ST. PETERSBURG, FL—With warm welcomes and loud exclamations of relief from his Rays teammates, Tampa Bay outfielder B.J. Upton was greeted at home plate Sunday after returning from a perilous, arduous circumnavigation of the Tropicana Field bases, a journey that ended at the very same spot it began.
"There were times, as he tried to find a way home, when we wondered if we would ever see him again," manager Joe Maddon said. "We knew he had to do it. When he hit that home run ball, his fate was sealed, and no one would ever have tried to talk him out of it. But the thought of him going around all four bases was daunting, to say the least."
The assembled Rays, who stood vigil at home plate during all 28 seconds of what Upton later humbly referred to as a "jaunt," admitted they were worried about Upton's chances for survival.
"He started to fade from view just after he made the turn past first base," Maddon said. "That stretch of dirt on the way to first is itself treacherous, and everyone got nervous looks on their faces when Johnny [Damon] held up a map of the field and showed us that when Beej reached first, he would only be a quarter of the way through his trip."
"That's when it really dawned on us that we might never see him again," Maddon added. "We told each other, sure, he can do it. He's an experienced baseball player. But you could tell everyone was thinking about the enormity of going around the entire infield without stopping even once."
Upton eventually disappeared from sight behind the pitcher, leaving the Rays to speculate upon what their teammate might be facing on his odyssey. Paramount among their fears were whether Upton had sufficient water and rations to survive a complete circumnavigation, whether he would be able to easily find his way around the base paths, and what, if anything, existed beyond the known regions past second, the place where most Rays find themselves stranded.
"Johnny Damon has been as far as third a few times in his career, but that was a long, long time ago," Rays veteran pitcher James Shields said. "He told us of a strange figure, not a baseman in the conventional sense, who stands between second and third, but I’m not sure we understood him correctly. I guess you have to be out there."
"I've occasionally glimpsed a few things from the mound, but really I usually just look at the plate, the catcher, all the familiar things," Shields continued. "I can only imagine what it was like for B.J—the solitude, the knowledge of how far he was from home."
The Rays stayed upbeat, however, passing the long moments of Upton's journey by telling inspiring stories of the outfielder's adventurous nature.
"Did you know that sometimes, without any warning, B.J. will suddenly leave the base he's standing on and set off for the next one, just for the sake of going a little farther?" catcher Jose Lobaton said. "He doesn’t take a map, a compass, no GPS, nothing. It's amazing, and risky. And that's just one base. To go around all of them like this… I don’t know if anyone else on the team has what it takes to do that."
When Upton was seen approaching from the area around third, the team erupted in cheers. As one, the Rays ran out to welcome Upton home and render whatever assistance the weakened and exhausted outfielder might require.
"I'd been out there a long time with the sun beating down on me and no one to talk to," said Upton, who claimed he never doubted for a second that he would see his teammates and family again. "To look up and see everyone waiting for me, well, I can't even tell you how good that feels."
Shortly after arriving home, Upton was carried off the field by his teammates, a gesture that appeared to be purely an expression of triumph, as he did not seem to require assistance walking. Still, team doctors said Upton would be held for observation the rest of the week to ensure he did not suffer any long-term negative effects from his perilous trip.
Upton himself said that while the circumnavigation was demanding and harrowing in the extreme, he would not rule out undertaking the trip again, and he added that other Tampa Bay players should definitely have the same experience.
"If the team needs me to, of course I’ll do it," Upton said. "Still, I don't mind telling you, it'd be good to see someone else on this team homer for once."