Atlanta Braves’ Uggla swings for a great season

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Atlanta Braves’ Dan Uggla bats against the Washington Nationals during the fifth inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

When Dan Uggla was growing up in Columbia, he was — as many kids and parents are — a fan of the Atlanta Braves.

After all, that was the closest team to the area and he loved baseball.

Now, years later, he plays for the team and can’t believe his good fortune.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “I never thought this would happen.”

Uggla was born in 1980 in Louisville, Ky., but moved to Columbia as a child. He graduated from Columbia Central High School and attended the University of Memphis, playing baseball for the Tigers.

His junior year, he was named an All-American by “Baseball America,” “Baseball Weekly” and “Collegiate Baseball.”

He said the transition from high school to college baseball was more difficult than his move from college to professional baseball. “I was a lot stronger in college than I was in high school,” he explained. “I was also a lot faster. I worked hard in college. But I didn’t do well until my junior year in college. It took me a couple of years to catch up.”

After college, he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 11th round (338th overall) in the 2001 major league baseball draft. He spent five years with the Arizona franchise, including a year with the Yakima Bears in Washington.

Although he had good stats such as a .276 minor league batting average, a .341 on-base percentage and a .443 slugging average, he never made it past the AA level with Arizona.

In 2005, he left the Diamondbacks and was signed with the Florida Marlins. Three days after beginning his career with the Marlins major-league team, he had his first major league hit, off Houston Astros pitcher Andy Pettitte.

His first home run in the majors was also in 2006, when he batted against San Diego Padres starter Dewon Brazelton.

That year, he was named to the Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game. Also in 2006, he broke Joe Gordon’s record for most home runs by a rookie second baseman. He was named to the National League (NL) All-Star team. He was starting to become a household name. “Getting named to the All-Star game was exciting,” he said. “I have been fortunate enough to go and was treated really well. We get to hang out and get to know the players on the other teams. Every chance I get to go to the All-Star team is a privilege.”

He finished his rookie season with 27 homers and 90 runs batted in. He also claimed numerous awards, including the Player’s Choice National League Rookie of the Year award and “Sporting News” Rookie of the Year award.

His second year with the Marlins saw him again hitting home runs, notching 31 by the end of the season and knocking in 88 runs.

In 2008, he hit his first career Grand Slam off the Washington Nationals’ Joel Hanrahan. He also set a Marlins record for most home runs for a Marlin in any month when he hit 12 home runs.

That year he was again named to the MLB All-Star Game and also took part in the MLB Home Run Derby. He finished fifth in the home run derby.

During the 2008 off season, he went into arbitration with the Marlins and awarded $5.3 million, nearly one million more than the Marlins had offered him.

In 2008, he became the fastest second baseman to make it to the 100 home-run mark in just 502 games, 34 fewer than Alfonso Soriano.

Uggla signed a one-year, $7.8 million contract with the Marlins in 2010, and set the Marlins’ all-time career mark by hitting his 144th career home run.

After rejecting a four-year, $48 million contract offer from the Marlins after the 2010 season, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves. He signed a five-year, $62 million contract with the Braves in 2011.

That year, he became the 23rd player in MLB history to have a hitting streak of at least 33 games and hit 36 home runs. He was named the NL Player of the Month that August.

In 2012, his batting average slumped to .220 through 92 games. He hit 12 home runs and had a higher strike out rate than his previous seasons. However, he drew a higher walk rate last year.

Still, despite his lower-than-average stats, the Braves still made it to the post season.

“Finally making it to the post season was an awesome experience,” he said. “I got to play with Chipper (Jones), Brian McCann, Josh Johnson. It’s one of the highlights of my career. I play with some awesome guys.”

Uggla said not a lot has changed in baseball throughout his career.

“I was in the minors from 2001 to 2006 and found out when I moved to the majors that it was a different game than the majors,” he said. “But not a lot has changed since I went to the big leagues. The steroid issue was under control by that time. Also, scouting has improved and that means better strength among players.”

He said he looks forward to Spring Training every year.

“Just to get back down (to Orlando) and see the guys is exciting,” he said. “I also like getting back into the routine and get out and play. I just do what I love to do. The first week is very fun. I love getting back into the clubhouse and catching up with the guys. We all have a lot of fun together.”

His goals for this season is to score 100 runs, whether it be by himself or batting in teammates.

“If I can drive in 100 runs, then I can let the rest take care of itself,” he said. “I try to keep it simple.”

He said for those in high school or college, looking to make it to the next level, he advises they “continue to have fun and work hard. They need to do all they can to keep it fun, but play to the maximum of their ability. Also, they need to know not to take the game home with them.” When he was growing up, he was a fan of Darryl Strawberry. Still, he said he tried to emulate his brother, Mike.

“(Mike) played all sports, and the effort he put into it was amazing,” Uggla said. “He hustled everywhere he went. But I didn’t try to pattern my ability or career on anyone else.”

Uggla said he doesn’t believe he’ll go into coaching after his career is over.

“I definitely have interests outside of baseball, so who knows,” he said. “I definitely want to do something, but I’m yet to figure out what it is.”

Although his mom and dad still live in Columbia and Mike lives in Franklin, Uggla said he spends his off season in Atlanta, where his kids now live.

He said he enjoys Middle Tennessee when he visits.

“The people are so nice and the land is so pretty,” he said. “But I’m not a huge fan of the winters.”

Photograph courtesy Associated Press