LAKE BUENA VISTA — The baseball stadium tucked between the theme parks and the hotels at Walt Disney World is where it all began for B.J. Upton. Kind of, anyway.
The spring/minor-league ballpark tricked out in May 2007 to host three major-league games was where Upton took his first steps toward being a big-league center fielder. Sort of, anyway.
“And the rest is history,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said Friday morning, shortly after saying hello to Upton for the first time since the outfielder signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Atlanta Braves before the 2013 season.
“This is kind of where it all started,” Upton said before Friday's game. “Tough to believe that was so long ago.”
Back in 2007, the Rays were known as the Devil Rays, and Upton was a former shortstop prospect searching for a position to call his own. He was playing second base during the start of the 2007 season, playing it well enough for Maddon to think Upton was worthy of an All-Star selection.
But Devil Rays center fielder Rocco Baldelli hurt his hamstring during the first game of the three-game series with the Texas Rangers, and Upton finished the game in center field.
Maddon always thought of Upton as a center fielder. Maddon worked with Upton during spring training of that year at second base and center field, working on his footwork at both positions. Upton played primarily second base the first two months of the season, but he did see time in center field before that Tuesday night at Disney.
Maddon was trying to turn Upton into a super utility player, something Maddon would have success doing two years later with Ben Zobrist.
“That was the concept,” Maddon said.
“I was the original Zobrist,” Upton said.
Upton returned to second base the following night and remained there while Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young took turns in center field. Upton took over the job full-time July 13 of that season and remained there until he reached free agency.
“At that time we were trying to figure out how to get him to the big leagues and keep him there, so we were talking about using the utility component just to get him here and get his bat going,” Maddon said. “I'm just happy it all worked out for him.”
It had ... until Upton became the Braves center fielder.
Upton suffered through a miserable first season in Atlanta. He batted .184 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs and lost his starting job late in the season when the Braves were making a run toward the NL East division title.
“I think it was everything all together,” Upton said. “The new scenery, playing in a new place, trying to get adjusted, trying to live up to the contract. Just all of it, all together.”
Upton said he had trouble adjusting to a new league and unfamiliar pitchers.
“All of last year was completely new for me,” he said.
To rebound, Upton said he looked at video of himself hitting during his days in Tampa Bay.
“Anything you think of doing, I probably did it. It just didn't work out,” he said. “But I think coming into the end of last year, after the season was over, I pretty much knew what I had to work on. I pretty much wasn't playing at the end of the year, so I had a lot of time to get in the cage, and that's kind of worked into this season, to make sure I don't go through what I went through last year.”
Maddon wished Upton well Friday. The two didn't always see eye to eye, but both played a large role in each other's success.
“I know he had a difficult time last year, but I'm really rooting for him to have a great season this year,” Maddon said. “We have a lot of great memories. He was so instrumental in us becoming the Rays beyond the Devil Rays. Really, I just want him to do well.”