USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Upton feels no fear:
Outfielder who has had ups, downs ready to chase title with Tigers
After facing major expectations throughout career, Tigers’ $132 million man grows into stardom.
“I can tell you this,” Yvonne Upton said, thinking back to the time her youngest son played catcher. “He wasn’t afraid. He just put it on and went out there.”
Justin Upton didn’t catch. He was in eighth grade, played shortstop and was at the beginning of a baseball journey that has taken him from baseball fields in southern Virginia to All-Star Games in the major leagues to where his mom sat on this night, holding roses, inside the Tiger Club at Comerica Park.
Minutes earlier, Justin had been introduced as the Detroit Tigers’ new left fielder, signed to a six-year, $132.75 million contract, and she recalled the first time she thought he might have a chance to make such a journey.
They were at one of those local fields, and a few college kids needed a catcher.
“And those guys were throwing pretty hard,” she said. “There were some scouts standing around, and they could not believe this 13-year-old just strapped on the gear and got behind the plate. He just wasn’t afraid.”
No, Justin Upton wasn’t afraid of those fastballs, and he wasn’t afraid of the expectations to come. He isn’t afraid of much, if anything, besides falling short of his own standards.
He is 28, the little brother of San Diego Padres outfielder Melvin Upton Jr. and favorite son of Great Bridge High, a century-old school located just outside Chesapeake, Va.
They were a baseball family, led by father Manny Upton, who played college baseball at nearby Norfolk State before coaching and scouting.
“We watched a lot of baseball in that house,” Manny said. “That was the main channel. They were ate up with baseball.”
When they couldn’t hit baseballs outside, they would hit Nerf balls inside. “From my memories,” Justin said, “I’ve always been swinging a bat.”
He competed with Melvin, who is three years older. “He never took it easy on him,” Manny said. Years later, too young to play, he tagged along with Melvin and future big-leaguers David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds on a travel team they played for. Sometimes, they sneaked him in to pinch-run.
He played up two age groups on the AAU circuit, often against new Tigers teammate Cameron Maybin, who hailed from nearby North Carolina and hated pitching against him.
“I threw at him a couple times,” Maybin said. “I was tired of pitching to him.”
Competing with Melvin his whole life and playing with older kids molded the competitiveness that carried him through the teenage years of his career.
“It probably helped him develop pretty rapidly as a player,” Manny said. “Their expectations were the same as his. So he got up in the morning when they used to go hit at 5 a.m. I think that helped in becoming the guy that he is.”
So did trying to keep up with his big brother, nicknamed B.J.
“Every milestone B.J. reached, whether it be playing nationally or when he got drafted, those were always things that I wanted to do,” he said. “It definitely made me push to get to the next level.”
After his freshman year of high school, Justin’s name started circulating with a strong performance in the Area Code Games scouting showcase in Long Beach. The next season, scouts started circling, as he led Great Bridge to its first state title as a sophomore.
“I think at that point, that’s where I said, ‘OK, if I work the way I should, then I’ll be all right,’ ” he said.
He had power, hitting balls off buildings and into parking lots, and speed to burn. One time, he doubled on a blooper to right field. The outfielder was playing deep, and he beat the throw without leaving his feet.
“Who gets a standup double on a bloop flare to right field in front of the right fielder?” Great Bridge assistant coach Sean Townsend said.
Another time, Townsend and