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Carlos Beltran, from Royals project to Paul Newman

Oct 15, 2013, 2:20 PM EDT

carlos beltran royals

We were in Florida in a place we still stubbornly called Baseball City. This was 1999 — it had been a long time since you could say the name without smirking. A decade earlier there had been an amusement park here called “Boardwalk and Baseball;” it was a strange blend of carnival, petting zoo, circus and baseball. ESPN hosted a game show here for a short while. The Kansas City Royals moved in when they were still one of America’s great baseball teams.

By 1999, though, the only thing left from the old “Boardwalk and Baseball” dream were sections of rail of the roller coaster. These tracks apparently were too difficult to take down, so they stayed up and wound through the spring training grounds, tracks going nowhere, a too-obvious-symbol for the Kansas City Royals. In 1999, the Royals had no owner, no money, no real idea what to do next. That was the year they brought in a Canadian softball pitcher for a tryout. The Royals’ brass — of whatever you call the people trying to make some sense of this mess — gathered around the pitcher and argued whether or not he was balking on every pitch.

We still called the place Baseball City. Maybe it was irony. Maybe it was just guileless hope.

The Royals had not been the same since their owner and patriarch, Ewing Kauffman, had died in in 1993. Kauffman was not much of a baseball fan when he stepped forward and brought the Royals to town. But he was the shrewdest of businessmen, and he hired smart people like Cedric Tallis and John Schuerholz to run baseball operations, and he was ingenious in how he ran the business side of the team. He gave community leaders blue jackets, called them “Royals Lancers” and had them sell season tickets. He had his scouts find raw athletes with little baseball experience and put them in a baseball academy — that was how the Royals developed Frank White.

And, before he died, Kauffman developed a complicated succession plan that would keep the Royals in Kansas City. That was the good part. The bad part was that it was exceedingly hard to execute. Six years after he died, 1999, the Royals were still without an owner; they were being run by a trust and the money of a few local businesses. The Royals had a $32 million payroll the year before, one of the lowest in baseball. They had to cut it in half for 1999.

So, they looked at softball pitchers, and they drafted players who didn’t want too much money, and they traded away moderately high-priced players like Jeff Conine and Kevin Appier, and more than anything they dipped into their minor league system and brought up people who were absolutely not ready for the big leagues. A second baseman named Carlos Febles was rushed up from Class AA. They go very excited about a young pitcher named Orber Moreno who, suddenly and unexpectedly, was throwing 100 mph (not for long, he would blow out his arm just as the season started).

One of those people was a talented but enigmatic young man from Puerto Rico named Carlos Beltran.

Beltran had been the classic underachiever — everybody knew he had first-round talent but he was taken in the second round because nobody seemed sure if he cared enough about baseball to try. As a 19-year-old in Class A, he flashed a touch of power, a hint of speed, but he hit .249 and drove coaches and managers mad. Where was the fire? Where was the hunger? The next year, at 20, they started him in high A ball and he hit .229. They sent him down to low A and he was entirely useless.

Nobody seemed sure what to do with him. The talent was enormous. Beltran was a switch-hitter. He had this astonishing speed that was masked by his grace — he hardly seemed to be running. He had natural power. When he decided to unleash throws, his arm was fantastic. But something was always holding him back. He was painfully shy, easily embarrassed, the language barrier overwhelmed him.

The Royals decided to try him back in high Class A as a 21-year-old, and he played somewhat better. He showed a little more aggression. He really did not play well enough to earn a promotion, but the Royals gave him one anyway just to see what would happen. And, well, wow. He went to Class AA Wichita and all of a sudden he was electrifying. He hit .352/.427/.687 with 14 homers and seven stolen bases in just 47 games.

What happened? Nobody in Kansas City seemed entirely sure. They called him up to Kansas City in September to get a close-up look. And it was striking: Beltran seemed at home in the big leagues. He hit three triples in 14 games, stole the first three bases he attempted, looked at home in Kansas City’s vast center field. What happened?

People argued what to do next. Some wanted to send Beltran to Class AAA and get him some more minor league experience — it was obvious he wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Others though understood that Kansas City faced a different kind of reality — the Royals had no money, no real hope, nothing to excite the fans and nobody to play center field.

