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Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton Surrounded by Talent Growing Up

It took two extra days to end Philadelphia's 28 years of frustration as the Phillies win their first World Series since 1980 with a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in a continuation of Game 5.

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By Mark Viera
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 25, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 24 -- At ballfields in coastal Virginia, Gary Lavelle used take a look around and point out future major leaguers. He tried to guess where each player would end up.

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Ryan Zimmerman might make a good third baseman. David Wright had a strong arm, so he could play at third also. Michael Cuddyer fit as a corner infielder. He considered B.J. Upton a five-tool player and said he would be a good center fielder.

"You could tell, if they stayed with it, these kids would be successful," Lavelle, a 13-year big leaguer who coached the players during AAU baseball, said Friday in a telephone interview.

That is what youth baseball looked like in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, a pocket of southeastern Virginia that is emerging as a baseball hotbed. It has produced promising young talent, including Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, Wright of the New York Mets, Cuddyer of the Minnesota Twins and Mark Reynolds of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Upton, a 24-year-old Chesapeake native, has become an integral part of an invigorated Tampa Bay Rays organization. And his scintillating October has helped fuel the Rays' improbable run to the 104th World Series. In 13 games this postseason, he has 7 home runs, 16 RBI and a .741 slugging percentage.

Upton struggled in Game 1 of the World Series. He went 0 for 4 and played with what some felt was the same lackadaisical manner that has drawn criticism this season. But in Game 2 he responded with a 2-for-4 performance, which included a run scored and an RBI, and helped the Rays even the series at one game each before coming here Saturday for Game 3 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

"These guys play this game a long time and never make it to the World Series," Upton's father, Manny, said. "For B.J. to make it at age 24 -- sometimes you pinch yourself."

Upton was surrounded by talent growing up. In fact, his brother, Justin, now plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Upton also played youth baseball with Wright. They were friends away from the baseball field -- they sometimes played video games -- but they spent most of their time together on the diamond. In fact, they used to wake at 6:30 a.m. to get to the batting cage before school.

Upton, Wright and Cuddyer played for the Virginia Blasters, a local AAU team. They played against Zimmerman, a Virginia Beach native who played for the rival Tidewater Drillers. In high school, they played together for the Tidewater Mets, a traveling club team.

"These guys are a special group of guys," Manny Upton said. "Their last year with the Mets, it was just unbelievable timing. You knew on the field they were going to win. It was just a matter of by how much."

All the players were drafted in the first round. The Twins selected Cuddyer, now an outfielder, ninth overall in the 1997 draft; Wright was selected 38th by the Mets in 2001; Justin Upton went first to Arizona in 2005; and Zimmerman was selected fourth by Washington in 2005.


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