Stuck in a slump
Robert Sanchez [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
September 20, 2012
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locker. He thinks they'll ask about not playing. Instead, they want to know whether he had heard the comments Diamondbacks managing partner Ken Kendrick made during a radio interview that day. In the interview, Kendrick called Upton an enigma and added: "He's certainly not the Justin Upton he has been in the past and we would expect of him. He's 24 years old. It's time for him to be a consistent performer, and he's not been that."

Upton feels blindsided. "It was one of the more frustrating days of my life," he says a few days later while downing an Italian stuffed sandwich at a Scottsdale restaurant. "I know I haven't played well, but being called out? Keep that stuff in-house." He ends up talking to Young about it. "What bothered him wasn't the fact that his numbers weren't where he felt they should be," Young says. "It was that his work ethic got questioned. His head got questioned. His priorities got questioned. But in the clubhouse, we know he's doing 100% of what's in his control to get his game right."

BY JUNE 22, the Diamondbacks have won 10 of 15 games, pulling themselves to a .500 record, 6 1/2 games behind the division-leading Dodgers. The streak coincides with renewed production from Upton, who bats .327, hits two home runs and drives in eight runs during the stretch.

At lunch one afternoon in Scottsdale, Upton rattles off his team's lineup. Paul Goldschmidt, the 24-year-old first baseman in his second season, is slugging .505 and is on his way to becoming a dominant middle-of-the-lineup player. Second baseman Aaron Hill, 30, is having a near-career season, with an OPS of .859. Leftfielder Jason Kubel, also 30, has a .297 average and nine home runs. "That guy is good, man," Upton says of Kubel, who signed with Arizona in the offseason after seven seasons with the Twins. "Who was behind [Joe] Mauer in the lineup when he won the MVP? Who was behind [Justin] Morneau when he won his MVP? Kubel. And now he's behind me, so I'm next in line." Upton smiles. "I'm just going to nestle myself into the three hole and hack," he says. "I'll take this lineup against anyone."

While Upton can bask in his team's recent success, his benching earlier in the month has troubled him far more than the comments from Kendrick, whom Upton texted shortly afterward. "He said what he meant ... but he has my back," Upton says. He thinks Gibson's decision, on the other hand, has hurt him in ways most people can't see -- or hear. To Upton, the forced days off gave Arizona fans a target for the team's sluggish season. Out there, all by himself in rightfield, Upton began hearing boos, taunts from the people wearing D-backs jerseys.

"Granted, Gibby was trying to help me, but he could have rethought that," Upton says. "It wasn't his intention, but he sure threw me into the street." Gibson disagrees. "I'm on his side; I'm not against him," he says. "I'd do anything I could for the kid. Anything."

Upton seethes privately, angry at himself for hearing the boos. The past few weeks have seemed like an avalanche of negativity, and he's gotten caught up in it. So he's disabled the Twitter application on his phone to block out what fans are saying about him. He also refuses to watch video of his poor at-bats after he gets home at night. "If I look stressed out, I am," he says as he sits at a restaurant table and sips lemonade. "I'm pushing myself. I'm going to be pissed and disappointed in myself if I don't perform."

Later that night, Upton and Ashley Borror, his girlfriend of four years, return to their townhome following a 10-5 win against the Cubs, a game in which the outfielder hit his seventh home run. Upton heads for the refrigerator and grabs a yogurt container. The 27-year-old Borror, an attractive former teacher with a wide smile, opens a box of flaxseed crackers, takes a bite and frowns. "This doesn't taste right," she tells Upton. "Want some?"

A few minutes later, as baseball highlights play in the family room, Borror curls up on a couch and reads emails on her laptop while Upton pulls a seat from the granite-topped kitchen island and mixes granola into his yogurt. The couple are building a 12,000-square-foot home a few miles away in Paradise Valley, and it's on Upton's mind. He wants to decorate the basement with a series of clear mannequin-like figures on which he'll hang game jerseys from players he respects. "Damn, Ash, Seattle was just in town and I didn't get an Ichiro," he tells Borror. "Or a Felix? Man, I could have had a Felix."

"I'm sure you can still get one," Borror calls from the couch. "You know, you have people who can do that."

"I guess you're right," Upton says. "Man, why didn't I just get those guys when they were here?"

He pulls out his phone and looks at the Diamondbacks' remaining schedule. "Maybe I'll get an old-school Ryan Howard when we're in Philadelphia," he says. "And you know I have to get a Roy Halladay."

The television flashes a highlight of Upton's home run, although he barely notices. A Kubel ground-rule double follows, and Upton looks up. "He smoked that," he says, then goes back to his phone.

"I thought you looked good too," Borror says.

Anyone who knows him says this is the real Upton -- the guy at home, watching baseball with his girlfriend, scrolling through his phone. "I try to be a normal guy," he says. In Scottsdale, where there's an abundance of young wealth, there are always parties and dinners and clubs. Upton, though, has settled into a different, quieter lifestyle. "We go out," Borror says, "but it's not crazy. Sometimes, we kind of feel like the old couple."

Much of the time, Upton is content to go sneaker shopping or to play dominoes with Young. Recently, Upton and Borror hired a chef to prepare healthy meals for them. Upton cut junk food from his diet a few months ago -- except for an occasional pizza with Young -- and he started getting up earlier. "My rookie year, I'd wake up at 12:30, go to get fast food on my way to the yard," Upton says. "Or I'd get up at 1:30 and never eat." The couple also recently began attending church. "He was so cocky when he was younger," Borror says. "But he's grown up."

Upton's watch soon reads 1:25 a.m. He pushes away from the counter and stands up to go to bed. But before he goes upstairs, Borror says he first needs to see his Silver Slugger Award that arrived in the mail a day earlier. The award is given to each league's best offensive players by position. Borror and Upton walk downstairs, to a rectangular cardboard box next to their garage. Borror bends down and untangles the bubble wrap protecting the trophy. Finally, she sets it on the floor. The award -- a gleaming bat attached to a black background, with a cutout at the bottom that looks like home plate -- shines under the house lights. "This," she says, and gingerly hands it to Upton.

"I'm scared to...
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