“We could use a break,” Royals general manager Herk Robinson said when announcing that the team was going with Beltran. It was a telling quote. He was grasping. He had no idea if this Beltran burst were real or just a three month optical illusion. But he was not in position to question the Royals’ good fortune.

Carlos Beltran would start in center field on Opening Day. The Royals manager at the time, Tony Muser, was not crazy about it — he was sure that Beltran needed more minor league time — but understood the deal. “He’s not a star,” Muser warned everybody. He told Beltran that his only job was to play hard and play good center field. “I don’t care if you hit .200,” he told Beltran. “If you do what I’m saying, I’ll have your back.”

And Beltran? We talked underneath the old roller coaster at what we still called Baseball City, and he was uneasy and uncomfortable, and I wished (as I have often wished) that I could speak fluent Spanish because it was unfair of me to ask him to express his bewildering emotions in an unfamiliar language.

But one time he did speak with some clarity. He said: “It’s exciting to be here.” And then he paused and tried to form the next sentence in his mind before speaking.

And he said: “I think the excitement makes me play better.”

* * *

Carlos Beltran won Rookie of the Year that first season. He was raw, made a lot of mistakes, but the numbers amazed. He was the first rookie to ever hit 20 homers, steal 20 bases, drive in 100 runs and score 100 runs. He’s still the only rookie ever to do that. The Royals were predictably awful, the worst Royals team in history up to that point, but they had four young guys — Beltran, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney — who seemed on the brink of superstardom.

The other three went on to immediate stardom. The next year, Sweeney hit .333 with 29 homers and 144 RBIs. Dye hit .321 with 33 homers, won a Gold Glove and and started in the All-Star Game. Damon hit .327 and led the league in runs scored (136) and stolen bases (46). “I could run in those days, remember?” Damon said to me many years later.

And Beltran? It was all too much for him. The excitement had turned into pressure. The novelty had become tiresome. His 2000 season was a nightmare. He couldn’t hit. He looked uninterested in the field. He got hurt. When the Royals tried to send him to Florida for rehab, he refused to go. Nobody was entirely sure why — it seemed like a language clash — but it seemed that Beltran was worried that once he went to Florida the Royals wouldn’t bring him back. His confidence was crushed. The language barrier still overwhelmed him. Teammates would talk about how miserable he seemed.

“He wasn’t ready,” one Royals decision maker told me. “He was ready from a baseball perspective. But he wasn’t ready emotionally.”

A lingering image: Somebody once brought one of those toy remote control cars to the clubhouse — Beltran played with it for what seemed like hours. He just moved that car all over the clubhouse, running over discarded clothes, bumping it into teammates and sportswriters, he never took his eye off of it. He really was a kid in so many ways; you probably know that not long after that he got a pet monkey because he had dreamed that he got a pet monkey. You know that apartment Tom Hanks got in “Big,” the one with the trampoline in the living room and the Coca-Cola machine that spit out cans of Coke without money? Beltran in those early days would have loved a place like that. He was a young man who, in many ways, seemed resentful of his own great talent. That talent led people to expect things from him. He didn’t like expectations. He would rather be playing.

That, I think, is when people started to wonder if Beltran even liked baseball.

All of that passed pretty quickly though. Beltran was a quietly great baseball player for Kansas City the next three years. From 2001-2004, Beltran hit 295/.365/.512 with 79 homers, 107 stolen bases, 12 caught stealing, he scored 100 runs and drove in 100 all three years. He made amazing plays in the outfield. Nobody outside of Kansas City seemed to notice — he didn’t make a single All-Star Team, did not get a Gold Glove Award.

And few people inside Kansas City seemed to appreciate it. Not too long ago, I heard a freestyle skier explain his sport. He said that the job is to do ridiculously hard things and make them look incredibly easy. That’s what Beltran did. But in baseball, unlike the half-pipe, you don’t get credit for making things look easy. You get skepticism. You get mistrust. Beltran was so graceful, so smooth, so natural that people always thought he wasn’t trying hard enough. When he hit 29 home runs, people felt sure he should have hit 40. When he stole 41 bases in 45 attempts, people thought he easily could steal 60 if he were willing to take more chances. When he made absurd, preposterous, amazing catches look easy, people thought those catches WERE easy.

