On Dec. 17, 2004, a fallen American League powerhouse scored a free agent coup. Adrián Beltré was 25 years old and was coming off a .334/.388/.629 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. True, his production since reaching the majors as a teenager had been erratic, but his 2004 was the long-awaited breakout. He didn’t land the NL MVP award, because Barry Bonds existed, but he had Arrived.
The Seattle Mariners were thrilled to land Beltré on a $64 million, five-year contract. Ninety-plus game winners in three of the past four seasons, the Mariners were counting on Beltré and fellow free-agent signing Richie Sexson to catapult them back into contention. It was a reasonable enough plan. The results, on the other hand, were confounding.
Beltré’s career trajectory makes no sense. He spent what would normally be considered his prime years in Seattle, hitting .266/.317/.442 and garnering a reputation as a free agent bust. In the decade that followed, however, his production rebounded, and by the time he retired after eight incredible years with the Texas Rangers, public perception had him as a lock for the Hall of Fame.
His unorthodox journey through the majors might have been more or less nonsensical, but that’s only fitting. If Beltré, now 40, isn’t the oddest player in recent baseball history, he’s close. Instantly recognizable at the plate or at the hot corner, Beltré had a gift sadly lacking in most modern players: style.
Granted, that style was in large part graceless. Beyond the numbers, which were impressive, his calling card at the plate was his awkwardness. Whenever a pitch surprised him, for instance, Beltré’s feet would declare independence and conduct a brief guerrilla campaign against his dignity. This tic baffled announcers and amused the hell out of opposing players:
The happy feet were only the beginning of Beltré’s plate oddities. Probably no other hitter in baseball history has ever attempted to take on some of the opposition’s workload, but for some reason whenever there was a potential appeal to the first base umpire on a check swing, Beltré would steal the catcher’s thunder and make the appeal himself. This might have been some sort of cunning psychological ploy to nudge umpires into ruling in his favor, but as it didn’t work it was simply a bizarre (and endearing) habit.
Beltré’s singular antics didn’t stop there. Few players earn themselves ‘signature’ home run swings. Bonds had his controlled devastation, depositing baseballs into McCovey Cove at will. Ken Griffey Junior had that swing, the baseballing equivalent of a Cezanne still life, a swing distilled to its fundamentals and then re-sketched by a master. Beltré? He would drop to one knee and corkscrew himself into the ground with enough violence that it’s a shock anyone in the vicinity survived.
Beltré’s signature home runs were reserved for low breaking balls — he used the knee drop as a mechanism to stay with the pitch — but his fundamental oddness was not. I remember watching him swing at a pitch implausible up and outside, and surprising himself by making decent contact. He was still looking for the ball in foul territory when it cleared the right field fence for a two-run home run. (I wish I could find this on YouTube, or remember which game it was from.)
When Beltré was hitting, almost every moment carried the potential for some obscene, brilliant violation of baseball’s orthodoxy. At third, his charm was more straightforward:
Third base (when it’s done right, at least) is the most aesthetically pleasing position in baseball. It requires absurd reaction speed, perfect footwork and a bazooka arm. The balletics required of the middle infield might be baseball poetry, but third is where it meets the violent tension that underpins the whole sport.
Was Beltré the best all-around third baseman of all time? That’s debatable, but he’s definitely in the conversation. Beltré was great at everything, but he was especially good going to his right and backwards. His basket catches in foul territory bordered on the ridiculous, but his signature play was on those slow rollers down the line, when he blended catch and cross-body throw into one, nailing runners at first he had absolutely no right to get near.
Perhaps one of the reasons Beltré worked so hard on his defense is he refused to wear a cup, claiming that protective equipment was too uncomfortable to play in. He had to learn to play at Gold Glove level out of pure self-preservation. But sometimes even that wasn’t enough. During his time in Seattle, a ball took a bad hop, Beltré couldn’t get to it in time and, uh, yikes:
When I look down, after the game, it wasn’t a pretty sight. My testicle got the size of a grapefruit. Thank God it didn’t really damage anything. It took me two weeks. It was a tear. A lot of blood inside, but it didn’t damage anything. Everything is OK.
That’s a horrifying injury, but the story gets even wilder: Beltré didn’t come out of that game. In fact, he scored the winning run from second. Fortunately, the ‘single’ was in fact stung into the right field corner, so Beltré didn’t have to run very hard, but his testicle was the size of a grapefruit. It’s a miracle he was standing at all.
And then there were the goofs. Beltré was goofy enough without trying, but thankfully he understood baseball’s deepest secret: it is the funniest sport in the world, and should never be taken seriously.
A short list of things Beltré did to amuse himself:
- Move the on-deck circle. Why? No idea.
- Throw the ball to the pitcher as hard as possible. This appeared to be some sort of dominance ritual?
- Freak out whenever anyone touches his head, which would deserve its own section if not for the fact that everyone’s written about it already.
- Windmill arms to slow himself down on the bases.
- Everything about his relationship with Elvis Andrus.
- Entertained a long-standing friendship with a Seattle fan who used to turn up to games with a giant Beltré head.
- AND MANY MORE:
Adrián Beltré: he was good, he was fun, and he made absolutely no sense, ever. I can’t wait for his Hall of Fame induction.