Chuck Klosterman once theorized that the reason soccer was the most popular youth sport in America but much less popular among adults was that it was the most forgiving sport. In youth soccer, poor players can cloak themselves in anonymity and just get by until they are old enough to tell their parents they don't want to play sports anymore.
By comparison, there is nowhere to hide for an nonathletic child playing baseball. Every child has to walk to the plate and strike out with every eye in the park on them. The saddest kids are the ones who know they are over-matched and won't even swing in hopes of getting walked.
As a result, youth soccer appealed to kids who didn't really like sports but were forced to play something by their parents. By the time these kids were adults they no longer watched sports of any kind. According to Klosterman this explains why soccer is the sport of youth in America but lags behind the other sports in overall popularity.
Whether Klosterman's theory about soccer is correct, one thing he is certainly correct about is how unforgiving baseball is. Baseball is a lot like tennis in the way that it comes down to an individual one on one duel between two athletes, in baseball's case the pitcher and the batter. For an elementary school child it takes a lot of courage to go to the plate and very publicly fail in front of friends and family. There is nowhere to hide when a batter is bested by a pitcher. It is nobody's fault but the batter if he strikes out and everyone knows it as he trudges back to the dugout.
As someone who did plenty of striking out in little league I can't help but feel for the artist formerly known as BJ Upton. The newly christened Melvin Upton is a strong candidate for the least liked player in the history of the Atlanta Braves. Upton came to the Braves in 2013 after signing the largest free agent contract in franchise history and since his arrival Upton has been the Braves' worst player. It is arguable that Upton has been the worst player in MLB during his two seasons wearing a tomahawk cap.
Upton's awful performances have come during a time in which the Braves fanbase had high expectations for the team. The 2013 Braves were expected to contend for a championship and while they won the NL East for the first time in 8 seasons they only won a single playoff game. The 2014 Braves were even more disappointing, finishing with a losing record for the first time in six years and falling well short of a playoff berth. Upton was a constant presence during these disappointments serving either as the team's awful centerfielder or benched free agent bust.
Upton has been the team's highest paid player, worst player, number one scapegoat, and he doesn't even have any positive memories in a Braves uniform to fall back on for good will. Upton's time as an elite player happened in the American League and happened in Tampa Bay. Upton's excellence may as well have happened on the moon as far as Braves fans are concerned.
Photo credit: Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports
Which is why I can't help but feel awful for the man. This may be baseless armchair psychology, but Upton's desire to be known as Melvin from now on feels like someone desperate for a new identity and a new start. Upton has constantly worked and tinkered with his swing in an attempt to fix what has ruined his career. His brief moments of success in Atlanta have always resulted in powerful emotional outbursts indicative of a player struggling under the weight of expectations. Nobody knows better than Upton how much of a disappointment he has been and how alone he is in Atlanta.
Many sports fan have no interest in feeling sorry for someone like Melvin Upton. Upton is a millionaire and the Braves still owe him 45 million dollars. The team will pay Upton every cent of that contract. That is more money than every person reading this article will see in their lives combined in all likelihood. A flawed but common sentiment is that a player earns his contract after it is signed not before. A player like Upton is committing legal robbery in the eyes of many. For this sort of fan there is no sympathy for someone who makes the kind of money Upton does. Upton is rich, pampered, and spoiled, and he got that way by playing a kids' game. A player like Upton is not only undeserving of his contract — he is undeserving of any empathy or compassion.
Despite the obvious truth that Upton is very bad at baseball and his contract is a major reason the Braves have been forced to tear down a playoff contender and build for the future, I feel awful for Melvin. Just because somebody has more money than my entire family will earn in their lives doesn't mean they don't feel emotions anymore. Every night Upton is in the lineup he has to go to the plate in front of a hostile crowd and fail. The failure is public, it is inescapable and it is without possible argument. When Upton strikes out he has been defeated in a one on one contest and he has nobody to blame but himself. How terrible a feeling must that be for anyone, much less someone who used to be so excellent and from whom so much was expected?
In the world of social media and 24-hour news this kind of thing is even worse. Go to Upton's Twitter mentions on any given day and see for yourself. The bile is unrelenting and there can't be anybody in the American Southeast who would call Upton their favorite Braves player. Kelly Johnson is the favorite player of some Braves fans but there's nothing like that for Upton. He is the pariah of all pariahs.
Much like last spring training Upton has a new year to put all of this behind him. He worked with the Braves' new hitting coach over the winter and he gets to once again start fresh.
Still Upton is 30. Most players peak around the age of 28 but that is when Upton's production nosedived. His problem is that when he gets a good pitch to hit, he recognizes the pitch, he swings, but his bat is too slow. As a result Upton swings through hittable pitches and when he does make contact, the ball rarely travels very far. His issues as a player seem to be wholly physical. He is a moment slow which is all it takes to turn an elite baseball player into a minor leaguer. His tinkering with his swing seems to be the desperate flailing of a man whom the game has passed by. I doubt he puts any of that behind him this year.
Which is why when Upton is booed relentlessly and eventually benched I will feel for him. His younger brother has been traded to San Diego as nice as a city as there is in America. His little brother can still play, too. Melvin is alone, alone with his money and his status as the most hated person to wear an Atlanta uniform. The hatred doesn't come because Upton beat his wife, took steroids, threw a game or gambled on baseball. All Upton did was sign the contract he was offered and then be very bad at baseball. I guess he could offer to give the money back but that would make him either the greatest sucker to walk the Earth or a saint to put Mother Teresa to shame. I don't have any inclination to expect him to do something I would never do under any circumstances.
I don't think anybody should adopt Upton as their favorite Braves player. He hasn't done anything particularly laudable or noteworthy to overcome his poor performances. But he hasn't really done anything bad either. All he has done is have the temerity to get paid a lot of money to fail. As a result many fans of the team foolish enough to give him all of that money feel the need to unleash their anger and abuse on the guy who can no longer do the thing he used to do so well. For many people the performance of their favorite sports team is paramount to their satisfaction with life. Upton is being paid a lot of money to ruins these people's day every time he comes to the plate. So the anger comes.
I know this is asking a lot but I just wish we could do better. Just because someone has more money than us doesn't mean they can't feel shame or embarrassment. As a fanbase we should try to do a little better and do our part to not actively contribute to anyone's misery. Empathy is an emotion we have very little of for our professional athletes. They get paid so much money and are so famous and have everything we think would fix the pain in our own lives. For these highly paid athletes to not do their part and be so bad at one of the most challenging things for a human being to do enrages us. In our own lives we think we deserve sympathy and forgiveness but we rarely have it for others — especially those with money.
I know this will fall on deaf ears but it doesn't have to be that way. Everyone is worthy of compassion and there is plenty of evidence that money is not the solution to life's pain. I don't know Upton personally but it seems clear to me how hard his time in Atlanta has been on him. He isn't going to turn it around even if we cheer him every at bat. We can't fix his career. But maybe we can endeavor to not actively contribute to his misery. The marriage between Upton and the Braves has failed but he hasn't personally wronged us. A little empathy can go a long way. After all, it is what we would want for ourselves.