As he sat in the dugout after getting removed from the game, B.J. Upton started crying. He couldn’t help it. He had played his last game as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays over 10 years after they selected him with the number two overall pick in the 2002 MLB Draft. He had been waiting for this moment for a while. He was going to blossom into a superstar and get a big free agent contract. He had declined to sign an extension with the Rays- they had offered him one as soon as 2008, his second full year in the big leagues. And it could not have been ending any better- Upton slammed 18 home runs in his final 50 games on his way to a career-high 28 homers on the season. But he never thought the day would really come. He was leaving the team that had drafted him and stuck with him even as he struggled, even as he made mistakes. It was the team that had helped him develop from a green 17 year old to the player he is today.
The Rays were never the best fit for Upton. His offensive numbers were depressed as he played in a pitcher’s ballpark often with little support behind him in the lineup. But they were the only organization he had ever known. The players and coaches had taught him everything he knew. The fans had been behind him the whole way through. Even when he was at his worst, no one ever denied that the ability was still there for Upton to become a superstar. Everyone kept waiting for that to materialize. Upton kept waiting for everything to come together for him. It never did, not completely, but this is as close as Upton will ever get.
Upton leaves with some regrets. He wonders what could have been if he had stayed completely committed and never lost his focus. But at the end of the day, he gave the franchise everything he could. And the Rays always appreciated that. Even as his batting average stayed low and he never got on base at a too high a clip, the Rays never underestimated just how much he gave their team with his power and speed. Even as he struggled, the Rays knew they would never be the same without him. And now Upton doesn’t know where he’ll stand without the Rays. His future remains promising. He recently turned just 28 years old and is entering the prime of his career. However, things will be different. The comfort of the team he had always been with is fading away. The faith of the people who had been in his corner always will wane and if Upton doesn’t deliver the results he will be paid to produce, people will stop being patient. The pressure is on for Upton now. If he succeeds, he had the ability to reach greater heights than ever before. But the support system is gone. B.J. Upton is leaving home and heading out on his own. It was necessary, it was inevitable, but it’s still a frightening thought.