Stuck in a slump

ON A CHARBROILED May morning in Tempe, Ariz., at a nondescript strip mall among a sea of them, Justin Upton exits his ride, puts his black-and-white Dolce & Gabbana sneakers on the asphalt and walks across the parking lot toward a cellphone store. Up ahead, the Diamondbacks outfielder can see folks standing behind a maze of black ropes, in a loose line that snakes along the left side of the building. They are here to get his autograph.

It's a younger crowd, or at least younger than what one might expect in the Greater Phoenix area: lots of men with young children in D-backs caps, and college-aged women wearing Upton's No. 10 jersey. A security guard with a buzz cut stands indifferently near the front door, waiting for the 24-year-old ballplayer -- the man who seven months earlier had led his team to an improbable playoff berth, won a Silver Slugger Award and finished fourth in the National League's MVP voting. The man who now is mired in the worst hitting slump of his five-year career.

"M-V-P!" shouts someone behind the rope.

Upton looks wearily at the crowd. The previous night, he'd gone 0-for-3 with a strikeout and an error in a win against the Giants. His average dropped to .229. After his teammates cleared the clubhouse and the lights were turned off at Chase Field, he stayed behind to study video of his at-bats; pitch by pitch, swing by swing. Leg straight. Don't turn over. A few hours later, Upton drove alone to his townhouse near Scottsdale, arriving well past midnight. His parents were visiting from Virginia. He woke his father, Manny; he wanted to talk about hitting. Upton crouched in his batting stance and mimicked his swing while Dad offered critiques. Upton's mother slept just a few feet away.

His passion is, at times, his Achilles' heel, and his immense talent is both a blessing and a curse. Those 31 home runs, 88 RBIs and 105 runs last year would have been a career season for most players. For Upton, the overall No. 1 pick of the 2005 draft, they are supposed to be the beginning. And so the kid who has had expectations heaped on him since he was a teenager is now confronting the central tension of his new season: Is he ready to be a franchise player? Does he have the maturity to lead a team and to endure if he struggles, as he has so often in his short career? Only the next five months will reveal that. But there is one thing of which Upton is already certain: In his world, anything short of perfection will be seen as a failure.

On this morning, hearing the "MVP" call from behind the rope, he is in no mood for encouragement. "I'm hitting .230, man," Upton mumbles as he brushes past the line.

During slumps of years past, events like this autograph session would worry the people who handled Upton's schedule. One bad game and the rightfielder might show up an hour late. He was seen as uncaring, detached. "You wouldn't know what to say to him," says one of Upton's reps, Mike Dillon, as he watches Upton slide into a seat in the middle of the store. "Or you're worried what someone might say to him."

But here he is. The new Upton, or at least the Upton who now understands what's asked of him. He'd discussed it with his inner circle -- his parents, girlfriend Ashley Borror, best friend on the team Chris Young and agent Larry Reynolds -- before the season began. Be yourself, they told him; good things will happen. Maturity is now his watchword, as in, Isn't Justin so much more mature? He is, at least today. From his chair, he can see the crowd building outside as wave after wave of bats and balls and jerseys and photos are placed on the table in front of him.

Upton signs a photo, Happy birthday, Ethan!

He signs a bat. Then a ball.

Dillon is beaming. He fetches Upton a blackberry soda and a bottled water. Smiles all around. Thirty minutes later, after the last fans pass through the door, some store employees line up for a group picture. Soon Upton is ready to leave.

"Good luck tonight," someone says as Upton makes his way toward the door. "Tear it up."

Upton nods his head. And with that, he's gone.

"I BELIEVE I'M capable of being No. 1," Upton says a few weeks later as he sprawls across a couch in his townhouse. Even lying down, he looks like a coiled spring -- 6'2" and a lean 205 pounds, a mass of sinewy limbs and fast-twitch fibers. "I expect to come in, hit for power, hit for average and steal bases," he says, jabbing his finger into a cushion. "I hit 31 home runs last year. I want to hit 35. I hit .289. I want to hit .310. I stole 21 bases. I want to steal 30. Do I want to do the same thing again? That's a little boring."

