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.
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.
There are varying hypotheses as to why such talent emerged from the region. Baseball is not a year-round sport in southeastern Virginia -- unlike parts of California or Florida -- but talented athletes made each other better through competition.
"And we all played a bunch of sports growing up. Football. In this area, that's what you do, and that's maybe why we're all pretty decent as athletes," said Zimmerman, who called their group of friends "a little fraternity."
Upton, who graduated from Greenbrier Christian Academy, signed with the Rays as the second draft pick in 2002. He made his major league debut in 2004 and hit 24 home runs in 2007, but has been slowed this season by a shoulder injury.
Upton, in his fourth season, has also faced questions about his effort. He was benched earlier this year for lack of hustle, and the issue resurfaced in Game 1. In his first at-bat, in the first inning, Upton offered a check swing that sent the ball slowly toward second base. He appeared to lag down the line, allowing the Phillies to turn a double play. He hit into another double play in his second at-bat and did not move swiftly to first base.
But Upton singled twice in the first two innings of Game 2 to help the Rays score three runs. Some players labeled the game a "must win," and Upton played his role. This season, he has started to return on Tampa Bay's investment of drafting him from high school.
"Really, this last month or so it's starting to feel good," Upton said after Game 4 of the division series against the White Sox. "I kind of got away from my approach. Kind of been up the middle all my career and lately I've been trying to pull the ball too much. Last couple days, I've gotten back to my strength and kind of got a couple pitches to hit up in the zone. And basically took advantage of them."
On Friday, Upton and the Rays prepared for Game 3 of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park. But about 300 miles away, some residents of Chesapeake also prepared to follow Upton, one of their hometown heroes. Zimmerman said he's been texting Upton throughout the playoffs, and that he's actively rooting for the Rays. At Upton's high school, two TV camera crews have visited this week and students there have buzzed about Upton's success.
"They got to see all these kids all these years playing ball; there's just a hotbed for it and there's a lot of talented ball players," Ed Bailey, the athletic facility director at Greenbrier Christian Academy, said of the fans in the area. "And whether they know him or not, they seem to know him. But when the local boy does great they get in and cheer for him."
Staff writer Chico Harlan contributed to this report.