Henning: Upton shows makings of a Tigers fan favorite

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Kirk Gibson, left, who managed Justin Upton with the Diamondbacks, has a good relationship with the new Tigers outfielder.

Lakeland, Fla. — Within a second or two of word bursting last month that Justin Upton was coming to town, phones began jangling in Comerica Park’s ticket office.

On the other end were season-seat holders. Some had been torn about writing a check for thousands of dollars in renewals.

Spirits changed when Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who has a fan-pleasing habit for investing in stars, decided to bring another headliner to the roster.

This was mentioned Monday to the target of Ilitch’s latest free-agent foray. Upton sat in front of his locker at Marchant Stadium following an informal first Florida workout with the Tigers. Yes, he nodded, he had been told fans weren't exactly upset.

“Definitely a compliment,” said Upton, who has taken up residency in Alex Avila’s old locker, next to the coaches’ dressing room. “I think I can help move the (playoff) process along.”

This is not unique to Detroit, but sports fans prefer to know who they’re rooting for. Is this a good guy? Is he a skilled athlete, only? Am I cheering for a possible part-time jerk?

Folks probably can relax when it comes to Justin Irvin Upton. What came across during a media briefing a month ago was likeability. It was the kind of appeal one can’t easily fake.

Monday’s conversation featured more of the same. Cordiality. Ease in carrying on real dialogue. Responses that were personal as opposed to personal public relations.

We’ll see how it goes when the Tigers have lost five straight and Upton just went 0-for-4 on a day when Comerica’s fans might not have been in the best of moods. But when you’ve gotten accustomed through the years to first impressions from athletes, you almost always can tell the difference between initial glad-handers and genuinely good men.

Another answer

Upton comes across as one of the latter. This is reassuring when it is possible a man, now 28, could be spending the next six seasons in Detroit. There is an opt-out he can trigger after 2017, but Upton’s contract runs through 2021.

That means he could be coming to bat nearly 4,000 times in a Tigers uniform. It could translate to hundreds of nights in left field at Comerica Park. It invites the possibility he could be a Tigers mainstay for nearly as long as Magglio Ordonez or Avila, to name two who were fixtures here for seven seasons.

“I’ve obviously got to get to know everybody,” said Upton, who was still dressed in a blue Tigers shirt and workout ensemble, “but I’ve played against some of these guys. There’s been some interaction, so that’s made it a little easier.

“But this is really a professional team. It’s a very good ballclub.”

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One can speculate what spring camp would have been like had Ilitch not bitten on Upton. In fact, we know. Those season-ticket owners who had turned tepid over the Tigers were a general barometer for fans who, maybe in tandem with the front office itself, were wondering how this team would contend with only a single star outfielder, J.D. Martinez.

You win with pitching. But not only with pitching. A lineup has to do its part. And the idea Cameron Maybin and his career OPS of .678 were going to provide adequate horsepower at a hitting-oriented position wasn’t flying with many Tigers students.

Upton is a cut above the norm. His career OPS (.800 or above is always the target) is .825. He was off a tick in 2015, when it was .790 during a season when his batting average fell to .251 (career: .271). But he still had a .336 on-base average (.352 in his nine big league seasons) because he doesn’t mind taking a walk, which comes in handy when you bat second, as he probably will in manager Brad Ausmus’ lineup ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

Help for box office

He has talked about baseball so much since he joined the Tigers there isn’t a lot of mystery about Upton, the player. It seemed a good time Monday to ask what he does away from baseball.

“I love to golf,” Upton said.

He’s a nine-handicap, which means he shoots his share of rounds in the 70s, not uncommon for pro athletes who generally sashay easily from one sport to another. He lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., during the offseason and has played most of Arizona’s great desert courses.

But now, for six-month stretches that begin in April, he will be dwelling in Metro Detroit. He’ll get acquainted with a golf course or two there, he vowed Monday. More important, he’ll be working intimately with a baseball town, which, as Comerica’s box office will vouch, is happy it has a probable star in left.