Growing up in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, nothing came easier to Upton than baseball. He learned hitting from his father, a former college athlete who once worked as a scout for the Royals and White Sox. He learned the value of competition from older brother B.J., the Rays outfielder selected second overall in 2002. As a 10-year-old, the younger Upton was pitched around as if he were Babe Ruth. By 2005, he was 17 and tearing up teenage pitchers as a shortstop for Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake. Scouts flocked to his games and saw a superstar: a power hitter's stroke from the right side; quick, strong hands that could place the ball anywhere on the field; great defensive instincts and a laser arm; and a lower body built like an Olympic athlete. After drafting him in '05, Arizona gave him what was then a record $6.1 million signing bonus.

Success came quickly. He was 18 years old with Class-A South Bend in 2006 when he hit 12 home runs, stole 15 bases and drove in 66 runs in 113 games. The next year, he shredded Double-A and was called up to Arizona in early August 2007, just shy of his 20th birthday. Five days later, he hit his first home run and fell a single short of the cycle. Still, Upton was, by his own admission, too naive and reckless as a rookie. He threw helmets and smashed bats in the dugout when he failed. He cut up his body when he leapt into an outfield wall. He flew up the first base line on routine infield choppers, not caring if he blew out a hamstring. He hit .221 in 140 at-bats.

"At 19, I didn't think at all," Upton says. "I was a kid playing with grown men."

The following season, he exploded out of the gates, batting .415 with five home runs in his first 11 games. But he hit only .216 in May, then .123 in June. He lost time to an oblique injury and worried constantly about his production. He became sullen after losses. During the season, Arizona's medical staff asked Peter Crone, the team's "performance specialist," to meet with Upton. The two sat on a training table one day and talked about rising expectations. "He had this immense talent that everyone wanted to draw out of him," says Crone, who works as a mental coach in California. "The first thing I wanted Justin to do was to accept himself."

In 2009, Upton's third season, he found his swagger. He hit 26 home runs, stole 20 bases, batted .300 and made his first All-Star team. At 21, he was the NL's pre-eminent young star. But he was also tagged with another label: immature. His dugout temper tantrums were beamed on TV highlights across the country. And at times, Upton would seem coolly disconnected. He blew pink-bubble-gum bubbles as he stood in the outfield or admired his home run blasts.

"No one was there to talk to him, to sit him down and say, This is how things work in the major leagues," says Don Baylor, who was with the Rockies at the time and is now the Diamondbacks' hitting coach. "It was totally hands off."

While Upton struggled with his image, Arizona clearly understood his value, signing him to a six-year, $51.25 million extension in 2010 and creating "Uptown," a section of bleacher seats behind the rightfield fence. But Upton slumped again at the season's start, finishing with just 18 home runs and 64 RBIs as Arizona went 65-97, the third-worst record in baseball. In the offseason, his name was mentioned in trade discussions. That left an indelible mark on him. "I was golfing with CY [Chris Young], and I read about it on my phone," Upton remembers. "I saw how much of a business this really is."

Upton wasn't dealt, and the doubts seemed to motivate him. In 2011, he had the best season of his career, leading his team to its second playoff appearance in four years. By year's end, he already had 91 career home runs, fifth most among active players 23 or younger. Coming into 2012, his numbers were comparable to those of Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and Ron Santo at a similar age. "This season is just another step in J-Up becoming a Hall of Fame player," says Young, who plays next to Upton in the outfield.

In early April, though, Upton injured his left thumb trying to break up a double play. The team sent him to a specialist, who drained the joint. But the fluid eventually returned, and when management suggested that Upton take a couple of weeks off to recover, he refused. It was for noble reasons. By that time, Young had landed on the 15-day disabled list with a bruised shoulder, and shortstop Stephen Drew was still absent following a gruesome ankle dislocation a year earlier. The team could ill afford to lose another high-profile bat. But Upton's decision was not for public consumption or a play for headlines and blog posts. Instead, behind closed doors he had made a subtle point: When his teammates needed someone to step up, they could depend on him.

