In my current job, it’s very rare that I get to attend a sporting event as a fan.
So when my 17-year-old son told me he’d won tickets to Wednesday’s day game between the Diamondbacks and the Atlanta Braves, and he wanted me to go with him, I jumped at the chance. It represented the rare chance to bond and an even more rare chance to get out of the office. Plus, the D-backs were playing the Braves, so I’d get to gauge the fan response to Justin Upton, who was making a return to the desert after a long-talked about trade was finally consummated last January.
Admittedly, we weren’t in our seats when Upton grounded out to short in the top of the first — the Sonoran Dog was beckoning, and well, those concession lines move really slow.
But when Upton strode to the plate in the third inning to face D-backs starter Ian Kennedy, I heard it all.
There were cheers (there were a lot of Braves fans in the house) and there were boos, because Phoenix fans have developed a fondness for chorusing disapproval over the past couple seasons. Los Angeles East? How about Philadelphia West?
Anyway, among the boos, somebody in our section actually yelled to Kennedy “put one in his earhole!” That’s great, you want Upton to get beaned in the head by a 90-mile-per-hour fastball because, umm…why was that again?
My two biggest takeaways from my most recent fan experience at Chase Field were one, that Sonoran Dog is really good and well worth missing the top of the first inning for, and two, D-backs’ fans have what is bordering on an irrational hate for Justin Upton and I have no idea why.
Yes, Justin Upton, the same guy that played on two division championship teams, the same guy that played in over 140 games last year with an injured thumb and the same guy who represented the Diamondbacks twice in the All-Star Game and won a Silver Slugger Award and finished fourth in the NL MVP balloting just two years ago.
Oh yeah, speaking of two years ago, remember when Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder didn’t pick Upton to participate in the Home Run Derby during the All-Star festivities at Chase Field? You would have thought the portly first baseman had started a string of wildfires around the Valley. He was pelted with boos in the stadium (for months following the event) and pelted with a water bottle in a pre-All-Star Game parade in downtown.
But even more shameful is the fact that it’s the only time I really remember D-backs fans having Upton’s back during his six years with the big league club. Okay, not all fans, but the majority of them.
I didn’t really understand the fans of Phoenix not elevating Upton to superstar status while he was here — he had/has superstar talent. Maybe the fans were reticent to do so considering Upton’s lack of superstar statistics. He’s hit .300 only once. He’s topped the 20-homer plateau twice and once went over 30. He’s never driven in more than 88 runs in a season. I get all that.
But can we remember…he is STILL ONLY 25-YEARS-OLD! When Barry Bonds entered his age-25 season, he was a .256 hitter with 84 career home runs and hadn’t made an All-Star team. At 25, Upton is a .278 hitter and has 121 home runs.
In the aftermath of Upton’s first three-game series back in the Valley Wednesday night, I perused the Arizona Sports Facebook page to see if anyone was on-board with me on these type of thoughts. I didn’t find many like thinkers. In fact, I found a lot of haters.
“J up showed the reason we traded him. No performance in big situations and a bad attitude,” wrote one user.
Bad attitude? Because he got mad at himself for striking out?
“nice strike out jup. that was clutch of you to do that,” shared another, making reference to Upton’s strikeout in the ninth inning when his team was down two runs and nobody was on base.
Oh, there was more.
“The fact is that Az. has improved greatly and have won the west in 11 and is good enough to win it again and go to the World Series this year. Well done I say. Go Snakes. World Series or bust!!!”
We’ll just ignore the fact that Upton was the main offensive cog in that 2011 division championship run, okay.
“I think Alex Cintron was more clutch than Justin Upton,” shared another commenter.
Do I even have to comment on this one? Okay, I will. The three years that Cintron was a regular player in Arizona, the Diamondbacks won 43 percent of their games. Clutch.
I’m not going to sit here and debate whether or not the Diamondbacks should have traded Upton or whether or not they got enough in return from Atlanta. The trade is done and there’s no going back.
I’ll take a different tact. I’ll say Phoenix is a Martin Prado-type of town. This city loves the guys who play with, wait for it….”grit” and are good clubhouse guys. Martin Prado is that type of player. And he’s gotten a free pass from fans in this city because of it despite the fact that he’s been dreadful since putting on the Sedona Red. I have no doubt that Prado will improve in the future — his track record says he will, but facts are facts.
Upton was a good player in Arizona with the potential to be great. But was he a bad guy? Despite being handsomely paid at an incredibly early age, he never got in trouble with the law like so many other athletes do. He played through injury and produced. He was respectful, if not a little quiet, with the media.
By the end of his stay, he may have wanted a trade, but let me ask you this — wouldn’t you have wanted one? I’d like to see how you’d react if your employer tried to get rid of you in a very public fashion for three straight years. You’d probably want a change of scenery, too. And even so, Upton never employed the “scorched earth” tactics former Phoenix athletes like Charles Barkley and Simeon Rice did.
The one that always comes up is he didn’t hustle. I personally don’t recall any repeated occurrences of this. If anything, it’s just a matter of Upton making things look easy. By the way, have you ever watched Albert Pujols on a pop-up? How about Miguel Montero on a ground ball to second? There’s not a whole lot of hustle going on in those instances, either.
“He plays hard, he played hard while he was here, it was never an issue,” Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said earlier this week.
If his former manager who built his own playing reputation on playing all-out, all the time has no issue with Upton’s work ethic, why should any D-backs fan?
So, I’ll continue to ponder why a young star athlete with worlds of still untapped potential is hated by many fans of his former team.
And I’ll be grateful that Atlanta only comes to town once this year. I won’t have to be frustrated and confused until next season.