Carlos Beltran could run. He could catch. He could hit from the left side, and he could hit from the right side. He hit for average, and he hit for power. He wasn’t just fast enough to steal bases, he was smart enough to steal them at a ludicrously high rate. Everything he did on a baseball field, he did well, and he was both intelligent and physically gifted enough to play at a high level until he was 40.
Carlos Beltran was a nearly perfect baseball player. He announced his retirement on Monday, and the game will miss him. There are weirdos who never appreciated him. I’m here to laugh at those weirdos, and I’d like to invite you along.
I think about this picture a lot:
10 years since this picture, which is interesting in oh so many ways. pic.twitter.com/Z6hFZNJxyT— D.J. Short (@djshort) October 19, 2016
From the middle of the picture down, it’s a great baseball picture. There’s a stunned hitter and a victorious catcher frozen in a Starting Lineup action figure pose, and there certainly aren’t a lot of details needed. One guy is going to the World Series. One guy is not.
From the middle up, it becomes a much stranger tale and a chilling bit of foreshadowing. “If you think this is the most disappointed you’ll ever be in your life, Mets fans, you need to stop caring about baseball so much.”
Focus on the baseball in the picture, though. That’s a picture of what Carlos Beltran wasn’t. It’s a picture of a hitter who was unsuccessful, yet Beltran was one of the most successful hitters in baseball history. It’s a picture of Nadia Comăneci tripping on the curb or Da Vinci inventing the Bathroom Buddy. It is not a representative picture.
And yet, for too many people, this was supposed to be a defining moment in Beltran’s career. Forget that Beltran hit 41 home runs that year, winning a Gold Glove and finishing fourth in the MVP voting. Forget that he hit .296/.387/.667 with three home runs in that NLCS. Forget that Adam Wainwright had one of the nastiest curveballs of his generation, one of the few that could rightfully be compared to Bert Blyleven’s curve. History would prove that there is no shame getting fooled on a perfect Wainwright curveball on the black, considering that hitters had trouble with it when it crossed through the middle of the strike zone.
No, the narrative was clear. The expensive mercenary, the guy with one job, failed. Everyone with a Little League coach that yelled at them to protect the plate with two strikes knew what they would have done in the situation.
This was not the view of a majority of Mets fans, I’m guessing, but it was certainly on the minds of a very vocal minority of them. And if you believe this recent Twitter thread, it’s still on the minds of a lot of those folks.
Fast-forward a few years, to when the Mets and Beltran finally part ways. He goes to the Giants, who are looking to repeat but have one of the worst lineups in the game. They traded for Beltran, giving up their best prospect, but he was just 11 for 45 with no homers and two RBI in 11 games before he had to go on the DL. The narrative was clear here, too. The costly mercenary, the guy with one job, failed. Couldn’t even stay healthy.
Forget that the Giants were just two games out when he returned and that he immediately got hot. Forget that according to Baseball-Reference’s WAR, he’s been worth one fewer win to the Giants over the last seven seasons than Zack Wheeler has been worth to the Mets. Forget that his DL stint was just two weeks, and his .323/.369/.551 line in his Giants career was just as electric in real life as it looks on the page. He played 44 games for them and led the team in triples.
The narrative was that he was a net negative for his team. He didn’t care. He was aloof in the clubhouse. Writers who covered that team will still swear by this logic today, and I still get razzed occasionally when I wear my sweet, sweet Beltran shirsey in public.
This was his career in a lot of ways. Hitting and fielding like an All-Star year after year? Sorry, but the Royals are terrible and losing 90-100 games every year, so those don’t count. Has one of the greatest postseasons of all time, hitting .435/.536/1.022 with eight homers in 56 plate appearances? Sorry, but Roger Clemens had an off night in Game 7, so it didn’t count. Helping the Cardinals to the World Series in 2013? Sorry, but they didn’t even win the World Series, and whose fault was that? #blamebeltran was only a semi-ironic hashtag, after all.
What Beltran was, then, was one of the purest, brightest baseball talents we’ll ever see, good at everything and able to sustain it, mixed with some of the lousiest timing and circumstances we’ll ever see for a great player. There was always a what-if and a yeah-but if you really, really wanted to look for it. There was always a way to ignore each of his 2,725 hits and 435 home runs if you were so inclined.
If you were a weirdo, that is.
One of my favorite games is to go back to the second round of the 1995 draft and map out his career on the teams that passed on him. Beltran hit his stride in 2001, right when the Moneyball A’s were at their peak, but they opted for Mark Bellhorn instead. The Blue Jays were perennially almost-interesting-but-not-quite, always five or six wins away from really mattering. Had they picked the win machine that is Beltran instead of Craig Wilson, their 2000s might have been much different.
Mostly, though, I stare at the Cardinals, who took Jay Woolf, and think about what we would be saying today after Beltran’s 20 years in a red uniform, one of the last Cal Ripken-type Hall of Famers to play his entire career with a single team. There would be no weirdness, no strained narratives. There would be the successes and failures that you’d expect from every Hall of Famer, with a heavy emphasis on the successes. He would receive the universal praise he deserves, not the mostly universal praise that can be sullied by a chorus of weirdos.
It’s the timing and circumstances that make me appreciate the end of Beltran’s career that much more. He was mostly terrible in 2017, hitting for the 666 OPS his fiercest critics assumed he had all along. When it came time to help his team in the World Series, he was hitless in three at-bats. He couldn’t help at all.
But he won. Finally, after 20 years, he was a world champion, and this time the timing and circumstances didn’t conspire to shiv him in the back when he wasn’t looking. This time, the timing was on his side. He gets to feel good about the final chapter of his career, maybe as good as he can feel about anything in his baseball career, and he can dedicate his time to helping Puerto Rico rebuild. In a career filled with weird timing, he went along for the ride at the perfect time.
And, man, did he deserve it. Carlos Beltran is everything you want your favorite prospect to be. He did everything right, played the game with an uncommon headiness, and used his vast physical talents to help his teams win more games than just about any one of his peers could have, year after year. It was never his fault that the family dog was forever eating the last couple pieces of whatever puzzle his teams were trying to build.
He was too busy being an excellent baseball player who was good at everything he did.