By mid-May, though, Upton has only three home runs and nine RBIs, and Arizona is a dismal 15–21. Upton refuses to make the thumb an excuse, saying, "I chose to play," but he's struggling to catch up to fastballs, and squaring up a curveball seems an impossibility.

Back on his couch in the family room, Upton looks at his thumb, slowly flexes his oversize hand and grimaces. "I'm not seeing the ball," he admits. It seems everyone wants to help. He's called his father, who studies his son's swing with the attention of a surgeon. Upton has also spoken with Crone and Baylor, who is convinced his star hitter's slump is mostly mental. "I told him to clear his mind," Baylor says. "He's got to take all that junk out of the garage and clean it out." His anxiety, the coach says, leads to an all-consuming desire to become too perfect, to focus on the minutiae of an at-bat rather than to simply go up, see a pitch and bash the hell out of it. It's a mindset that Upton just can't seem to grasp.

"Three times in my career I've gone through a monthlong slump," Upton says. "I'm getting really frustrated with it. I'm starting to think it's me. I'm the one causing it."

ON MAY 17 in Denver, the Diamondbacks and Rockies are tied 7-7 in the top of the ninth when Upton walks to the plate with a runner on third. Upton is batting .218 with 10 RBIs. He's still stuck on three homers. Even worse, he has only three hits in 27 at-bats with runners in scoring position. With the count 1 and 2 and the home crowd cheering for a strikeout, Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt fires a fastball over the outside part of the plate. Upton spears it. The ball flies high to rightfield; Upton follows the ball's arc with his bat head. It clears the fence, several seats up. The crowd hushes. Upton runs the bases, touches home and disappears into his dugout among a sea of high-fives.

Upton has been working with Baylor nearly every day, but his titanic power -- especially to leftfield -- has evaporated. A few weeks later, entering June, he has only five home runs, fewer than half the number he'd belted at the same time a year earlier. His injured thumb makes it difficult to grip his bat, and it pains him to twist his left hand when he swings in the cage. Upton has taken to using a small rectangular pad on his thumb to protect it when he hits, but it's no use. During games, his rhythm has been thrown off. He is now worried that mechanical flaws are becoming ingrained in his carefully constructed swing. He's lost confidence and seems indecisive. Before long, he's leading the majors in strikeouts looking.

The Diamondbacks are 23–29, and Upton is hitting .249 entering their game against the Padres on June 2, when manager Kirk Gibson benches the rightfielder. Gibson does it again three days later, before a 10-0 win against the Rockies. The decision agitates Upton, who always imagines he is one big game from righting himself. "So I'm supposed to get better by not playing?" he grumbles. Gibson makes it clear later that keeping Upton out of the lineup isn't a punishment. "Justin was never benched," the manager says. "I sat him down for a couple days so he could get a breath."

Gibson, who was named the Diamondbacks' manager midway through the 2010 season and is most famous for his game-winning homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series as a Dodger, is in a unique position to handle talented young players. A former first-round pick himself, he arrived in the majors in 1979 as a 22-year-old with the Tigers. He battled through countless slumps during a 17-year career, most notably in 1983, when he was booed mercilessly by Detroit fans. He lashed out at the media and lost his temper in public and in private. After that season, he enrolled at the corporate mind-building Pacific Institute in Seattle, where he learned to think positively through visualizing himself in successful situations. "I had to do that stuff because I was a lunatic," Gibson says. "Justin is not. He's further along than I was. But we're a lot alike. We're competitive. I just want him to trust in his abilities."

The night he sits out against Colorado, Upton spots a gaggle of reporters waiting outside his 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 scratch it," he says.

"Where are you going to put it?" she asks.

"I don't know," Upton says. "How about a centerpiece on the table?" Borror laughs.

Names are engraved on a plaque to the side of the bat. It's a who's who of baseball stars: Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton. Upton holds the trophy in front of him and breaks into a wide grin. He pulls it close to his face. Then he kisses the bat.

