By: Will Burchfield
Justin Upton got some great news on Friday.
On the heels of a terrific first half, he had been chosen for the All-Star Game.
His close friend Ian Kinsler was probably pretty bummed.
“Justin’s been a huge part of our offense, a huge part of our defense, he contributes in all facets of the game,” Kinsler said in a recent interview. “In my eyes, he’s probably our All-Star. I don’t want him to go because then I can’t chill with in Michigan over the break, but he’s well-deserving.”
Upton, sitting to Kinsler’s right in the Tigers’ clubhouse, smiled demurely. Kinsler, rocking back and forth in his swivel chair, grinned from ear to ear and laughed out loud. There was no better microcosm of their differences — Upton, the soft-spoken introvert and Kinsler, the boisterous wise-cracker.
The two have been neighbors in the Tigers’ clubhouse since the beginning of last season, Upton’s first in Detroit. They spend time lots of time together away from the ballpark, too, the duo as close as any on the team. Theirs is an unlikely friendship in a realm where friendship is growing increasingly rare.
“Originally meeting the guy and getting to know him, I didn’t know — you never really expect to have a tight-knit bond with a teammate off the field. That’s just the way it is,” said Kinsler. “Me and Justin, we get along great. We enjoy each other’s company, and when you find a teammate like that it’s always nice.”
Kinsler and Upton have a combined 23 years of MLB experience, including four trips each to the All-Star Game. They are versatile, heart-and-hustle difference-makers, the type of guys who dirty their jerseys in a blowout loss. They are ballplayers to their core, bound by a shared respect for the game.
“I think the intensity level he plays the game with, that’s what drew me to him,” said Upton. “Those days where it’s tough to get it going and he’s ready to go. You can feed off that.”
Both Upton, 29, and Kinsler, 36, are married with kids. They often bring their families together, whether it be for a nice dinner, a backyard barbecue or just a chance for the youngsters to play. For Upton, who debuted in 2007, one year after Kinsler, this is how things used to be.
“When I first broke in, that’s what guys did, they hung out away from the field. I think now it’s a little bit different with Instagram and guys’ brands and wanting to be famous rather than be a baseball player,” said Upton, brandishing a bat over his shoulder, gripping it with both hands. “I think that’s changed today, but the way I view being in the clubhouse and being with the boys is the same. I always wanna hang with guys and get to know my teammates.”
This was a challenge for Upton in his first season with the Tigers. His reserved nature left him somewhat detached in a new clubhouse. It didn’t help, of course, that he endured a miserable first half at the plate, and it’s probably no coincidence that his personality began to shine as his bat did the same.
“As the season went on last year, he opened up a little bit more,” said Kinsler. “I think coming to a new team and trying to figure out different personalities, it took him awhile to get comfortable. That’s just the nature of it. This year he’s obviously way more comfortable with his environment. He’s talking with more people. For me, it’s the same because we’re right next to each other all the time so I got to know him a lot faster than most guys did.”
Kinsler, who was traded to the Tigers in 2013, didn’t experience the same growing pains in his first season in Detroit. Not in his own mind, at least. Then again, he’s not entirely sure how his new teammates responded to his brazen personality. Honesty can be abrasive.
“I’m a little more emotional than Justin is, so I really don’t have a problem blurting out my feelings. I don’t know how the team took it at the time, my first year here,” Kinsler said, adding that things may have been “a little awkward” in spring training. “I’m not the type of person to just hold things in because I’m uncomfortable. It wasn’t that big of a deal for me.
“I would say for me, just personality-wise, it probably happened a little bit faster than it did for Justin.”
Again, his social acclimation was probably tied to his performance. Kinsler was an All-Star in his first season as a Tiger, and it’s a whole lot easier to project a positive persona when things are going well. One’s foibles are both less glaring and more quickly forgiven.
Upton is a buoyant person by nature. His reticence should not be mistaken for gloom. He can be playful in conversation, animated in the dugout and he’s got a laugh, high-pitched and uninhibited, that often makes him sound like a Little Leaguer. When triggered, it spills forth as if it just couldn’t wait to get out.
His sanguinity was tested at the start of last season. It bent at times, mostly in the form of a few shattered bats, but it never broke. Kinsler noticed that, probably more than anyone in the Tigers clubhouse, and his admiration for Upton steadily grew.
“The first half of the season really, really showed me a lot about what type of person he is. When somebody’s struggling or when somebody’s failing, you really find out a lot about them. And he was the same guy everyday,” said Kinsler. “He never said he was frustrated, he never said he was struggling, he never said, ‘What do I do?’
“He just continued to plug away, continued to work. Worked extremely hard. That shows me a lot. That he believes in himself and that he’s not up and down. He’s not a rollercoaster, he’s stable. So it was nice to have him next to me.”
Kinsler says Upton has rubbed off on him. His emotions still run hot, but he’s less inclined to let them boil over. He still vents his frustrations, but not at every little mistake. The younger Upton has taught him how to let things go.
“To see him go through what he went through in the first half last year, obviously reflects on me and I can learn from that,” said Kinsler, who has been noticeably level-headed throughout a poor start to the season. “It’s helped me a lot.”
Where Kinsler has benefited from Upton’s cool, Upton been roused by Kinsler’s fire. In many ways, he needs it.
“I think I’m more laid-back,” said Upton. “It takes a little more to get me going.”
Every day, Kinsler is there to provide it. Just being around him, Upton says, has an invigorating effect.
“Yeah, man, get a little juice going for the game, get a little sauce. Not too much, though,” he confirmed with a grin.
At this, Kinsler’s gaze lifted and he looked at Upton.
“Can you have too much sauce?” he asked.
“Nahh,” Upton replied.
The two of them feel like throwbacks in a game with an evolving identity. They play hard, but with an understated style. They yearn to win, but not in spite of anyone else. Bat flips and stare-downs? You won’t find them here. That Upton and Kinsler are such close teammates is easy to understand.
That they are such close friends is a bit of a surprise. They’re categorically different people. Then again, that’s exactly why it works.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Upton, “because when you got somebody who talks a lot, you just let ‘em talk.”