KISSIMMEE, Fla. — As Dan Uggla was coming through the minor leagues, there were plenty of chances to just give up. Like the time he was expecting to spend a few days with his family during a midseason break, only to learn that he’d been demoted to a lower-level team.
Instead of flying home to Tennessee, the second baseman had to pack his bags and drive from California to Indiana.
“When he called us with the news, you could just hear it in his voice,” his brother, Mike, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I couldn’t imagine him making that two- or three-day drive by himself. It was tough, man. For every good moment, there were like five tough ones.”
But Dan persevered through five grueling years in the minors. He didn’t lose hope when he batted .214 in Class A. He didn’t throw in the towel when his original organization (Arizona) left him unprotected.
Well, look where Uggla is now.
He’s been to the All-Star Game twice. He hit 154 homers for Florida in his first five big league seasons. After being traded to the Atlanta Braves over the winter, he signed a $62 million, five-year contract that leaves him set for life financially.
“The first thing I thought about was my kids,” said Uggla, who has two children. “Then, obviously, I thought about my mother. She just retired after about 30 years of being a nurse. ... It’s really special to be able to give your mom a chance to just sit back, enjoy life, enjoy time with her grandkids. She deserves it.”
And Uggla? He doesn’t plan to relax a bit.
It’s just not in his nature, which is understandable when you consider where he came from.
Uggla was always one of the shorter kids his age, and even now he’s generously listed at only 5-foot-11. He had a knack for hitting a baseball a long way, but his size made it hard to get noticed by the scouts, what with their obsession with the physical tools. After spending three years at the University of Memphis, he was finally drafted 338th overall by the Diamondbacks in 2001.
His hard work was just beginning.
“I would go into spring training every year just fighting for a position on a team, whether it was A-ball or Double-A,” Uggla recalled. “I would make the team as a utility guy and then have to win a starting job.”
His career was going nowhere when he started out the 2004 season in the Texas League batting below .200. Then, on a sweltering summer day in Midland, he went into the batting cage and, inexplicably, felt something different. Maybe it was the way he wagged his bat before he ripped into the ball, a habit he’s carried to this day.
“I just remember something clicked,” Uggla said. “I got two hits that day. I went on like a 15- or 16-game hitting streak. I raised my batting average like a hundred points in a two-week span. It just kind of took off from there.”
Even so, Arizona didn’t add Uggla to its 40-man roster after his fifth season in the minors, leaving him available to be claimed by Florida in the Rule 5 draft. The Marlins obviously saw something they liked, and it didn’t take Uggla long to prove he belonged.
He had 27 homers and 90 RBIs as a rookie. He hit more than 30 homers over the next four years, culminating with his best season yet in 2010 — 33 homers, 105 RBIs and a .287 average.
Still, Uggla might be remembered most for making three errors in the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, an embarrassing performance that raised questions about his defense that still linger to this day.
“That’s the only time anyone outside of Florida has seen me play,” Uggla said with a shrug, “so that’s the perception.”
After turning down a contract extension from the Marlins, his days in south Florida were numbered. The low-budget team didn’t want to lose Uggla to free agency, so he was dealt to Atlanta. He quickly agreed to a new contract with the Braves, a team he rooted for as a kid and is only a 31/2-hour drive from his hometown of Columbia, Tenn.
The Braves made the playoffs as a wild card last year even without much right-handed power. Uggla fills that hole.
“I love the look of this team,” he said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Atlanta is certainly looking forward to having Uggla in a lineup that already included Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones and Martin Prado. New manager Fredi Gonzalez doesn’t expect Uggla to get comfortable just because he’s got a big contract. If anything, he worries that Uggla might try to push himself too hard to show he’s worthy of all that money.
Rest assured, the Braves will be more than happy if he just keeps doing what he did in Florida.
“I don’t think he’s forgotten what he went through. I don’t think he’s comfortable,” Gonzalez said. “He still feels like someone is going to take his job.”
Uggla already got a taste of life outside of baseball. During one offseason, he worked as a delivery driver for his brother’s electrical supply business.
“I hated it,” he said. “I quit without even telling him.”
Mike chuckles at the memory now.
“I take full credit for getting him to the big leagues,” the older brother said. “I worked his butt off. He didn’t want any part of the real world.”