IT'S 105 DEGREES on the afternoon of July 7, and Upton is driving down a two-lane asphalt road 13 miles northeast of Phoenix, with Borror sitting in the front seat. Upton maneuvers his white Range Rover around lolling curves, on a maze of twisting road leading past sprawling Tuscan-style estates, until he reaches the base of a massive hillside. He pulls the SUV to the left shoulder and rolls to a dusty stop. Out his window, he sees the site of his future home.

Upton exits his vehicle, and a blast of hot wind blows across the property -- a 2.2-acre ocean of red-and-brown dirt and broken rock. From the artist's rendering on a sign near the road, the house will be nearly all glass and right angles: low, flat architecture across the desert floor. Upton and Borror walk from the road and onto a dirt driveway that arches toward a cinder block wall on the back of the land. They turn to their left and stop above a concrete hole the size of a city swimming pool. "That's the gym," Upton says, pointing toward the expanse. They then move toward a vast wall on their right. "This is where the batting cage will be," Upton says. "There'll be netting that comes in and out so you can shoot hoops right here." He takes a jump shot with an imaginary ball, then points toward an area in the cloudless sky. "That'll be the rooftop terrace up there."

The property -- the couple's dream house -- is being solidified at a moment when their future in Arizona is far less certain. Three days earlier, on the Fourth of July, home fans fiercely booed Upton following an 8-6 loss to the Padres in which he'd gone 0-for-5, stranded five men and popped out to end the game. Upton momentarily fell back to the Justin Upton everyone thought they knew. "To be honest with you," he told reporters afterward, barely hiding his contempt, "I don't care what the fans think of me. My teammates, my coaches, they know I come in here and bust it every single day."

A day later, through an Internet report, Upton learned that D-backs general manager Kevin Towers was trying to trade him before the July 31 deadline. Arizona wanted a haul for the young outfielder: at least two big leaguers and one top prospect. Upton's friends tried to portray the trade talk as a positive. The team wouldn't ask for so much if they didn't think he wasn't worth it, they told him. Guys in the clubhouse said he should brush aside the rumors. "The only thing that matters is, Do you have the respect of the teammates you play with?" closer J.J. Putz says. "Without a question, he has the respect of the team."

Publicly, the rightfielder tried to be the bigger man. Upton wouldn't begrudge Towers if he wanted to improve the Diamondbacks, he told reporters, even if that meant he had to go. But as Upton stands in the concrete hole of his new home now, his disappointment is obvious. "I've been loyal and you expect some loyalties to you," he says. "This is where I started my career, you know? I love this city. The second I'm not doing well and the team's not doing well, it's, 'Well, he's on the market.' For me to have played the way I've played for this organization? Then for me to be at this point where fans are saying this guy sucks? It's hard."

Is he going to Texas or to Toronto? Pittsburgh or Detroit? Or will Upton remain the cornerstone in Arizona? Everything in his career has come early for Upton, and so does this: About to turn 25 next month, he has already reached a career crossroads. Maybe being dealt out of the desert wouldn't be so terrible. His girlfriend would join him and maybe he'd find his way into a contender's lineup. "I'm not scared of being traded," he says. "The five years were great here, but if it's time to move on? Well ... " his voice trails off. "Baseball is baseball."

EVERY STRIKEOUT, every swing and miss feels like an indictment against him. Another reason to criticize, to impugn his dedication, his heart, his commitment to winning. It burns. So as the summer grinds on, Upton hits in the D-backs' underground batting cage after some home games, like a high schooler who needs extra practice. Before games, he studies video of his swing with Young. He burns up the phone lines between Arizona and his parents' home in Virginia.

Upton's focus both warms and worries his manager. On one hand, Upton sets a good example, the happy warrior going to battle. On the other, Gibson wonders if it is too much, if Upton is trying too hard. By late July, Upton's eight home runs are only sixth best on his team. He leads the club in runs scored, but his overall production, according to advanced metrics, has been no better than a league-average outfielder.

