Two-thirds of the Braves’ new-look outfield — and surely one of the great intrigues of baseball’s spring — was born here in the pine-and-backwater-scented lowlands at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Together, the cities of this region band together under the handle of Hampton Roads. It is an area familiar to Atlanta sports fans as the cradle of Michael Vick and the address of his notorious kennel.
But this place can birth the improbable as well as the infamous. Here the brothers Upton, B.J. and Justin, pitched tennis balls to each other as children, arguing over every toss and every swing of the bat. Their parents were the outriggers of their youth, stabilizers almost by design. They grew up in an environment charged with baseball talent, like Hampton Roads never saw before and has not seen since. They could not have been better prepared for the job ahead, that of odds-defying brother act.
One son making it to the majors is a blessing, two an embarrassment of good fortune.
Brothers before have done this. Some 100 by the count of the Baseball Almanac have played on the same team at some point over the game’s long history. But rarely, if ever, has family been paired on a single lineup card along with the expectations the Braves have placed upon the Uptons.
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The Braves wanted the elder brother, B.J., so badly for center field that they ponied up their largest free-agent contract ever: five years, $75 million. To acquire Justin for left field, they traded away the popular, Swiss Army knife of a player, Martin Prado.
As kids, B.J. and Justin were partial to Derek Jeter. Blame their father, a Yankees fan, for that. Justin, who once fancied himself a pitcher, also cleared some wall space in his small room for a Dwight Gooden poster.
Now their likenesses might decorate the walls of some other kid’s room in East Point or Alpharetta. The Uptons are coming to town, first to Orlando, Fla., for the beginning of spring training, then to Atlanta come April for games that count. They bring in tow the next great brother story, now that the Harbaugh lode is pretty well played out.
Trace the beginnings of this one to high school days, 37 years ago, when Manny Upton and the then-Yvonne Gordon began keeping company. Manny was a two-sport athlete, so accomplished at baseball that he was an all-region selection. As such, the Triple-A team in Norfolk gave him two season passes and a parking pass.
“We had a lot of dates at the Tidewater (now Norfolk) Tides games,” said Manny.
Manny was nicknamed “Bossman” by his father, a little fact that would gain added importance.
He followed Yvonne to Norfolk State, where, like his brother, Manny played football, but seemed to live baseball. That was his passion, first as an outfielder than a catcher.
They married and brought to the home personalities that they would pass down separately to their children — for B.J. and Justin very likely will strike different profiles in the Braves’ clubhouse.
Yvonne, a high school teacher, was so tough that her students complained she was running the “honors” health and physical-education program. Her more outspoken nature was passed to the couple’s second son.
Manny had the quiet, even-handed personality of a referee, which, in fact, is what he still is. In addition to his work as a mortgage broker, Manny, at 55, keeps a regular schedule reffing college basketball games in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. People say the quieter, more self-contained B.J. favors him the most.
First, 28 years ago, was born Melvin Emmanuel Upton, named after his father. Just as Manny had quickly abandoned his given names, so did his son. Another rather notable Brave, Larry Jones, became Chipper because he was a chip off the ol’ block. Melvin became B.J. after a coach suggested to his dad that he could be Bossman Junior. The abbreviated version stuck like a tattoo.
Can’t you hear the chants now from Mets fans at Citi Field when B.J.’s at the plate: “Mel-Vin, Mel-Vin, Mel-Vin.”
Arriving three years after B.J. was Justin Irvin Upton, no major name modification required.
Growing up, they played the traditional brother roles, B.J. the elder and as such the tormentor of Justin. Their backyard games of home-run derby often disintegrated into shrill quarrels, B.J. as likely to throw at his younger brother as to groove one.
“What didn’t we argue about?” Justin said. “Didn’t matter what it was, we just argued. We did what brothers did.”
Their age difference was just enough to keep them off any organized ballfield together, except for one fall travel team when B.J. was entering his senior in high school and Justin was a freshman. The state of baseball in southeastern Virginia at that time was otherworldly, a golden era that produced future pros such as David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Cuddyer, Mark Reynolds, the Uptons. Wright and Zimmerman were part of that same Tidewater Mets travel team with the Uptons.
“His teammates were pretty tough on Justin. B.J. was pretty tough on him,” said Lee Banks, who managed the travel team. “Justin barely played, but he always wanted to show up B.J., push him.”
