The once and future Carlos Beltran
At the All-Star Game, the Cardinals' right fielder returns to where it began for him
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is available in Spanish here.
KANSAS CITY -- George Brett didn't take more than five seconds to think about it. Didn't, apparently, even have to give much of a second thought to any of the stars from the Kansas City Royals' teams that made the playoffs with him seven times from 1976 to 1985.
Instead, in the news conference after his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1999, when he was asked who the next member of the Kansas City Royals to reach Cooperstown would be, Brett immediately mentioned a 22-year-old youngster who had played barely more than half a season in the majors.
"If he stays focused and avoids injuries, Carlos Beltran could be the next Royals player here," Brett said back then, with surprising enthusiasm about the Royals' rookie center fielder whose batting average was close to .300 at the time. "The kid has it all; and moreover, I like the passion he has for the game. You have to see it."
Thirteen years after Brett's comments, and eight years after Beltran's last game in a Kansas City uniform, the 35-year-old outfielder still has that passion for the game, and it's showing in his MVP-worthy first season with the St. Louis Cardinals. Through Monday night, he led the National League in RBIs with 63 and was second to Ryan Braun in home runs (20). He has a .308 batting average, a .396 on-base percentage and a .571 slugging percentage.
Halfway through his 15th season, Beltran is beginning to reach some career numbers that might not be out of place in Cooperstown. He just notched his 2,000th hit, and a few weeks ago, he became the first switch-hitter in history with 300 home runs and 300 stolen bases. He has accumulated 1,232 runs scored and 1,207 RBIs and his stolen-base percentage (87.2) is No. 1 among players with 300 or more career stolen bases.
Those numbers are comparable to Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield at the same point in their careers.
And he continues to -- as Brett said -- have it all, including the defense to make him an all-around player, even as he has spent most of his time in the past few seasons in right field, where he has less ground to cover, than in center. In 2011, he was second in outfield assists (10) and fielding percentage (.996) among National League right fielders.
On Sunday, Beltran was named the National League starter for next week's All-Star Game, which will be played where it all began for him: in Kansas City. It will be his seventh All-Star Game appearance. And he has been selected by team captain Matt Kemp of the Dodgers to represent the National League in Monday's Home Run Derby.
It's been a good year.
"When Carlos is healthy, he is one of the most exciting players in baseball," Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo said. "He is showing it now more than ever; when he is healthy, he plays like a future Hall of Famer."
"He is surely one of the best in the game," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who first saw Beltran as a rookie playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. "I have a lot of respect for him, for his work ethic, the love he feels for the game and for the great teammate he is. And there are those numbers. What can you say?"
Despite Brett's prediction in 1999 and Oquendo's opinion now, Beltran says he has never thought about Cooperstown. His mind is on returning to the playoffs, an experience he made the most of during a memorable postseason with the Houston Astros in 2004, when he hit .435 with eight home runs and 14 RBIs in 12 games against Atlanta and St. Louis in the playoffs.
"It was great praise, especially coming from George Brett, one of the best in baseball," Beltran said. "It gave me a lot of motivation to work as a player, but it's the type of praise that you receive but don't let it go to your head. Right now, I don't think about that; I never have. I just live the moment and try to help my team return to the playoffs. Whether I'll have the health to play three or four more years, who knows."
Apprentice and disciple
For Beltran, Brett -- who is still in the Royals organization as an advisor -- was a mentor and a teacher. The young center fielder took every opportunity to learn from his Hall of Famer teammate and grew to know the sport in the best way possible.
"I was very impressed initially with Carlos, the athlete," Brett wrote in an email to ESPNdeportes.com last week. "He could do it all: run, throw and hit. But I was more impressed with his work ethic, for a young man his age; he was always asking questions, working on small things and on fundamentals, looking to become the most complete and consistent player. The best part is that he has continued to do the things that make superstars out of the good players."
Even now, in the final stages of his career, Beltran uses some of the knowledge he acquired from Brett during his stint with the Royals. The legendary third baseman, who sometimes complained during his later playing days that baseball players rarely talked about baseball, found in Beltran somebody willing to listen and learn.
"George always gave me good advice," Beltran said. "He was very approachable to go ask him questions and he was very kind to me. We would talk in the batting cage -- about approach, what to do in certain situations. Some of them you could apply immediately to your game; others did not work in the way you thought, although they worked for him. But it was a great learning process that benefited me a lot. In batting practice, he would tell us to never go for the wall, but rather to try and hit the ball hard all the time. That makes sense, because when you try to hit it far, you create tension in the hands. When you only try to hit it hard, you concentrate on looking at it, on connecting with the bat."
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But Brett wasn't Beltran's only role model as a young player. In the Puerto Rican winter baseball league, he had another tutor close by, too.
"In this sport, you must look at what the superstars do in order to look for something you can add to your game," he said regarding Bernie Williams, his teammate with the Arecibo Lobos. "I saw him work, how he prepared, how he ran the bases, how he would jump in the outfield. Not only was he a star, but he was always noble enough to share his knowledge with me."
Johnny Ramos, the scout who recommended Beltran to the Royals organization, saw the enthusiasm for learning that Brett liked in the young player from the Tierras Nuevas sector in Manati. The town lies in the northern zone of the island and borders Vega Baja, Vega Alta and Dorado, from where many players have come, such as Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Yadier Molina, Edgar Martinez and Williams. It isn't hard to understand that Beltran's life as a youngster revolved around baseball.
