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CINCINNATI -- During the lone spring training they overlapped in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Mike Piazza marveled at how Carlos Beltran effortlessly glided around center field.
"I'm kind of like a lumberjack," Piazza said. "He's like a gazelle."
The compliment came in 2005, the season after Piazza had uncomfortably shifted from catcher to first base, as his age began to show and his time in Flushing neared its expiration. Taking over center stage were "The New Mets" of Omar Minaya, headlined by Pedro Martinez and Beltran.
|Carlos Beltran's departure will be the end of an era.|
Now, six seasons later, it is Beltran who is "the old goat," to borrow one of Pedro's famous phrases, and the veteran who has shifted positions late in his Mets career, from center field to right field.
The book on "The New Mets" generation is days from closing, with Beltran the lone holdover from that group of imports, which included Carlos Delgado a year later.
Beltran, in the final season of a seven-year, $119 million deal, is expected to be traded by Sunday's 4 p.m. deadline. Since the Mets are obligated to provide him a 24-hour window to approve any transaction because of his 10 years in the majors and five years with the club, the deal -- be it to Atlanta, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Texas or Boston -- may be consummated no later than Saturday.
If Beltran is traded before the Mets complete a four-game series in Cincinnati on Thursday, his Mets career will end where it began on April 4, 2005 -- on the banks of the Ohio River, at Great American Ball Park, facing the Reds.
In his Mets debut, Beltran went 3-for-5 with three RBIs, including a two-run homer in the third inning off Cincinnati's Paul Wilson, of "Generation K" Mets-era fame. Martinez tossed six innings and departed in position for the win, until closer Braden Looper served up consecutive ninth-inning homers to Adam Dunn and Joe Randa without recording an out and the Mets suffered a 7-6 walk-off defeat.
The Mets actually opened that season 0-5; manager Willie Randolph's victory cigar, purchased by Piazza, had to travel to Atlanta before it could be smoked. The Amazin's nearly returned to Shea Stadium winless for the home introduction of "The New Mets," until Martinez limited the Braves to one run in a complete game and Beltran slugged a two-run homer to break up John Smoltz's shutout bid in the eighth inning, en route to a 6-1 Sunday afternoon win.
Beltran will rank sixth in franchise history in homers (currently 149) and RBIs (557) when he is traded. With a warm send-off in his final at-bat at Citi Field last week, fans appear willing to fondly remember him, and justifiably so.
With Beltran quiet and uninterested in being the guy, agent Scott Boras had offered his client to the New York Yankees at the last minute during the 2004-05 offseason for a discount (six years, $100 million), after Beltran had that record-tying, eight-homer postseason with the Houston Astros.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman passed, then upstaged the Mets' attention in the tabloids by introducing Randy Johnson the same day as Beltran's news conference.
Beltran, swayed by the Mets' offer of the full no-trade clause Houston was unwilling to grant, ultimately proved to be a leader -- albeit quietly, instructing young players out of the spotlight. This spring training, he volunteered to move from center field to right field, giving incoming manager Terry Collins a reprieve from what could have been a thorny issue.
Beltran was tougher than people realized, too. After the gruesome collision with Mike Cameron at Petco Park in San Diego on Aug. 11, 2005, doctors gave Beltran the option of undergoing surgery to repair a fracture on the left side of his face or continuing to play once the effects of the jarring face-to-face impact had worn off. (Beltran could not remember speaking with his wife Jessica by telephone after being forced from that game.) Beltran returned to the lineup six days after the collision.
In fairness, it was a difficult marriage at times with the Mets, with a comical rough spot right at the get-go, in fact.
Beltran, along with top Mets executives, got stuck in the elevator at Shea Stadium between the first and second floors while riding up to the Diamond Club for the introductory news conference.
There were more serious issues:
Beltran was displeased the organization publicly questioned whether he had permission to undergo knee surgery on Jan. 13, 2010.
He certainly had a right to be upset when the organization mounted a whisper campaign against him after he, along with Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, did not join teammates on a voluntary visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. Beltran later indicated he had a prior commitment with a conference call for the high school and baseball academy he was building in Puerto Rico, which is now set to open.
Meanwhile, fans held another grudge -- failing to fathom how Beltran did not swing at that wicked curveball from Adam Wainwright to close out the 2006 National League Championship Series, even though it was a pitch that would have buckled the knees of many major leaguers with equally accomplished résumés.
Upon arriving in Port St. Lucie for the first time as a Met back in 2005, Beltran spoke with reverence about fellow Puerto Rican center fielder Bernie Williams. When it was noted that Williams had won four championships as a Yankee, Beltran playfully replied: "We hope in the seven years I'm here that we can get five."
The Mets will finish with only one postseason appearance in Beltran's seven seasons as a Met, with the lasting images of the lone postseason visit being Endy Chavez's leaping catch, Aaron Heilman to Yadier (freaking) Molina and Wainwright's devastating curveball.
The knees no longer allow Beltran to be the gazelle he was at age 27, when he first arrived as a Met. Yet Beltran led the Mets in games played this season until the flu briefly knocked him from the lineup and Daniel Murphy overtook him. Beltran's offensive production this season has continued to be top-notch: .291 average, 15 homers, 64 RBIs.
Beltran earned his fifth All-Star selection as a Met earlier this month. Only Darryl Strawberry has been chosen more times among outfielders in franchise history.
Now, though, "Él está aquí" ("He is here"), the Christian-themed song that has blared when Beltran entered the batter's box at Shea Stadium and Citi Field during his entire Mets tenure, is not likely to be heard again. After all, the Mets do not return home until after the trade deadline, next Monday.
That is, the song won't be heard again unless Beltran comes back with the Braves (Aug. 5-7 and Aug. 26-28) or Phillies (Sept. 23-25) and the Mets find it fitting to play his anthem a final time.