ST. PETERSBURG It was more than the end of the season for the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday night. For B.J. Upton, it was most likely the end of the road with only organization he has ever known in 10 years as a professional baseball player.
On the verge of becoming a free agent, the Rays' veteran center fielder should command some enticing offers from ball clubs interested his blend of power, speed and defense a reality that will most likely make it too hard for the budget-constrained Rays to compete for his services in 2013.
That's why Upton, a first-round Tampa Bay pick from the 2002 amateur draft, was keenly aware of the finality of each moment as he made what will probably be his last drive to Tropicana Field Wednesday afternoon as a Ray preparing for the 2012 season finale against the playoff-bound Baltimore Orioles.
"I walked by the security guards, the police officers and the clubhouse guys and just kind of wondered if that's it," he said. "I think it's just now starting to settle in."
It's a similar scenario of the one that played out after the 2010 season, when left fielder Carl Crawford another product of the Rays' farm system reached the end of his Tampa Bay contract and became a hot commodity on the free-agent market, landing a seven-year, 142-million deal with the Boston Red Sox.
Upton certainly won't hit that kind of jackpot, but the show he put on this season especially since Aug. 11, when he has hit 18 of his career-high 28 homers should definitely enhance his market value.
Coming into Wednesday's game, Upton had blasted 10 homers in his last 22 games. Despite a .246 batting average, and his continued propensity for striking out (168 times), Upton has made strides as a hitter this year. He's one of only three players in the majors with at least 25 homers and 30 stolen bases (31). He has 29 doubles, three triples and 78 RBI. And his speed in the outfield has long made him a defensive asset for the Rays.
Even with his combination of skills, Upton has not always been a favorite of Rays' fans, drawing criticism for his frequent strikeouts (at least 150 times in five of the last years) and a perceived nonchalance.
The fact is, Upton's long, fluid strides have sometimes been mistaken by detractors as a lack of hustle and his quiet personality interpreted as aloofness. Like him or not, he's been a fixture with the Rays since he joined the team in 2006 as an infielder, and eventually made the transition to center.
But, barring an unforeseen development, he'll be gliding through center and taking his whacks for a new team this spring while left-fielder Desmond Jennings emerges as his likely successor in center. Upton, 28, insists he hasn't given any thought to the possible scenarios that lie ahead for him, given the desperate push the Rays were making toward a playoff berth winning an amazing 11 of 12 games before being eliminated Monday night when Oakland defeated Texas.
"Our main thing's been winning and that's all we've been worrying about I haven't really had time to really think about it," he said. "This is probably the first day I've actually thought about it."
Now that he is, the notion of moving on wearing a different uniform, living in a new city and pushing for the post-season on a new club seems a bit surreal to him.
"I've been here almost 10 years, man, and I don't know I don't really know what I'm getting myself into," he said. "So I guess we'll see what happens. I'm sure I'll have to make some adjustments."
Upton doesn't hesitate when asked about his best memory with the Rays.
"The 2008 season, the entire season," he said. "To be able to go from worst to first and see this organization turn things around and become a winning ball club going to the World Series and winning the American League East, which is probably the toughest division in baseball."
Given his deep connection to the Rays, would there be any chance a deal could be struck to keep him with the club?
"I don't know it's not up to me," he said. "I mean, I guess we'll see what teams are out there and who's interested and if it is the Rays, then great. But if they don't give me that opportunity, then obviously I have to made a decision on what's best for me."
Manager Joe Maddon has watched Upton develop from a raw rookie to his senior status on the team. It was Maddon who once benched Upton in 2008 for not running out a ground ball to first hard enough, and has stood by him through his ups and downs as he evolved into the coveted player he is today.
"My reflections on B.J. are about how much he's matured here," Maddon said. "I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud of that part of it. Knowing what it looked like in 2006, and knowing what it looks like now, it's pretty significant.
"I remember it was 2006 or 2007, I spent a lot of time with him on the back field there, just he and I working together, trying to determine what was the best position to play him at. Finally, we determined that playing him at a variety of different positions would get him back to the major leagues sooner and take the pressure off the defense."
Maddon said that Upton was on track to possibly make the All-Star team as a second baseman in 2007 before he "threw out his leg running to first base down in Miami. Then, eventually getting into center field and all the different things he's done there defensively, the playoff years and how well he's done there. And I think this year is the culmination of all that. This year is by far his most mature year as a baseball player.
"I'm talking about everything considered. First of all, everybody's going to look at the batting average. Don't look at that. I'm talking about the at-bats, the power, the RBIs are pretty good this year also. The defense. The base-running. The decision-making on the field. Everything has gotten better."
Still, Upton knows people will remember him in different ways and not necessarily all positive.
"It's a tough question," he said. "I mean I've had so many ups and downs here, obviously people are going to have their own opinions. But like I said, the guys I've played with over the years, they know what I'm about."
He certainly knows how he'll remember his own time here.
"It's been fun," he said. "I wouldn't change any of it. Good or bad, it's kind of made me who I am today."