Henning: Upton puts brutal spring in rearview mirror

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Justin Upton hits a walk-off homer in the 12th inning against the Mariners Monday.

Detroit — So many in the professional sports audience think it’s all about money.

It’s not. Truly, it’s not. Ask a man who knows, Justin Upton, who, yes, made a handsome business decision in January when he signed a deal with the Tigers that could stretch to six years and $132 million.

But that’s not what moves him or any athlete who understands what anyone who has competed, on a team, long ago processed. It’s about performance. And about personal pride. And most of all it’s about being a team soldier who delivers.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Upton said Tuesday, speaking of fans as he sat in front of his locker a few hours before the Tigers neatly cuffed the Seattle Mariners, 4-2, at Comerica Park. “When I was a kid, I thought ballplayers just showed up at 6 or 7 and played a game.”

Upton was 1-for-3 and added an intentional walk Tuesday. This followed Monday night’s 12-inning plunking of the Mariners during which the Tigers’ daily left-fielder hit two home runs. He slammed a 430-foot-plus shot into the greenery in deep center field, and in the 12th inning, with the score tied, he lined another missile into the seats in left that made the Tigers winners.

These were his third and fourth homers in four days, which seemed to be an all-clear for Upton following a brutal spring. And if so, good for him, and for the Tigers, none of whom could quite figure out April and May as Upton’s strikeouts piled up and his batting average strained to stick above .200.

“People work hard to support their families, and we play a game,” Upton said, empathizing with those who wonder how a person so exorbitantly rewarded to play big-league baseball could be as torn, emotionally, as Upton was earlier this season.

“My struggles might not be the same as someone else’s. But they’re still struggles.”

Ausmus: I've been there

A window into Upton’s darker moments cracked open in the Tigers clubhouse late Monday as the clock slipped past midnight.  Upton spoke about the spring. And about strikeouts, a cruel category in which he was the league-leader (92 entering Tuesday) until Mike Napoli of the Indians mercifully moved into first place.

“A lot of games I could have helped,” Upton said, somberly, “and I didn’t.”

Tigers scratch and claw to 4-2 victory over Mariners

Brad Ausmus gets it.

“I’ve been there,” the Tigers manager said in Detroit’s dugout Tuesday as his gang breezed through batting practice. “The worst part of struggling is feeling you’re letting your teammates down.”

What appears to have happened as summer and mid-season arrives for the Tigers was all but inevitable. Upton is 28. He broke into the big leagues at — yes — age 19 and is in his 10th big-league season. He had a .271 career average when the Tigers pulled him from the free-agent pool in January. He had a whopping career on-base average of .352, one-half of an upper-crust OPS of .825.

And so there was no rational reason for why a man just stepping into his prime was having such a devil of a time hitting big-league pitches during that hideous April-May stretch.

Taking a toll

June has been more like it: .288 batting average ahead of Tuesday’s game, with a heavy .920 OPS.

The turnaround, the comeback — or whatever anyone cares to call it — puts into perspective how slumps, and adjustments to new leagues, and maybe a zeal to show a team and its fans that he was worth a colossal investment, can compound stress and self-consciousness and leave a man’s bat feeling as if it were a foreign object.

Upton, again, says he understands how fans link fat paychecks with a sense that an athlete is taking it easy, passively accepting whatever happens to him and to his team.

It doesn’t work that way.

“You can make all the money in the world,” Upton said, “but you still want to contribute. You still want to win. You want to be there for your teammates.”

He mentioned how much he enjoyed coming to the ballpark Tuesday. A man who has been polite and cordial since the day in January he tossed on a Tigers jersey could savor in a particularly personal way coming to work.

This new sense of peace had nothing to do with his bank account. It was tied instead to a man who for at least one glorious night had done his job. For a team. In victory. Athletes so often understand the difference.