THESE ARE the parameters of The Dan Uggla Interview, provided by solicitous Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez: no questions about the environment, nothing about politics and definitely do not bring up Russia's space program. In interrogating a slugging second baseman who's occasionally stumped by the postgame "What pitch did you hit?" question, the guidelines are helpful. Uggla had 23 homers through Sunday but admits that he's not always certain if he has just clobbered a fastball or a changeup. "He's a ballplayer," Gonzalez says, grinning at the thought of his favorite workingman's big leaguer. "Stick with baseball."
This is an article from the June 30, 2008 issue
There was a glorious time 50 years ago, post--Abner Doubleday and pre--Bill James, when every American boy wanted to be a ballplayer—except those who wanted to be policemen, firemen or cowboys. A ballplayer. Was there a nobler calling? Baseball, then, was a game played but not necessarily examined, and its trickiest statistic was earned run average because you were never quite sure if you had to multiply or divide by nine. This should have been Uggla's time; it's not the fault of this small-town Tennessee boy that he was born in 1980 and missed it.
His caveman approach to the most intellectual of sports might put the ugh in Uggla, but the results are beyond reproach. The player who ranked third in the majors in total bases at week's end rarely studies videotape of his at bats. The player who led the majors in home runs does not keep a book on pitchers because he figures, sensibly enough, that pitchers will not always throw him the same pitch on the same count. (He does, however, know the pitchers' names "most of the time.") "When I start thinking in the batter's box, that's when I get into trouble," says Uggla, channeling his inner Yogi. If the nonthinking man's guide to baseball makes him a dinosaur in this age of IsoP and the rest of the sabermetric alphabet, it should delight non-seamheads that a 5'11", 200-pound see-the-ball-hit-the-ball righty with Popeye forearms and a swing more violent than a Peckinpah film can wallop the ball out of any park, Jurassic included.
"His strength is, he takes an absolute porn hack," says Atlanta Braves pitcher Will Ohman. "I'm not going to say he doesn't have an approach, but the approach of swing-hard-in-case-you-hit-it is working."
"He just tries to hit the ball hard and hit it far, almost like a softball player," says outfielder Luis Gonzalez, a Marlins teammate. "No doubt he would have been a great [fit] on the old Tigers [of the early 1990s], those Mickey Tettleton teams where they were either hitting homers or striking out."
Uggla does strike out, his from-the-heels stroke providing fleeting air conditioning during the steamy South Florida summer. He made a disquieting 167 U-turns to the dugout last season. With 86 whiffs, or one every 3.2 at bats already in 2008, he will cruise past his preseason target of 100 to 120. When asked if Uggla should temper his swing, Gonzalez said, "Some guys can do it and some can't. He's still hitting nearly .300"—.294 through Sunday—"and he'll drive in 100 [runs]. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to play this game. I love him because he gets the job done." Uggla is on pace for a second straight season with 80-plus extra-base hits, which would make him the first second baseman to accomplish that since Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s.
Uggla has one thing Hornsby didn't: a personalized home run call. (The Rajah, of course, also didn't have television.) The seeds of Marlins' play-by-play man Rich Waltz's call were planted in early 2006, after Florida acquired Uggla in the Rule 5 draft from the Diamondbacks. (Uggla had never advanced past Double A in five seasons with Arizona. "We valued him," says Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes, on the job about a month when Uggla was dropped from the 40-man roster. "In retrospect, we undervalued him.") As is their depressing custom, the Marlins were rebuilding two years after winning the World Series and had a swarm of new players. Waltz and analyst Tommy Hutton were handling introductions at the team's winter Fan Fest and, after kibitzing about the pronunciation of Uggla's last name, Waltz announced him as "Nick Uggla." As he walked past Waltz, Uggla whispered, "It's Dan."
Now whenever Uggla goes deep—his 27 homers broke Joe Gordon's record for rookie second basemen—Waltz, or Hutton, if his partner forgets, proclaims, "And his name is Dan Uggla," an act of contrition for originally messing up his name. In baseball there are pennants and there is penance.
TWO WEEKS AGO, the day after losing to the Tampa Bay Rays in the opener of the Costco Cup—the Marlins' opening day payroll was a shade under $22 million, half of the Rays', the next lowest in baseball—Uggla lunched at the team's St. Petersburg hotel. (He left two ravioli in his dish, an admirable display of plate discipline.) He had lingered in the Tropicana Field clubhouse the previous night after a 7--3 Florida defeat in which he'd struck out three times and stranded a runner on third with one out in a two-run game. When asked at lunch if this had been among his worst games, Uggla smiled and said no. He actually had put a ball in play, his rally-killing infield pop-up. "I was talking about it last night with [pitcher Logan] Kensing and [first baseman Mike] Jacobs," Uggla said. "I was having a tough time shaking it off. It took a while to get into the shower. But Mike said, 'Once you're in the shower, rinse everything off and you're good to go.' And he was right."
The education of a baseball player with neither pretense nor guile is ongoing. The anti-intellectual, Uggla willingly concedes, had so much to learn. He had to learn from former Marlins infield instructor Perry Hill how to widen his fielding stance, quicken his feet and turn himself into a player whose best position isn't always batter's box. (In his first day at Arizona's major league camp, Uggla played a ground ball off his face during an intrasquad game. He wanted to keep playing, but the Diamondbacks insisted he go to the hospital to have his broken nose set.) He had to learn that the one black pinstriped suit he owned at the start of his rookie year was not suitable for every road trip. He had to learn how to play in big stadiums, a daunting prospect for someone who had attended the University of Memphis and majored in baseball and minored in communication.
In his second big league series, against the Mets in Shea Stadium, Uggla tugged the brim of his cap down "as far as I could without blinding myself" because when he gazed toward the top of the stadium, he would become dizzy. "I still felt like a little kid, scared to death," Uggla says. "That was my first time in New York."
But two weeks ago, after hitting a game-ending grand slam against the Phillies, that little boy—a proxy for fiftysomething men who wanted nothing more in life than to do what he does every day—also ran from home to second with his index finger in the air and flipped his batting helmet to coach Bo Porter when he reached third during a magical trip around the bases. "I'd never had a walk-off," Uggla says, "so I didn't know how to act. I was too excited." He is mildly embarrassed, but the man his manager calls a blue-collar player, an infielder who gets so dirty during his daily grind he might as well be a ring-around-the-collar guy, need not make amends.
Like Uggla, the reference is old-time.
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