Gibson has recently moved Upton from his traditional third spot in the batting order to fifth, but he insists his season hasn't been a failure. "Everyone thinks Justin's having a bad year," Gibson says. "I'd argue he's a better all-around ballplayer. We worked on him going back on the ball. Much improved. We've worked with him on getting his throws down and hitting the cutoff man. Much improved. I'm not saying we don't get frustrated when we're all hoping that he can do what everybody thinks he should be able to do. In the end, if he stays patient, he will do that."

Towers has received calls about Upton. He's mindful that rival GMs are looking for a discount, something the Diamondbacks are unwilling to give. He's also mindful that to come out on the losing end of any trade -- to watch Upton transform into a 40-homer masher for some other team -- could cost him his job. "We know what Justin's capable of doing," Towers says. "But he's young in a way that I don't think he realizes how good he really can be. There are guys who have a fear of failure and guys who have a fear of success. I think his fear is of success."

On July 21, Upton arrives home after his team beat the Astros 12-3. He went 1-for-2 with a triple and two walks, boosting his average to .274 and extending a week in which he had nine hits, including a home run, and added four runs and four RBIs. Sitting at his kitchen counter while Borror heats enchiladas in the oven, Upton seems worn. He's been barraged with trade talk for nearly three weeks, and rumors are piling up. Team ownership doesn't like him. He's hiding a shoulder injury. He doesn't work hard enough. He's not a winner.

Teammates joke about the stupidity of it all, that outsiders didn't know the real Justin Upton, the kid who plays the game hard and always wants to be better. "Players [from other teams] came up to me and asked, 'Is he a bad clubhouse guy?' " Young says. "They don't know why his name is out there."

Upton is nonplussed. Borror sets enchiladas on a plate for him and he digs in. "People say what they say; they write what they write," he says. "But I'm still the same guy, whether I go 0-for-4 or 5-for-5 with five home runs. You know, I don't go up there to try to get an out." His voice is flat. "I didn't start the rumor mill," he says. "It's a mess I have to clean up on my own. When I'm playing good, nobody talks. Period. Nobody talks. They just clap."

ON JULY 31 in Los Angeles, two hours before the 1 p.m. trade deadline, Upton wakes up in Room 316 of the W Hotel at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. He checks messages on his phone, showers and puts on a black T-shirt and jeans. He takes the elevator down to the lobby, walks to a restaurant across the street and eats with Larry Reynolds, his agent. By now, Diamondbacks management has said that an Upton deal is highly unlikely.

At 1 p.m., the deadline quietly passes.

Upton leaves the restaurant and returns to the W. He closes the door to his room and puts a dip of tobacco in his lower lip. Suitcases are on the floor near the door, clothes flopping onto the ground. He taps a message on his phone.

"It's been a long, drawn-out month," he says, finally. "It takes a toll on you."

At home?

"Nah," he says.

At the ballpark?

"You know, I got tired of the questions," he says. "All the time, people coming up to me and asking if I thought I was going to be traded. I got tired of going to the clubhouse and not being able to play Angry Birds because I had to answer questions. Sometimes I want to play solitaire and be left alone." He spits tobacco juice into an empty water bottle. "I'm definitely relieved, though. There isn't going to be any more talk about me being traded this year."

The offseason? Well, that'll be different, and he knows it. The team will have the entire winter to work on a trade. "But I don't know what they'll be doing," he says. "So I might as well play well." After the Diamondbacks' three-game swing through LA, the team will travel east for seven games before coming home. Until now, Upton hasn't given much thought to returning to the fans who'd jeered him for most of the season. "Man, they're stuck with me now," he says with a laugh. "But I'm going to do my best to make this relationship as good as possible."

ON AUG. 25, the day Upton turns 25, he strides to the batter's box at Chase Field in the bottom of the second with no outs, his D-backs down 1-0 and Goldschmidt on first base. Upton's form has leveled of late; he's hitting .273, with 49 RBIs and 79 runs scored. Some of the swagger is back. He sweeps his right foot across dirt in the box, blows a bubble, taps an edge of home plate with the tip of his bat and stares at Padres pitcher Clayton Richard.

