In younger Upton, a star is born

LOS ANGELES – That name, that game. Orlando Hudson sighed.

"Aw, don't kill him yet," he pleaded.

Across the narrow visitors' clubhouse, Justin Upton adjusted his cap, perched a pair of sunglasses atop the brim, stuffed batting gloves in his back pockets.

"Very impressive," Hudson said. "Tons of talent."

Upton will be 20 for four more months. He is batting .361, slugging .627. He is put together as though a handful of NFL teams should be sorting through his combine numbers, prepping for Saturday afternoon's draft.

"Watch him move," a scout in the Dodger Stadium stands would say later, during batting practice. "Everything is easy."

Upton's hands would start above his right ear, then fall just below shoulder height. When the BP fastball arrived, fat and inviting, the hands would blow through the hitting zone, fast and strong, finishing high and free.

"Don't start filling the papers up," Hudson begged, "like he's the next so-and-so. That's a young man. Just a kid. Don't do that to him yet."

Not 24 hours earlier, I'd stood at Hudson's locker and asked him what Upton would become, asked him what we were looking at here.

He'd thought about it for a full 20 seconds.


His answer had sent me looking for other opinions.

A National League scout: "Manny."

Another NL talent evaluator: "A right-handed-hitting Ken Griffey Jr."

That's almost 1,600 home runs. Thirty-three All-Star games. Three Hall-of-Fame speeches.

Those names, those games. Justin Upton sighed.

"No," he said. "No chance. You just named three unbelievable ballplayers, three unbelievable hitters. It blows my mind. I can't fathom it. I haven't really done anything yet."

He is 65 games into his big-league career, 281 games into his professional career, 136 of them above Class A. Last August, the Arizona Diamondbacks summoned him from Double-A Mobile. He was the youngest player in the majors then (at 19) and still was on opening day.

After a get-acquainted two months, Upton batted .357 in October, which the Diamondbacks took through the NLCS. Four weeks into his first full season, Upton has five home runs, 14 RBI and the sense to cling to the few veterans on one of the younger rosters in baseball.

When the game moves fast, he goes to Chris Burke or Eric Byrnes or Hudson. His brother B.J., older by three years, broke in with the Tampa Bay Rays as a 19-year-old, three years to the day before Justin did. They talk by telephone four or five times a week.

"I don't get homesick," he said.

It takes a team to raise a prodigy. And then he must stand alone in a batters' box. Already, not 250 plate appearances in, Upton is recognizing pitches that beat him in September. Scouts admire how his mind is beginning to work within at-bats. The hands already were quick, now the head is gaining. He's batting .400 after the fourth inning, .538 in his third at-bat against a starting pitcher.

Scouts who have seen him for years recall a 13-year-old – on the big diamond for the first time – banging home runs in the Area Code Games, carrying a body one called, "An Adonis. He's what they look like."

He was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, the same first round that gave us Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Mike Pelfrey, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Travis Buck and Clay Buchholz. Of them, only Upton was taken out of high school (Great Bridge, Chesapeake, Va.).

Upton has arrived alongside them already.

He looks across the game, at the outfielders, at what he admires, what he would like to become.

"Torii Hunter," he said. "He makes big plays look easy."

At the hitters …

"Manny Ramirez," he said. "The best right-handed swing in the game. He's never off balance."

At himself, turning experiences into lessons, making the lessons stick, inching toward what he ultimately will be.

"I want to be in that upper echelon of players," he said. "I'm comfortable with that. No. 1, I'm confident in myself. No. 2, I don't have any ridiculous expectations for myself. As long as I'm getting better, I'll live up to expectations."

He'll still swing around some pitches, leaving him vulnerable to breaking balls. He'll still guess and look bad, but they all do occasionally. But, man, the ball jumps off his bat, and it happens more and more.

Hudson has been there, seen the first few hundred plate appearances, gets what Upton is working on.

"Everything," Hudson said. "Everything. We all got something to work on. But, he'll be there. That's not a problem. It's just, how fast will it come? But, I like everything about the kid."

Raised a shortstop, Upton still adores Derek Jeter, still admires the New York Yankees. He said there are many things about baseball, about a long career, he looks forward to. Already, though, there is a single potential regret.

"There's a lot I haven't done," he said, softly. "Play in a World Series. Play in an All-Star game. I missed the opportunity to play at Yankee Stadium."

The old place will be gone soon, moved across the street. Still Yankee Stadium, but different.

The Diamondbacks won't play there this season. A few of their players might, however.

"I guess," he said, "the only way I'm going to do it is to make the All-Star team."

In their first All-Star games, Sheffield and Ramirez were 23. Griffey Jr. was 20.

Hudson can't stop a smile. He sighed.

"No, no, no," he said. "Let him be."