The competitive nature between the brothers now shows itself mostly on the golf course. During one family match last Thanksgiving, the brothers were so consumed with needling each other that they didn’t notice Manny building an eight-shot lead on the front.
“And by then, it was too late for them,” laughed dad, who gets no strokes from his pro-athlete sons under any circumstances.
If there ever will be an issue with how the Uptons conduct themselves in Atlanta, just know that parents will be blameless.
“More than anything they brought us up to be good people, not athletes,” B.J. said. “They showed us nothing but right, man.”
“If they didn’t have Manny and Yvonne and the structure they provided, I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them were still meandering around baseball,” said Andy Riddick, the AD and assistant baseball coach at Greenbrier Christian Academy when B.J. played there.
Sensing that B.J. was losing focus on his schoolwork as baseball began to consume him, his mother plucked him from public school and dropped him into the more structured environment of Greenbrier for his final two years. In his senior year there, with B.J.’s class schedule cleared by lunch, his father insisted he spend the afternoons helping with work on the field.
(Learning the difficulties involved in those chores, B.J. came back after moving on to the majors and paid for a sprinkler system).
B.J. showed his brother the way athletically. At Greenbrier Christian, he was a shortstop — he, in fact, broke in with Tampa Bay as an infielder and played in two All-Star Futures games at short before packing up his five tools and going to the outfield. So slick was one play he made after ranging behind third base to snare a ground ball that, the story goes, the first-base umpire’s call went: “You’re out. … I have never seen a better play!”
Both brothers’ careers were punctuated by home runs that stretched the usual boundaries of high school baseball. At Great Bridge High, Justin’s home field, they blocked off the first two rows of the parking lot beyond left field because of the singular length of his homers. At Greenbrier, one fan whose van lost a window to a B.J. blast left it unrepaired for months, proudly posting the message next to the damage: “B.J. Upton Did This.”
And the scouts arrived in flocks. By the time Justin’s time rolled around, his coach at Great Bridge, Lee Wiley, was so adept at catering to their needs that he turned his cellphone into an Upton Hotline, posting daily updates on the prospect’s schedule.
The brothers’ baseball lives paralleled each other in sometimes spooky ways: B.J. was the second pick of the 2002 amateur draft; Justin was first three years later. Three years apart they made their major league debuts on the same day, Aug. 2, both at the age of 19. And here they are now sharing the same major league clubhouse.
For each other
Thrown together again, there are, in those formative Virginia years, clues to the possible chemical reaction that will take place in their games. As they goaded each other to be better than, might they do likewise now?
Might they discover their true primes in each other’s company?
“We’ll definitely push each other; that’s kind of understood,” B.J. said. “Our whole life, that’s been understood.”
Justin already has outlined his philosophy for coexisting in the outfield with his speedy brother: “He can have all of (the fly balls) if he wants them. I’ll catch the ones over on the (left-field line), and he can cover all the ground he wants.”
“It’s going to be good for both of them,” said Andy Riddick, the athletic director and an assistant coach at Greenbrier when B.J. was there. “I think B.J.’s going to benefit more because I think he works better with someone pushing him.”
As their careers were launched with Tampa Bay and Arizona, there have been inconsistencies with both. Both have been prone to extremes of hot and cold. Their father theorizes that slumps will be shortened as they use each other for sounding boards.
There have been controversies, too. B.J. was benched a couple of times in 2008 for lackadaisical play and in 2010 was labeled a “serial lollygagger” by a Florida newspaper columnist. And following last month’s trade, former Diamondbacks star Luis Gonzalez questioned Justin’s leadership, saying he was prone to go into his shell when on a bad streak.
“I don’t call them misconceptions, I call them opinions,” Justin said. “Everyone has opinions. As long as our fan base is behind us in Atlanta, we’ll be just fine.”
Those negative characterizations don’t line up with what they believe of the Uptons here at the mouth of the Chesapeake. There is a strong fresh-start component to the brothers’ story now, one that their father, certainly, would encourage.
“The perception that they don’t play hard is so far from the truth,” the original Bossman said. “When I coached them, I expected them to play hard. When they were growing up, I taught them that hard work wins every time.
“That’s how we taught them to play here.”