Not since Sister Sledge hit the charts with “We Are Family” (1979), has siblinghood been celebrated quite so loudly as today. The bonds of blood have become big headlines — and figure to stay that way at least until one Harbaugh falls.
We have brothers in conflict: The Super Bowl pitting San Francisco’s head coach Jim Harbaugh against Baltimore’s John. Or is that the other way around? Anyway, by the time the hype mill is done machining that storyline, Cain vs. Abel will look like “Leave it to Beaver” by comparison.
And as of Thursday, we have brothers together in the outfield: Why, we’re officially up to our armpits in Uptons, the Braves trading for Justin to join free-agent acquisition B.J. The Braves are banking much on the power of brotherly glove.
A French writer once declared that, “A brother is a friend given by Nature.”
Justin Upton, the younger and more outgoing of the two, put the sibling relationship a bit more bluntly: “I wouldn’t be the player I am if (B.J.) cut me any slack,” he said to USA Today a few years back.
The Uptons tell a story that is oh-so common among sporting brothers and sisters, one that helps to explain why there are so many examples of family ties in athletics. There are benefits to growing up together in a sports-centric household, feeding off each other’s competitive instincts, transforming the natural sibling rivalry into training for bigger games to come.
Because of the three years separating them, the Uptons played little organized ball together. Just one year on a fall travel team, the Tidewater (Va.) Mets, when Justin was a high school freshman and B.J. a senior.
Their competition consisted of childhood games in the front yard, when B.J. hit tennis balls pitched by Justin over neighbors’ roofs. Then they’d flip it around, and older brother would routinely strike out the younger. Often, to keep Justin on his toes, B.J. would drill him with a high, hard Wilson. Because that’s what big brothers do.
There is a high expectation that joining the two of them together at Turner Field will spark all kinds of beneficial interaction. They are well past the stage of Justin getting upset with his brother and running inside crying.
“I think there’s no question, talking to both of them, how much admiration they have for each other and how much they’ve looked forward and dreamed of this opportunity to play together,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “I do think it will drive them, I think it will push them.”
Anticipating the joy of going to work every day with his brother, Justin sees the arrangement as a significant emotional tailwind. “The more energy you can bring to the yard every day makes you a better player,” he said last week.
Forty years ago, Joe Niekro joined his older brother Phil in Atlanta for a couple of years — the two also played briefly together for the Yankees in 1985. Hall of Famer Phil counts those three seasons with his brother among the best of his 24-year career.
“You’re spending a lot of time with each other doing what you love to do — playing baseball. It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said.
When reunited in Atlanta, Phil was able to reintroduce his brother to the family tradition — the knuckleball. They won 539 games between them, the most by any brother combination in baseball (the Perrys, Gaylord and Jim, had just 10 fewer).
And for that brief slice of time they played together, “When you saw me, you saw Joe; and when you saw Joe, you saw me. We were inseparable, like twins almost,” Phil said. Joe died in 2006.
Another Hall of Fame Brave, Henry Aaron, can speak to the B-side of playing with your brother, when one is galactically more gifted.
No brother combination has more career home runs than the Aarons. Henry had 755. Tommie had 13.
Try to imagine how difficult it was to be the baseball-playing brother of the great Henry Aaron, and then to be paired with and compared with him on a regular basis (as he was in Milwaukee and Atlanta for parts of seven seasons between up to 1971).
“He was having some tough times playing here (in Atlanta),” Henry said of his brother, who died in 1984 at the age of 45.
“He was a terrific ballplayer. I had been in the big leagues a long time, and I’m sure everything I had done, people were thinking he would do. It hurt him in a way. I think if he had the opportunity to play on another club, he would have done much better.”
As least the Uptons are a more equally matched set. One was a first overall pick in the draft (Justin) and other was a No. 2 overall. Justin is a .278 career hitter; B.J. a .255 hitter. Justin has 108 home runs (one per every 25 at-bats) and 80 stolen bases. B.J. has 118 homers (one per 30 at-bats) and 232 stolen bases.
Meanwhile at the Super Bowl, the experience of brother against brother is not as serious as, say, the Civil War. But it can be uncomfortable. And there is just no uniform approach for when siblings represent different uniforms.
The Niekro brothers pitched against each nine times, Phil remembered. Joe’s team won five of those meetings and “Joe had one home run, and he hit it off me,” Phil said.
“I always told him I wanted to beat him 1-0. I didn’t want to trample him.”
The kind approach didn’t suit all.
“Not me,” said Hawks Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, who was thrown onto the court regularly against his brother, Gerald, for a dozen seasons in the 1980s and ’90s.
“I wanted to kill him.
“The worst part of playing against him, he talked too much. Gerald talked a lot of trash. I remember one game I think I had 42 at the end of three and he said, ‘You ain’t scoring any more tonight big bro’. I just looked at him and said, ‘I got 42 in three quarters, what are you talking about?’”
The Wilkins brothers were able to call it a career in perfect agreement, however, both finishing in Orlando in 1998-99. “It was fun, especially at the end of our careers because it was about more than wins and losses,” Dominique said.
For the foreseeable future the Uptons will share a common goal. Alas, they are the only children of Manny and Yvonne Upton. Thus it will be impossible for them to ever match the feat of the Alou clan, who had three brothers — Felipe, Jesus and Matty — start in the same outfield for San Francisco in 1963.
Before the first day of spring, before the Uptons set up shop at Turner Field amid a wave of feel-good stories, there is one cautionary word from an expert in baseball brotherhood.
“Fans and writers, they have a way of comparing you to somebody,” Aaron said. “Those kinds of things are kind of tough.
“One brother goes up there and hits a home run or two home runs and the other brother goes up and strikes out two or three times. Then it’s, ‘Oh, you can’t do what your brother does.’ You don’t want to put that kind of pressure on each other.
“They got to find their own niche and do their own thing.”
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