Once Garret Anderson crushed a drive into the right-field gap, and it was a double for sure, and the Royals pitcher that day, Brian Anderson, slapped his glove into his thigh in frustration. Beltran, impossibly, ran the ball down, caught it, then wheeled and fired to first base and and doubled off Chone Figgins, who was so sure the ball was uncatchable that he was ROUNDING THIRD BASE at the time.

“You know what blew me away,” Anderson would say. “There was no way he could catch that ball. No way. And then, he not only catches it, he catches it by his side. He doesn’t have to dive. He doesn’t have to stretch. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

To Anderson, it would be something unforgettable. But to so many people that day it was just a nice catch because that’s how Beltran made it look. He did stuff like that all the time. Once he raced back on a Mike Cameron fly ball, jumped in perfect sync as he got to the wall and stole a top-of-the-wall double or a home run, it was hard to tell which because it happened so fast. Again, it looked like a great play to the untrained eye. But to people used to watching baseball, people whose eyes grasp the geometry of baseball, the play was impossible. Utterly impossible. There was no way, based on the height of the ball, the speed of the hit and the amount of ground to be covered, that Beltran could have possibly caught that ball.

“I’ve been to two hog killings and a county fair,” pitcher Curt Leskanic said. “And I haven’t seen anything like what Beltran did tonight.”

But it was Beltran’s destiny to be appreciated more after he left Kansas City. His extraordinary feats were better seen in memory. Maybe that was natural. The Royals teams were mostly dreadful — they did have a surprising run in 2003 — and the best players kept getting traded to save money and everybody knew that Beltran, sooner rather than later, would be shipped off too. There was no point in getting too attached. When Beltran was in Kansas City, he was a bit like the young Springsteen — raw, exciting, moody, a genius but unrefined, and there was a cult of people who were mesmerized by him and a bunch of others who wondered what was the big deal.

At some point toward the end of his Kansas City time, I went to see Beltran in Puerto Rico. He was taking batting practice at a local high school a walk from his home. There were local kids in the outfield to shag fly balls. His mom and dad were in the stands to watch. This was a very different conversation from the one in Baseball City. Now Beltran was a star, and he was confident, and he comfortable speaking English, and he told me that his time in Kansas City was running out. The team was just not going in the right direction. He needed to move on and play in big games. “I don’t want to be a good player,” he said. “I want to be the best.”

It was the first time I had ever heard him talk like that. I asked him that question that had long haunted him: “Is baseball fun for you?” He was no longer that unsure kid. He looked out in the field where 16-year-old kids waited for him to hit. He explained that this was the GAME of baseball, this, hitting on a field in his hometown with his parents in the stands and the happy chatter of kids echoing through the park.

“Major League Baseball,” he said. “That is business.”

* * *

He was traded to Houston in late June 2004 and that October he had a postseason for the ages. In five games against Atlanta, he hit .455 with four homers and two stolen bases. In seven games against St. Louis, he hit .417 with four homers and four stolen bases. It is the greatest sustained run of postseason play in baseball history, I believe.

The Astros were desperate to keep him after that, but Beltran had business on his mind. He signed with the New York Mets for $119 million over seven years. The first year was a struggle (though he made his first All-Star Team) but the second was one of the best ever for any Mets player. He hit .275/.388/.594 with 41 homers, 18 stolen bases, a Gold Glove and 8.2 wins above replacement. Ryan Howard won the MVP award — Beltran, as a complete player, was certainly better.

He wasn’t as magical in the postseason, but he had his moments. In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against St. Louis, his two-run homer scored the only runs of the game. In Game 4, with the Mets trailing in the series, Beltran reached base all five times he came to the plate, hit two home runs, scored four runs, did everything. In Game 6, with the Mets facing elimination, he scored a key run.

And in Game 7, he doubled in the first and scored on a single. He drew a leadoff walk to start off the eighth with the score tied 1-1 but could not score. Then, in the ninth, two outs, with the Mets down by two and the bases loaded, he came up to face a young Adam Wainwright. The place was going bonkers. Wainwright threw three pitches, the last a gorgeous curveball that mesmerized Beltran. He watched it go by for strike three.

And he became known in New York as “Swing the bat, Carlos.”

