Upshaw living his dream
After 30 years in baseball, ex-Jay still loves to teach
TORONTO -- He's still working and striving, chasing another day's dream.
Willie Upshaw's been in pro baseball for more than 60 percent of his life, so it might be fair to say that he's grown up within the game. He's played in three countries and coached in three organizations, but he's still hungry for another season.
"I left high school and went right into the pro level. Since I've been 18, I've been a pro," said Upshaw, currently a hitting coordinator in San Francisco's organization. "That's all I ever wanted since I was a kid. It's not like it's something I put on a shelf for a while."
Actually, it seems entirely the opposite. Upshaw went straight from playing to coaching, and he hasn't taken a break since. His 10-year playing career in the Major Leagues was well documented, but his recent itinerary has taken him all over the world and all over the baseball map.
It all started with two injury-marred seasons in Japan, but the journey failed to revive his career. After battling another language and his batting stroke, he retired at the ripe old age of 33. But that ending was just another beginning, much as it has been for other players.
After 123 big league homers, Upshaw went right back to where it all started. His coaching career took flight in Toronto, where he played nine of his 10 big league seasons. He started as a hitting instructor, and that's what he's done for the vast majority of his post-playing career, albeit in different places.
"Sometimes you get pigeonholed into the hitting aspect, but that's OK," he said. "Coordinator's a good role and a difficult role. You're counting on your coaches to keep the guys doing the things you hope they're doing. You're on for three weeks, maybe a month, then you get four or five days off. You get home more than if you were in one city all the time."
That's how draining the game can be -- four or five days off seems like an oasis. Upshaw kept chugging, with hopes of a managing gig somewhere down the line. After his first two seasons as a minor league coach, he spent two seasons with the Texas Rangers as batting coach and three with the Blue Jays as hitting instructor.
That's when he took a career move that yielded some extra personal satisfaction. Upshaw landed his first skipper's post, but he had to go to the independent Atlantic League to do it. Upshaw spent three years as chief of the Bridgeport Bluefish. He was the 1998 Manager of the Year, but it failed to lead to any other full-time openings.
He was close, though. In 2001, Upshaw was named the manager of Cleveland's Double-A affiliate, the Akron Aeros -- but he never got to serve in that capacity. He was switched back to hitting coordinator, which he did for two more seasons.
"That was somewhat frustrating, but I was really trying to do what's best for the organization and for myself. Changes happen in organizations -- whether it's GMs, managers or coaching staffs," he said. "I had a good stint with Cleveland. You want to do one thing for a while and keep moving up, keep moving on. It didn't happen with Cleveland, but hopefully it will happen in San Francisco."
His odyssey hasn't dulled his optimism. In an individual sense, Upshaw fully expects to be a manager one day. But as a member of a larger subset of society, he's not so sure he sees progress. When asked about front-office opportunities for minorities, Upshaw said he's not so sure that things have changed in the last three decades.
"Yes and no. Where I'm at now, you'd love to see more guys in the front office and managing. It just seems like there are less and less in the game," he said. "You have to be patient. There's a lot of failure, and you have to be able to deal with that. You have to learn how the game is dictated and understand it. Once you do, it gets in your blood -- those little victories."
Upshaw's seen a lot of those victories in 48 years of life -- 30 of them spent in baseball. And in the end, they're what keeps him going. When asked where all his persistence comes from, he makes his point and reiterates it twice: It's a labor of love.
"Well, you love the game. I love teaching the game," he said. "It's good to watch guys get better, progress in their careers. It's good to be part of a winner and watch guys succeed. You love the game."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.