"He was 16 years old when I saw him for the first time, and he moved very well out in center field," Ramos remembered. "He was a quiet kid, but one could tell that he worked hard by the way he played. He was not a super hitter, but he made contact and I never thought that he'd be a 30-home-run hitter. Thus, of the five tools, he had potential for four."
But a hamstring injury suffered during a tryout with the Montreal Expos, along with a bad day at a Boston Red Sox practice, left Beltran out of the first round of the 1995 amateur draft, in Ramos' estimation. The Royals used their first-round pick that year to sign Juan Lebron, a power-hitting outfielder who was being compared to Juan Gonzalez.
Beltran lost several months due to the injury, and his experience in Boston didn't help.
"Many people don't know this, but in Boston, the hotel where [Beltran and Lebron] were staying had a fire and they were evacuated the night before [the tryout]," Ramos said. "They went to bed really late and both looked awful."
That made things easier for the Royals, who snatched the two best draft-eligible prospects from Puerto Rico that year: Lebron in the first round and Beltran in the second. Art Stewart, then-director of scouting for Kansas City and currently a senior adviser to the general manager, knew they had drafted a winner in Beltran.
"Beltran was a first-rounder and he proved it," Stewart said. "Where we made a mistake was with Lebron; but in this business, you never know. It helped us that [Beltran] was injured, because we were able to claim him in the second round."
Lebron never made it past Triple-A in 12 minor league seasons.
The power of the switch-hitter
According to Ramos, that fifth tool Beltran was missing when he was drafted arrived when he became a switch-hitter.
"I got to see him practice hitting left-handed and I noted it in the [scouting] report," Ramos said. "But in his younger years, he never hit left-handed in a game. In his second year in the minors, the organization decided to turn him into a switch-hitter and he realized that he had added power from the left side. It was an asset that helped him move up."
In Kansas City, Beltran used all his tools to become one of the most exciting players in the majors. In four of his six full seasons with the Royals, he drove in and scored 100 runs, hit more than 20 home runs and stole more than 25 bases. Between 1999 and 2004, he was safe in 189 of his 212 stolen-base attempts, an impressive 89.1 percent success rate. At least at first, his defense might have been underappreciated around baseball, although the fans in Kansas City certainly recognized it.
At the June interleague series between the Cardinals and the Royals at Kauffman Stadium this summer -- Beltran's first time back to Kansas City as a player since a midseason trade sent him to Houston in 2004 -- he received a warm welcome, both from Royals fans and from the team's front office. Before stepping onto the field, he was interviewed by approximately 20 reporters from the city. Then he engaged in a long conversation with Stewart.
"I've been in this game for 60 years and he is one of the best kids with whom I have worked," Stewart said. "He is the type of kid that every father dreams of. He worked very hard at being a great baseball player and he polished his tools for being a complete player. I am proud to have drafted him and to witness his career."
End of a dream
The dream of being a one-uniform baseball player ended for Beltran in 2004 when the Royals traded him to the Astros in a three-way deal that included Oakland. Beltran had a pretty good idea by then that he would meet the same fate Johnny Damon did in 2000 and Jermaine Dye did in 2001, as the Royals dealt away their most tradable players. Even so, he admits it was hard to take off the Kansas City uniform.
"When I arrived here, you think you'll never leave here," he said. "What is ideal is to always stay where it all began. But later, you start to understand that this big business is like that, although it is always difficult to understand when you are traded. I lived great moments in this organization and I still have great friends here with whom I still communicate."
"I hadn't come back since the trade," he added shortly before hitting two doubles in his first two at-bats in his return to Kansas City. "And from the moment I was arriving on the bus and saw the stands, I felt a lot of nostalgia. Coming back has been magnificent, and coming for the All-Star Game would be marvelous, like the end of a cycle. No matter what I end up doing, my rookie season and my time in Kansas City will always have a place in my heart."
In January 2005, as a free agent, he signed a seven-year, $119 million contract with the New York Mets, with whom he returned to the playoffs in 2006. In New York, Beltran developed as a power hitter at the same time that he finally began to receive recognition for his defense with three Gold Gloves in a row. But with the Mets, he also struggled with a series of injuries, from a facial fracture after a collision in the outfield with teammate Mike Cameron in 2005 to knee problems that limited his playing time to 81 games in 2009 and 64 in 2010.
"New York was a very, very big market," he said. "Avoiding distractions and playing up to expectations was a huge challenge. You have to be very aware not only of what you do on the field, but off the field as well."
Recuperation from knee surgery was slow and forced the change to right field that eventually revived Beltran's career. In 2011, he batted .300 with 22 home runs and 84 RBIs with New York and San Francisco.
"This season, I was already healthy for spring training," he said. "My knees are fine, and that gives me more confidence. I think that has been the biggest difference."
The first half of this season with the Cardinals is an indication that Brett's prophecy might still come true. But Beltran insists that his future goals are much more short-term than induction at Cooperstown.
"To reach the playoffs, that's what this is all about," he said. "That experience with Houston helped me understand that getting to the playoffs is what really matters. Individual stats, the prizes -- that's secondary. There will be time enough to look at those things."