In hindsight, it seems that would have been a wise decision, as Upton revealed on the last day of the season that he had been playing through the thumb injury for the entire year, unable to replicate his MVP-caliber performance from 2011.
As quoted in a FoxSportsArizona.com story, Upton had this to say of his decision to play through the injury, “It’s something I had to live with. I feel like I gave everything I had this season. I can go home with my head high. If I’m not 100 percent but I can play, I’m going to play.”
Indeed, the right fielder played through pain for 147 games last season, yet he was traded for a lack of grit. I’m not buying it. In fact, I think playing 147 baseball games with a thumb sprain because you don’t want to abandon your teammates — as Upton explained in the aforementioned Fox Sports Arizona piece — is a great way to characterize ‘gritty.’
Injuring your thumb in a takeout slide and leading the majors in the hit-by-pitch category because of your refusal to back off the plate — as Upton did in his 2011 campaign — are two more ways to earn a ‘gritty’ label.
Having your manager — who himself happens to be a poster boy for ‘grit’ — defend you throughout your down year, calling you one of the hardest workers on his team, mentioning your frequent early-BP attendance and your strong desire to be in the lineup, despite your injury and struggles is yet another way to win the affections of grit gluttons.
Batting .280, finishing just one run behind the National League’s runs leader, Ryan Braun, hitting 17 home runs, recording an on-base percentage just four one-hundredths less (.355) than the main guy you were traded for — Martin Prado who had a .359 OBP — and playing in more games than all but one of your teammates? Is that gutless? Grit-less?
You can criticize Derrick Rose or Jay Cutler for lacking grit, for not playing through pain. Save Upton from such criticism, though.
Let’s ditch this storyline. The truth of the matter is that general manager Kevin Towers had been shopping Upton, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, since he arrived in Arizona in September 2010.
As far as Upton being a bad fit, he had zero off-field problems with the Diamondbacks. And one of his more memorable issues with the fan base came when he said he “didn’t care” that fans were booing him. What was he supposed to say, the year after getting a passionate standing ovation at Chase Field as an NL All-Star? That he cared deeply and wished the booing would stop?
Call the Diamondbacks — who obtained Prado (.223/ .272/ .331 and 2-for-34 with runners in scoring position), and a handful of Braves’ prospects, none ranked higher than No. 7 in the Atlanta system — winners in the trade. Call the Diamondbacks outfield crowded and the upgrade at third base necessary. Call the chemistry of the 2013 Diamondbacks better than that of the 2012 team.
Do all that, just make sure that you also call Justin Upton gritty.