Braves slugger Dan Uggla waves to fans as he rides on a golf cart through spring training earlier this week.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — When Dan Uggla arrived for spring training with the Atlanta Braves, he felt at home.
The layout of the clubhouse was just as he remembered it. He knew where to find his locker. All the guys seemed like old friends.
“It’s a more comfortable feeling,” Uggla said, pulling on his uniform. “I know where my place is on this team. I already know everybody respects me as a ballplayer, the way I go about my business.
“It’s not like I’m trying to set the stage for something. It’s already out there.”
The Braves can only hope that Uggla’s familiarity leads to a much better start in 2012.
A year ago, after being acquired from the Marlins and signed to a five-year, $62 million contract, Uggla pressed to make a good first impression on his new team — and wound up making a mess of the first half of the season.
He’d always been a slow starter anyway, but this was ridiculous. By the Fourth of July, the Mendoza Line was some faraway fantasy for the slugging infielder. Uggla’s average was a puny .173 — downright embarrassing for any player, must less one of his stature.
The next day, he started a hitting streak that lasted 33 games — the longest in Atlanta history. Of course, after putting himself in such a deep hole, Uggla was only able to raise his average to .233 by the end of the season. Still, he turned in a more-than-respectable year, considering how it began, leading the Braves with 36 homers and 82 RBIs, while extending his streak of 30-homer seasons to five in a row.
No other second baseman in baseball history has more than three.
Still, there’s the matter of that hideous slump.
“What I went through last year, it’s hard to put a finger on it,” Uggla said. “I guess somebody wanted me to struggle for three months. Maybe they were testing my character. Who knows? That’s just the way it went down. Who’s to say why or how or what happened.”
Actually, he’s just a player who doesn’t want to make excuses.
It’s clear he put too much pressure on himself coming to a new team. He knew the Braves expected big production in the middle of their lineup. That’s why they made the trade. That’s why they forked over that huge contract.
Uggla — who struggled mightily just to make it to the big leagues — was determined to show everyone he wasn’t going to work any less. Heck, he would work even harder. Then, when the outs piled up, he pressed even harder. Before he knew it, Uggla’s season had all the makings of a total bust.
“I would’ve loved to have hit 20 homers in April,” he said. “For it to go the opposite way, it was one of those things I had to battle through. But yeah, of course, there’s added pressure. It’s just there. It’s automatically gonna be there. Whether you put it on yourself or you don’t, it’s there. Because it’s a new team, a new contract. But I’m not saying that’s why I (stunk) for the first half. Because there’s gonna be pressure every year. In this game, there’s always pressure.”
At least he never quit.
“We’ve all been up against adversity before, in some way, shape or form,” Uggla said. “As long as I did it the right way and poured everything I had into trying to help my team win throughout the season, then I would be able to look myself in the mirror.”
Now, he’s ready to show everyone the real Dan Uggla — not just the half-season model.
“I’m excited. I feel more confident coming into this year, just from the simple fact I’ve already done it before,” he said. “I’ve prepared my body as good as I can prepare it. I’m ready to go. I feel great. My swing feels good. My timing obviously feels better. All the way around, it’s a more comfortable, more convenient feeling coming into this year.”
Greg Walker, the Braves’ new hitting coach, isn’t concerned about Uggla going through another extended slump.
He’s been too good for too long.
“There’s a lot of great numbers on the back of his baseball card,” Walker said. “I’ve just got to find out what he does that makes him successful. I’m going to watch every swing this spring and tell him what I think, but I’m going to let him be Dan Uggla. I’m not going to try to change him.”
Manager Fredi Gonzalez knows Uggla is unlikely to ever win a batting title. Not the way he swings at every pitch like it’s his last. But the skipper is certainly counting on Uggla to improve on last year’s average.
“I think he’ll pick up right where he left off at the end of last year,” Gonzalez said. “He’ll be a guy who hits .280, .290 with 30 homers and 90 RBIs. That’s fine. I expect him to be that type of guy all year.”