You can’t make a second first impression. Especially when you’re getting paid $17 million a year in a city filled with tabloids and 24-hour sports talk.
Carlos Beltran endured a career worst season in 2005, his first with the Mets. He broke a streak of four straight seasons with 100 runs and RBI, reaching neither plateau. He hit just 16 homeruns and stole 17 bases a year after clearing the wall 38 times and swiping 42 bags. It was a painful year; and he heard it – loud and often. He was overpaid, he didn’t care once he signed his contract and he couldn’t play in New York; the same excuses fans have been making for decades without ever really examining the truth of any of them.
The catcalls Beltran heard throughout his first season carried over to 2006. In the seventh inning of the season’s third game, Beltran was still hitless. Boos followed each out. Finally, he broke through in a big way, a two-run homerun pushing the Mets lead against the Washington Nationals to 8-5. The fans wanted a curtain call. Beltran ignored their call. He was finally forced out of the dugout by Carlos Delgado and Father Time, Julio Franco.
That home run propelled Beltran to arguably the best season a position player has had in Mets history – He hit .275 with a .388 on-base percentage and slugged .594. He hit 38 doubles, 41 homeruns – one of only 12 center fielders in history to reach that number – knocked in 116 RBI and scored 127. All while stealing 18 out of 21 bases and playing an incredible center field.
The Mets rolled the competition in 2006. Winning the division by 12 games, the Amazin’s were the toast of the town and came within a game of the World Series.
With Beltran doing everything he could to erase the memory of 2005, game seven of the NLCS ended with the bat on his shoulder and the bases loaded. Adam Wainwright’s knee buckling curve froze Beltran and ended any chance for Mets fans to truly accept and appreciate his greatness. He hit .296/.387/.667 with three homeruns and eight runs scored in that series. But in a Met career that spanned over 3,600 plate appearances, one at-bat can loom large.
In the years following the NLCS appearance the Mets failed to make another run to the playoffs coming up painstakingly short the next two years. But Beltran was still as graceful an outfielder as there was patrolling center field, stole bases with historic efficiency and was a feared middle of the order hitter. The prototypical five tool player. He went about his business quietly.
This quiet demeanor allowed Beltran to fade into the background, an easy task in a city as loud as New York. This is a player that is one of the five best Mets position players ever – and is probably closer to the top than many people realize. In his seven seasons (including 2011) Beltran placed in the top 10 in WAR – Wins Above Replacement Player, an all encompassing stat that measures a player’s value – three times, and was 14th in another season. At just 34, assuming he stays healthy, Beltran should make a run at the Hall of Fame.
Maybe it all came too easy for him. Robinson Cano has a similar problem now with the New York Yankees. Playing baseball with an easy grace will usually get a player tagged lazy, or that he doesn’t care. Beltran, running full speed, dived and collided with Mike Cameron’s face in 2005. He fractured a bone in his face and suffered a concussion. He missed four games. The fans didn’t see the time in the cage trying to read the numbers on a tennis ball being fired at 140 mph to help improve his focus at the plate. They just saw the results. Beltran cared; it’s just that everything he did was smooth and effortless. Watching Beltran go first to third his graceful gait always made it seem as if he was on a morning jog. Beltran met fly balls in the gap as if the two had an unbreakable appointment; he was always on time, but never in a rush.
In the end he was probably underpaid, handled New York fine and certainly cared. When it was obvious he was no longer going to be a Met he took 32 players and members of the staff out to dinner. Beltran’s smoothness and grace extended far beyond the field.