Uggla preparing for an encore
All-Star second baseman set to pick up where he left off in '06
JUPITER, Fla. -- "Uggla Mania" certainly caught on in 2006.
Cheering sections popped up at Dolphin Stadium. Fanatical disciples printed up "Uggla's Uglies" T-shirts. On eBay, "Got Uggla?" shirts and beanies sprung up and began selling for modest prices.
The Columbia (Tenn.) City Council joined the act, and in November, declared a "Dan Uggla Day," presenting the All-Star second baseman with a plaque and plenty of praises.
In a matter of months, Uggla emerged from a Rule 5 Draft unknown to an All-Star phenom at second base.
In so many ways, Uggla epitomized the improbable run the surprising Marlins enjoyed in '06.
The 27-year-old, like the rest of the Marlins, exceeded expectations to become one of the top second basemen in the National League. He earned respect for his gutsy "all-out" style of play and the energy he brought to the game.
Last season, Uggla paced the Marlins with 27 home runs. In the process, he set a rookie record for home runs by a second baseman, surpassing a mark previously held by Joe Gordon of the 1938 Yankees.
He also became the first Rule 5 Draft pick to be selected to an All-Star Game in the season after he was selected. A vote by his peers named him The Sporting News' top NL rookie.
Overcoming such long odds has made Uggla a natural fan favorite.
"I love it. They're excited about it," Uggla said of his faithful followers. "They get excited about the way that I play, and they're excited to come out and watch me play. Any time they are showing support, wearing one of my jerseys or shirts, that's definitely a little different. It's a little weird for me, but I love it."
Uggla admits to being shocked that special T-shirts have popped up in his honor.
"One of my buddies called me up one day, and said, 'I'm on eBay and some guy made a shirt that said, 'Got Uggla?' on it,'" Uggla said. "I started seeing those everywhere, too."
Uggla blossomed from obscurity in '06.
In a Minor League career that began in 2001 in the Diamondbacks' system, Uggla developed the reputation of being a solid hitter. His defense was a bit shaky, but he was determined to improve his game in that area with tremendous work habits.
What he was being denied until a year ago was a chance.
So when Arizona left Uggla unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, the Marlins became a natural fit. At the time, Florida was in the process of completing a string of trades and moves that revamped the roster.
Uggla had the unenviable task of replacing three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman Luis Castillo, who was traded that offseason to the Twins.
While Castillo's legacy isn't easily forgotten in South Florida, Uggla clearly made an immediate impact under difficult circumstances.
As a Rule 5 pick, Uggla carried the burden of having to make the Marlins out of Spring Training and remain on the team for the entire season. If he wasn't able to stick with Florida's big-league club, the scrappy second baseman would've been sent back to Arizona. That point never came, because Uggla quickly showed he belonged.
"It was stressful, but it was fun," Uggla said of his first year as a Marlin. "It was exciting. The thing was, I knew if I didn't make it last year, I knew it was going to be a long time before I got a shot like that again. It was a big thing.
"I didn't have the best Spring Training, but I never have a good Spring Training. I'm glad they looked past that and saw what kind of player I am."
Like the rest of the young Marlins from a year ago, Uggla grew up as a player seemingly on a daily basis. Early on in Spring Training, he struggled defensively, but improved dramatically under the inspiration of infield coach Perry Hill.
Nicknamed "Bone," Hill is considered one of the top infield instructors in the league.
"It was fun because Bone makes it fun," Uggla said. "He called me up before Spring Training and said, 'Hey, do you want me to help you with your defense? If you want me to help you, I will. If you don't, then I won't.' I was like, 'Heck, no, I want the help.'
"But every day I was working on stuff, and it was fun working with him. They wanted me out there to get better."
Now, there is no disputing Uggla's status with the club.
A .276 career hitter in the Minor Leagues, Uggla batted .282 as a rookie with the Marlins. He had 611 at-bats, scored 108 runs and collected 172 hits. Along with his 27 homers, Uggla drove in 90 runs.
Uggla has the luxury of batting between two elite hitters. Hanley Ramirez, the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year, leads off, with Uggla hitting second and slugger Miguel Cabrera batting third.
Being flanked by Ramirez and Cabrera puts Uggla in position to drive in runs and score runs.
Now that he is established, Uggla's approach this spring is simply getting ready for the season.
"I think it's definitely more relaxing, and I'm definitely more comfortable," he said. "I know all the guys really well. The guys in the front office, I'm able to interact with them a little better. As far as playing-wise, I can actually use Spring Training as not stressing out. I don't have to worry about getting two hits every day. I can go about my business and get my work done. I can slowly get myself ready for the season."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.