The lefty tosses his first pitch. Upton swings and smashes the ball low and deep to right-centerfield. San Diego outfielder Cameron Maybin immediately turns to his left and speeds toward the warning track. Before Maybin reaches the dirt, the ball hits near the base of the wall and kicks back to left-centerfield. Maybin gives chase. The Arizona crowd roars. Upton races past second base as Goldschmidt scores. Upton catches sight of his third base coach,

Matt Williams, who's three-quarters of the way to home plate and is furiously wheeling his arm: Get home, now! Upton touches third and chomps his gum as he charges to the plate. Maybin makes a relay throw to the cutoff man, who holds the ball. Upton slides feetfirst across home, his right hand extended triumphantly in the air.

An inside-the-park home run, the first of his career. Upton pops up and smacks his hands together, then trots to the dugout. Sweat is pouring down his forehead. He's exhausted, smiling. Gibson meets him at the top of the steps. He's laughing. He backhands Upton on the rear.

It has been a month of milestones. Several weeks before, on Aug. 2, Upton celebrated the fifth anniversary of his major league call-up. He hit his 100th career home run the next day -- less than an hour before his brother, B.J., reached the same milestone. Upton's season average has held steady throughout the month, and the inside-the-park homer pushes his home run total to double digits. Perhaps most important, Upton's left thumb feels good enough in the week leading to the San Diego series that he does away with the small pad that was protecting it.

Still, it all seems too late. There isn't a late-season charge in this team, at least that anyone can foresee. The team had gone 11–11 from Aug. 1 to Aug. 24. After the birthday game against San Diego, a 9-3 loss that would be the second of six in a row, 11 reporters wait for Upton, who faces them and dutifully answers their questions. We swung the bat well ... The inside-the-park home run was nice ... The Padres are a good team ... We're still tough ... My teammates are playing hard.

Upton is then asked about the latest report: The Diamondbacks put him on waivers and an unknown team claimed him a day earlier. Arizona has until tomorrow, a Sunday, to make a trade. What does Upton think?

He shrugs.

At home less than an hour later, Upton eats a steak dinner while his father and his cousin, in town for his big day, tear through plates of ribs. Afterward, Upton excuses himself and goes into the living room, where he turns on the TV. He drops onto a leather couch and talks about his team's season: "Did we underachieve? Nah. I just didn't do the things that I'm capable of. I didn't drive the ball out of the yard. It hasn't been a bad year. I mean, it's not a horrible year like everyone's making it sound. Is it the funnest year I've had? No. But it comes with the territory. Was it warranted? No. But if you want to be a great player, you have to deal with these things."

A highlight of his home run plays on the screen, but he doesn't acknowledge it. "Look," he says. "I'm the idiot." He freezes for a moment to consider the word, perhaps wondering if he should have said it. "You can say that I'm the idiot who comes home after last season and says, What more can I do? Instead of fine-tuning myself, I'm looking at the next step. And I should have stuck to what I know. Mentally, the wheels were turning, rather than settling in. I worried about being complacent. I want to be the good clubhouse guy. I want to be somebody who makes my team better. That's like what Michael Jordan did. But there's a difference between doing something and being something."

But if your name is Justin Upton -- if you're taken first overall in the draft, if you hit 31 home runs as a 23-year-old, if you're already a two-time All-Star and a Silver Slugger winner -- being something means more than just being a superlative player. It means being the franchise. But what is that exactly? How do you become that? And what if that's just not his destiny? What if he's only meant to join the realm of the merely very good, the company of Carlos Beltran and Jay Bruce? Can the Diamondbacks live with that? Can fans? Can he?

After this season, the questions will persist for at least another year. In the meantime, Upton will be working. Going over his at-bats, pitch by pitch. Hitting privately in the underground cage. He'll do it in his mind, where he -- and Baylor, Gibson, his teammates and his family -- can see the player he wants to become. Upton feels it. His struggles this year, he thinks, have created a monster within; the adversity has forged his resolve.

"Put it this way," he says. "I've shown what I can do, and I'll do it again."

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.