Well, this is what it is like to play in the spotlight. You play the game; you take your chances. The rest of his time in New York was star-crossed and injury plagued. He made three more All-Star Teams, won two more Gold Gloves, stole bases at an astonishingly high rate and banged 92 home runs. But the Mets were doomed in those years, twice collapsing down the stretch to lose division titles to Philadelphia. He was shipped to San Francisco before his contract ran out. Beltran never really won over New York. The contract was too big. The injuries happened too often. The inconsistency was too much. The moment he didn’t swing the bat was too difficult to forget.

* * *

Two years ago, Beltran signed a two-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, and everyone understood the deal. Beltran was no longer young, no longer indestructible, no longer a viable center fielder, no longer a base-stealing threat, no longer the emotional five-tool player who could do impossible things and make them look as easy as the sample question. No, they were signing him to be a presence, to hit home runs, to drive in runs, to matter in the middle of the lineup.

And that’s what he did. Last year, he banged 32 home runs, as a 35-year old. This year, he hit .296 with 24 home runs. He stole a few bases (though not with the same success rate) and his fielding in right field is OK but certainly not brilliant. He doesn’t get on base like he once did. There are no illusions that Beltran is still a great baseball player. He’s a good player. He’s a useful player.

But now he is getting the accolades. Now he is getting the admiration. He has made the All-Star Team the last two years. He has been talked, more and more, as a Hall of Fame candidate. And now, during the postseason, every time he gets a big hit, people throw confetti and marvel at his October magnificence.

In truth, Beltran has been good, but not legendary, in his postseasons since 2004. That year in Houston was one-of-a-kind. Since then, Beltran has hit .290/.395/.598 in October, which is certainly outstanding, but it’s not the insane .333/.443/.725 career numbers that everyone talks about again and again.

And this offseason, when he’s being constantly compared with Ruth and Gehrig, he entered Tuesday hitting .182. He had the big home run in Game 3 against Pittsburgh, and he had a fantastic Game 1 against Los Angeles which included a two-run double, a strong throw to the plate to throw out Mark Ellis and the walk-off single in the 13th. These sparked people to reflect on Beltran as one of the greatest postseason players ever.

It seems to me a “Color of Money” overcompensation. For years and years, Paul Newman was one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. And, for bizarre reasons, he could not win an Oscar. He got beat out for “The Hustler,” for “Hud,” for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” for “Cool Hand Luke,” for “The Verdict,” for “Absence of Malice.” That doesn’t even include “Butch Cassidy” or “The Sting” or, of course, “Slap Shot.”

At some point, everyone realized this was kind of ridiculous and so they gave Newman the Oscar for “The Color of Money” even though it was a pretty bad movie and Newman’s performance in it was generally uninspiring. The idea, I suppose, was to retroactively acknowledge the man’s greatness. I get that same feeling with Beltran. He will get some big hits in the postseason because he’s still a good hitter, and people will overstate the moment and call him a clutch conquerer. That’s OK, I think. He spent a lot of amazing years getting overlooked.

Beltran is 36 now, a veteran, a warhorse, and if he has a couple more good years he will make a real Hall of Fame case for himself. If he doesn’t, he will probably fall short. This is the dirty little secret of the Hall — it’s often what a player does AFTER his greatness diminished that define his career.

When watching Beltran, I often think back to my favorite Carlos moment, a rescheduled afternoon game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in September 2003. The Royals were on the cusp of an actual pennant race — not quite in it and not quite out — and they trailed the Diamondbacks by one in a game they really needed to win. Arizona’s closer, Matt Mantei, was in the game. He could throw 100 mph then. With the shadows flickering in the late afternoon, it probably looked like 200 mph.

Beltran came up with one out in the ninth. It was clear — he had no chance of getting an actual hit against Mantei. Instead, he battled through a seven-pitch at-bat. He drew a walk. Then he stole second base. He stole third base. Ken Harvey — Royals fans remember him well — hit a very short fly ball that the right fielder and second baseman both could catch. It would have been been ridiculous to try and score on it. But Beltran went anyway. He figured it was the Royals only shot. He cleanly beat the throw. It was astounding.*

Of course, Beltran is not that player now. But he’s got just enough of that player in him to make you remember. And maybe that’s the point.

* * *

*The Royals eventually lost that game, of course.

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