If you want the genius of Adrián Beltré, it’s right there on the back of his baseball card. He hit 477 homers and collected 3,166 hits. He’s 26th in Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com, ahead of Wade Boggs, George Brett, and Chipper Jones. He’s 10th on the all-time list for defensive WAR, and everyone ahead of him is an unimpeachable defensive legend. Some legends come up when they’re teenagers and smack you in the face, saying, “I’M HERE. LOOK AT ME.” Some legends are a slow burn that take a few years to appreciate. Beltré is most certainly the latter.
But if you want the real genius of Adrián Beltré, you should have been there, man. Should have been there. It wasn’t just the stats or when he created a Positive Baseball Event to help his team. It was the joie de vivre, the élan, the feeling that nobody in the world was having as much fun playing baseball. It was a mere feeling, sure, but it also could have been a verifiable scientific fact if you had tasked the right scientist and gave him or her the right equipment.
Beltré was the guy who (deep breath) ...
- constantly joked around with his buddy in the middle of games, which is something I’d like to think I would do
- was always dropping to one knee for his prodigious home runs, which gave him a cartoonish superhero quality. I’ll bet Ben Grimm would drop to one knee because he swung so hard, too
- didn’t like his head being touched and would threaten to murder the people doing it
- never murdered anyone for touching his head, even though he wanted to
- had a father-son relationship with Elvis Andrus that was teetering perfectly on the edge of appropriate or reckless when it came to in-game shenanigans
- continually messed with umpires in the most engaging, jocular way
- look, there’s a whole bunch more, start digging
Adrián Beltré was the guy who would do this for a very simple reason:
Because it was funny. Because baseball is fun. Because where the regular player sees an opportunity to pick up the ball and wordlessly toss it back to his pitcher, Beltré saw an opportunity to wink at everyone in the stands and watching on TV.
This is all well and good, but I’m going to tell you something else about Beltré’s popularity that you might not have thought of. I don’t think it’s a controversial sentiment, but it’s definitely not something we think about a lot, and it goes something like this:
Not everyone thought this about Adrián Beltré.
It’s true! Go up to 100 people at any baseball game, and ask them their thoughts about Beltré. I’m not going to pull a number out of my nether regions and pretend it’s verifiable, but I’d be surprised if more than 10 of those people could tell you a fraction of what made the Adrián Beltré experience so enjoyable and different. This isn’t 1950, where baseball’s top stars appeared on Push That Button!, a popular game show where famous people would push a button over and over again. He wasn’t on the cover of the issue of LIFE that was in every home and in every doctor’s office. He was a baseball player, one of 750, who had very little name recognition among the normies.
Do you know what that means for the people in the internet bubble, those of us who would eagerly awaited each new silly Beltré moment and gave a Gene Parmesan squeal when we got one? It means we were in a secret club. Maybe not a secret club, but certainly one with a finite membership.
There are two kinds of baseball fans in this word, those who get Adrián Beltré and those who are complete squares. When you dug down beneath the topsoil and outer crust of baseball, just really started digging and digging and digging, an enduring appreciation of Beltré was one of your rewards. Think of it like an Xbox achievement or a fancy certificate in a classy, ornate frame.
When you have paid attention to (x) amount of baseball, you get Adrián Beltré. You understand him and why he makes baseball better. You’re in the club.
He is our special internet friend, then, the kind of player who didn’t need to be a national star like the players from bygone eras. He was the perfect player to pass through our internet bubble without popping it. And he would leave gifts. So many gifts.
And now he’s gone. There was no ceremony, no farewell tour. We didn’t get to watch Beltré stand awkwardly in front of a San Diego crowd while he accepted a surfboard signed by Nick Cannon. That’s in part because of the sudden retirement, but it’s also in large part because there probably wouldn’t have been a team-by-team ceremony like there was for Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter. This is more proof that you’re part of a large-yet-secret club of people who truly get it in a way that regular slobs don’t.
People love believing in conspiracies — don’t google “California wildfire government lasers” if you know what’s good for you — because of a natural desire to feel superior to people who aren’t as enlightened. But I never understood that because you can get the same feeling by doing something like, oh, paying attention to Adrián Beltré while he’s active. We’re in the know, we’re hep. Anyone else who didn’t get a chance or, even worse, didn’t understand what the big deal was? Cluck your tongue, shake your head, and pity those poor souls. It was right there, in front of us, the whole time.
It was pretty awesome, everyone.
Baseball will survive, a little duller than before. There won’t be more back-and-forths with Felix Hernandez, no more giggling from Elvis Andrus when he does something antagonistic toward Beltré. The foul balls will be calmly picked up, and the on-deck circles will stay right where they are. Home runs will be hit from one knee again, but they’ll be paying homage to a legend, not original material.
Eventually someone will come along who is just as fun as Beltré. Maybe they’re already here. That’s how the conveyor belt of baseball and time works. But no one will be Adrián Beltré, a true original, a guy who was so unique that he lied about his age to be younger than his peers, a special, fun-loving soul who was a member of a small fraternity of players who understood that baseball was supposed to be fun. He’ll be missed.
And when he’s in the Hall of Fame, I’m gonna touch the bronze head on the plaque until security drags me out of there, just like he would have wanted. Happy trails, Adrián Beltré. Happy trails, and thanks.