6/14/2013 12:48 A.M. ET
'Bossman' set the tone early on for Uptons
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- The silver SUV pulled into the parking lot at Greenbrier Christian Academy, and instantly a smiling face waved the vehicle around. People know Manny Upton, whether it's here in southeastern Virginia or another time zone. Best known as "Bossman," the man has presence. He commands respect, never needing to demand it.
Manny's older son, B.J. ("Bossman Junior"), attended Greenbrier and is the greatest baseball player that a great high school program has produced. Younger son Justin played a few miles away at Great Bridge High School, and he's likewise the No. 1 product of a fine program.
These are the schools that propelled the Upton brothers to their status as top Draft picks (B.J. No. 2 overall in 2002, Justin No. 1 in '05) and Major League stars. Today, Justin and B.J. are teammates with the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves, centerpieces of that franchise's offseason overhaul.
But before the bigs, before high school, they played for Bossman. He knows them better than anyone else. Manny taught them how to play ball, and they learned how to carry themselves and how to be teammates.
"He coached us at 9 and 10 years old and treated us at 9 and 10 years old like grown men," said B.J. "When we were on the field, it wasn't like we were 9 and 10 years old. If we didn't do something right, he wore us out like it was his college team. That's the way it's always been, from day one."
Manny and his wife, Yvonne, are natives of the Hampton Roads area, where Greenbrier and Great Bridge are located. He played college baseball at Norfolk State, later coached that same team, and has been busy ever since. Manny is currently a college basketball referee and a loan officer at a mortgage company. He has worked as a baseball scout, and of course he spends plenty of time keeping up with the careers of his sons.
Manny is nearly always going, and while he's thought about going back into scouting, there's one thing he'd miss. He wouldn't be able to watch his sons play ball.
Atlanta is just over an hour's flight from Norfolk, and the parents can hop a flight to see Justin and B.J. play pretty much whenever they want to. Washington, Philadelphia and New York are likewise easy to visit.
"I kind of like it," Manny said over dinner in Chesapeake recently. "Some days I tell her I'll go back to scouting. She tells me, 'You aren't scouting, because you wouldn't have time with the boys.'"
He would miss it too much. So would they.
The family has reached an impressive balance. Dad and Mom visit often, but not too much. They're missed when they're not around, and welcome when they come. It's balance that the elder Upton has always sought and mostly achieved. Manny was always available, always happy to help his sons play ball. But he never forced it, or himself, on them.
From the first time B.J. or Justin picked up a ball, Bossman never pushed them to play. They were welcome at NSU practices, and they had every opportunity to get out and throw or hit whenever they could. But there was never pressure.
Until they committed, that is. Once they were in, the expectations changed. There's no such thing as a halfway commitment in the Upton household.
"Not pushing you either way, but when you do something, you try your best at it," said Justin.
It stuck with both brothers. Dad remembers his older son hitting every day at 6 a.m. when he was in high school -- with friend and fellow future big leaguer David Wright in tow.
"You don't teach them to quit," Manny said. "It's easy to quit. That's the easiest thing to do. B.J. and Dave, they hit every morning. When they were able to drive, at 6 o'clock in the morning. Before school. Not too many kids do that. Nobody made them do it. They did it on their own. That's why they're successful."
Wright is another Major Leaguer who owes some of his success to Manny Upton. The Mets third baseman was a neighbor of the Uptons' and a year ahead of B.J. in school, and he jokes that he served as a "personal taxi" for his younger friend.
Wright attended Hickory High School, but he played on youth teams with B.J., coached by Bossman. He remembers a coach who could command a clubhouse without saying a whole lot.
"He's out to beat you," Wright said. "He's an imposing figure, but also without even having to raise his voice or yell and scream, he gives you a certain look and you know what's expected."
B.J. and Justin always had talent, but they had that drive as well. That came from inside, but B.J. also believes that it resulted from the game being a choice when they were kids. They were never pushed to play, so they never got tired of it.
Their father echoes that; it was and is important to him. Manny didn't lean on them -- but it's clear he takes as much pride in that early work as in anything B.J. produced on the field.
B.J. takes more after his father, with a quiet, reserved on-field demeanor that hides the intensity within. Justin, both parents say, is more like his mother, a more loquacious sort.
Don't mistake quiet for a lack of intensity in the son or the father. As a coach, Manny never had any trouble getting through to his young charges. He just didn't have to scream to accomplish it.
"I didn't believe in yelling, but I got my point across," he said. "And they knew. Even with discipline at home, B.J. and Justin probably could tell you on one hand how much I yelled at them. But they knew it was an expectation. When you didn't meet that expectation, then there was a problem."
B.J. Upton remembers a tournament when he was very young -- perhaps even still in elementary school. His team was feeling some intimidation from a bigger opponent. Coach Upton was having none of it.
Manny convinced them, B.J. remembers, that the opposing team was in fact the one that ought to be intimidated. He did it quietly -- but firmly.
"None of the parents heard it," B.J. recalled, smiling. "But we heard it."
That intensity, and competitiveness, was never limited to just baseball. It still isn't. These days, it finds a major outlet on the golf course. All three Upton men love the game, and they love beating each other at it.
"Yeah, the golf course is bad," Bossman Upton admits with a soft laugh. "We're not family on the golf course. That's the truth. Because if they beat me, I've got to hear about it. They want to beat me bad. I think that's my advantage. They want to beat me so bad.
"And I talk some stuff to them. Not much, but I talk a little bit."
The last assertion is met with a skeptical "Ohhhh really?" from his wife, who sees the fierce battles firsthand.
Once the competition is over, though, things return to normal. That's a hallmark of both father and coach. Manny is easygoing when you're not keeping score. It's only when competition starts that he turns into something different.
"He's laid back, man," B.J. said. "He's happy-go-lucky, easy. But just a different person between the lines."
This season has been wonderful in some ways for Bossman, having his sons in the same city and both closer than ever before. B.J. had been with the Tampa Bay Rays, Justin with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But it's also had some trials, as B.J. has spent nearly the whole season searching for a groove at the plate.
Though he knows B.J.'s swing better than anyone, Manny hesitated to weigh in with any thoughts until he was asked. He loves being included, but he wants to be sure that he's not overstepping his bounds -- once again walking that line, keeping that balance. Manny will contribute, but he won't butt in.
"I coached them all the way through AAU, and I always told the parents, 'Let me handle your kids,'" he said. "So I will respect you as a coach and allow you to handle it. Now, if B.J. and Justin call me, it's a different story."
B.J. did call his father for help recently. He said the input was helpful, and in fact June has been his best month of the season to date. Justin talks hitting with him even more, sometimes spending hours breaking down video and talking swings when they're together.
As always, Bossman is not going to insist on anything. But once he's in, he's in.
"It's nice to know that my sons still trust me even though they're at that level," he said. "I don't want credit. I just want him to play well. I already got my credit because both of them are there."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.