This is the first edition of a new feature known as the "Rays Roundtable." Every week, I'll look at a Rays-relevant topic, and each of the staff members will briefly share their opinion on it.
At this point in time, it seems fairly safe to say that the Rays longest tenured member (one Melvin Emanuel "B.J." Upton) will most likely not be returning to the Rays. Over the years since his MLB debut against Boston at the Trop in '04, we've all cultivated our own opinions and sentiments regarding BJ. No matter what your stance, it's impossible to deny that BJ has been a key cog in the Rays massive turn around from "worst to first," and in the Rays success since 2008.
Indeed, it's no coincidence that BJ's finest hours are also the franchise's. We all remember BJ hitting 7 home runs in the wild World Series run of '08, where he muscled the Rays over Sox White and Red, with 3 ALDS and 4 ALDS jacks. He also drove in the walk-off run in the most thrilling win of the postseason, Game 2 of the ALCS. And who could forget BJ tying the game in the Rays final hour, manufacturing a run all by himself against all odds and inclement weather in the heartbreaking 5th game of the World Series?
More recently, BJ created a wave of memories as the most crucial part of the Rays' magical September in 2011. Amidst trade rumors swirling around the struggling Rays and Upton, it looked nearly certain that BJ would be on his way out, with Ken Rosenthal going so far as to guarantee that "
Upton will be traded, trust me on that". Fortunately, this ended up not being the case, as what, at the time, looked like a missed opportunity to bring in new talent instead ended with a night that will live on forever in the hearts of Rays fan. BJ was the key to setting up the night, and his September numbers speak for themselves. The Rays went from 9 games behind Boston to overtaking them, and BJ put up a .333/.432/.606 triple slash for that stretch.
Now let's look at some other BJ moments over the years that have stood out.
I will always remember B.J. Upton hitting for the cycle off CC Sabathia in 2009. In that particular year, it felt like Upton hitting the cycle in a 14-3 thwomping of the 103-win New York Yankees was a small sign that the Rays would be back and better in 2010. The 2009 season was a bitter letdown after it felt like the 2008 team was good enough to win the World Series, but Upton helped end it on a fresh note.
My favorite BJ memory was when he coined the (now iconic) phrase "ball on a budget" at the St. Petersburg Bowl.
I'm going to have to agree with Brad and say that of all the memorable moments from BJ Upton, his hitting for the cycle stands out. Back then, before I understood or knew advanced statistics, terms like the Triple Crown, no-hitter, and hitting for the cycle held a very special meaning. They are still cool achievements even now, but their importance is less significant than I used to believe.
Anyway, BJ had been struggling all year long coming off of the shoulder injury. I didn't understand why he wasn't hitting like his 2007-2008 days. When BJ finally hit for the cycle, I became excited, thinking he was returning to the awesome form that he'd tantalized us with before, especially in the 2008 playoffs. I really think this was the beginning of the BJ Upton up and down cycle, in which us fans would predict he finally figured things out each time he had a hot streak.
Near the end of 2012, I think we finally accepted Upton as who he was instead of hoping he would be someone else. It is really unfortunate that is wasn't till the end of his Rays career that we came to accept this, but the roller coaster ride he sent us on from 2009-2012 was still incredibly enjoyable. He shall be missed.
My favorite Upton moment wasn't really about a specific game, but it goes back to spring training in 2007. Two seasons earlier, he was coming off a 50 error season at shortstop in the minors, and his defense at shortstop and third base in 2006 wasn't any better. There were serious concerns about which position he would be able to play, and he started getting more time in center field since the infield wasn't working out for him. I caught a game at Al Lang Field that year with Upton in center, and it looked like the position switch was going to work out. His reactions were good and he obviously had the athleticism to cover enough ground. In the end he became an above average defender at one of the most demanding positions on the field.
I've always been a huge Upton fan and defender, and it's frustrated me to no end to see a fantastic player like Upton get grief for not being a league MVP. But my favorite Upton memory comes from the time before those expectations were unreasonable. Remember, in 2007, Upton hit .300/.386/.508. The following year, with a bum shoulder, he lost over a hundred points of slugging but his on-base skill remained strong, and the HR outburst in the playoffs hinted that his power stroke was still there.
Off-season surgery prevented Upton from making the opener in Boston. By the time he was ready to return, it was the home opener against the Yankees, and the Rays were 3-3, needing an injection of energy. Joe Maddon slotted Upton into the leadoff spot. The result? Three walks and a beautiful bunt single laid down the third base line. Upton stole second and third against Wang, and he did this in the field, tracking back from the starburst to the wall to make one of what would eventually be many over the shoulder catches.
We didn't know 2009 would be the worst offensive season of Upton's career, as he worked his way back from the surgery. We didn't know that Pat Burrell would flop (he hit his first home run of the year that night), and we didn't know that 2009 was the beginning of the end for Scott Kazmir (who struck out six and walked none). For that innocent home opener, Nick Swisher was the only Yankees pitcher who could slow down the Rays (worth watching again), and Upton was the best leadoff hitter in baseball.
From being the #2 draft pick in 2002 to his probably last at bat as a Ray last Wednesday, BJ Upton's career has been a series of ups and downs that, as the fans can attest to, have brought lots of joy and frustration. Still, there's no doubt that BJ will always be remembered for being one of the central Rays on the first teams to bring glory to the Bay Area, and that the fans will keep many fond memories of his finest hours.
Do you have a favorite BJ memory that wasn't included above? Share it in the comments!