Carlos Beltran hit two more doubles on Monday night, this time in a Cardinals loss to San Francisco, which means he is now slugging .838 for the postseason. This is the highest slugging percentage in postseason history. That kind of list -- a "postseason" list -- is fraught with inconsistencies and goofiness, but it's still an impressive one:
Highest slugging percentage in the postseason (min. 100 at-bats):
1. Carlos Beltran, .838
2. Babe Ruth, .744
3. Lou Gehrig, .731
4. Nelson Cruz, .683
5. Lenny Dykstra, .661
6. George Brett, .627
7. Paul Molitor, .615
8. Albert Pujols, .607
9. Duke Snider, .594
10. Nomar Garciaparra, .589
Of course, that's a mishmash of postseason action up there. "Postseason" used to be just the World Series, then it was just the Championship Series and World Series, and now it's like a month of tournament play. Beltran, for instance, has not played in a single World Series game while Ruth's and Gehrig's numbers were compiled ENTIRELY in the World Series.
Still, an .838 slugging percentage in October matters, and it comes back to something a then-scout named Allard Baird told me many years ago. Baird would later go on to become general manager of the Kansas City Royals, and he has worked for a while now in Boston, but then he was on the ground floor, a young guy putting 100,000 miles on his car every year as he bumped up and down every highway, byway, driveway, country road, farm road, dirt road and off-road in Florida and beyond searching for baseball talent.
"Carlos Beltran," he told me, "can be as good as he wants to be."
… Wait, that's it? That's the whole quote? He can be as good as he wants to be? What the heck is that? A cliché? Why remember that? Well, see, Baird never says things for effect. He never exaggerates for any purpose. As far as I know -- and I've talked to Baird many times through the years -- he has never said that about any other player. When he said Beltran could be a good as he wanted to be, what he meant was: Carlos Beltran can be as good as he wants to be. No more. No less. No limits.
Beltran had been drafted by the Royals in the second round -- second round only because nobody was entirely sure how good he wanted to be. Could he run? When he got going he was as fast as anyone in baseball. Could he field? When scouts watched him play the outfield they could not help but think of DiMaggio, simply because of the ease and grace that Beltran showed gliding after fly balls. Could he hit? In the minor leagues, Beltran just decided one day that he wanted to try switch-hitting -- and, like that, he became a switch-hitter. Could he throw? His rookie year, he led all center fielders in assists (including Andruw Jones and our friend Doug Glanville), and he had this amazing ability to hurl his entire body into a throw, so much so he would literally catapult forward and do a half-somersault before hit the ground. Could he hit with power? Baird and others could not even believe how skinny he was in those younger days and how the ball jumped off his bat.
Yes, he could do anything … but what did he want to do? This was a mystery. He was 21 when the Royals called him up, and he was 22 when they gave him the every day job in centerfield. The Royals' management conceded he probably was not ready. But the team was lousy, and technically the team had no owner (the Royals were still in the process of being sold after the death years earlier of owner Ewing Kauffman) and the team payroll was barely $16 million, nothing in baseball terms.*
*And more than $2.5 million that was going to Hipolito Pichardo.
Royals manager Tony Muser felt kind of sheepish about asking Beltran to be an everyday big-league player so young and with so little experience, but Muser understood what it meant to be manager of the Kansas City Royals ("Would you be willing to manage this team on a very low payroll?" he had been asked before he took the job, and his "yes," had been the most important answer of the interview). So he set the ground rules. "Just catch the ball," he told Beltran. "I don't care if you hit .200, I just want you to catch the ball." This seemed to relax Beltran some, and he crushed the ball all spring training, and Muser put him in the leadoff spot opening day against Boston and Pedro Martinez. He singled off Pedro and stole a base. Two days later he went three-for-four with a double. On Saturday, he went three-for-four with a homer and a double. In mid-May, he was hitting .330 with power and speed.
The Royals actually had two exciting rookies that year, both named Carlos -- people even called them Dos Carlos. The other Carlos was a second baseman, Carlos Febles, and he was everything Beltran was not. He was animated and eager, English came easily to him (or at least he made it seem so), he loved talking, he loved playing, he was in perpetual motion, you could not help but be energized by him. Beltran's persona was the opposite. He looked uncomfortable. He never smiled. He was very quiet; friends said that he was embarrassed by his English. In the field, Febles seemed to almost crackle with energy, and Beltran seemed to almost crawl into himself.
It seems impossible, if you think about it, to be as thrilling a player as Carlos Beltran was even then -- in center field no less -- and still find ways to disappear. But he would do it. "I'm not like Febles," he would say gloomily. "Febles is always yelling and happy." Beltran would make the most amazing catches, and all anyone seemed to talk about was how he seemed to lose his focus out there. He would run the bases with astonishing speed and success -- even after all these years, his stolen base percentage is 86.9 percent, the highest percentage in baseball history. But people would talk about him being too cautious, too prudent. He would do these amazing things and look like he wasn't having any fun at all doing them.
He can be as good as he wants to be?
So, the question went, why doesn't Carlos Beltran want to be better?
The question has followed him. Beltran won the rookie of the year award -- he became the first rookie since Fred Lynn to score 100-plus runs and drive in 100-plus runs. Tack on his 20-plus homers and his 20-plus steals, well, no rookie had ever pull off that foursome, and no rookie has done it since, not even Mike Trout. It was a flawed season -- lots of strikeouts, few walks, youthful mistakes -- but one filled with astonishing promise. The next spring, he was absolutely incredible -- that spring training of 2000, he hit almost .400. Flashing all that power and all that speed, it seemed like he was ready for the next level.
Then April came, and he kind of fell apart. On the field it was easy to see -- he hit .247 in an injury-plagued year, and he got into a skirmish with the Royals about how he should rehabilitate. Off the field, it was a little bit harder to see. He seemed confused by it all. Beltran was a young man who believed in signs, in omens, and he had this instinct that it was going to be a bad year. It became a bad year. Then he had a dream about a funny little monkey. So he and his wife Jessica got a monkey. She wasn't too happy about it.
But this was Beltran -- impulsive, morose, burdened. The next year, he became one of the best players in the American League -- he hit .306, cracked 24 homers, stole 31 bases (was caught only once), scored and drove in 100 runs again, played terrific defense. He had 80 extra-base hits that year, which was the most by an American League switch-hitter since, well, ever. Two years later, he finished ninth in the MVP voting -- he hit .307/.389/.522 with 26 homers and 41 stolen bases. He was an incredible player.
And I have two enduring images of him during that time. The first, I've written about often -- it was a makeup game against Arizona in September, 2003, and the Royals were (for the only time during Beltran's Kansas City time) in actual contention. Kansas City blew a three-run lead and trailed by a run going into the bottom of the ninth. The Royals were only in the game because of Beltran, who had driven in a run, scored a run, stolen a base, and made one of his whirly-bird throws to get Danny Bautista at the plate. In the ninth, with one out, Beltran faced Arizona reliever Matt Mantei, who in those days could throw about 189 mph. It was late afternoon, and in my memory the shadows were so pronounced, pitchers looked like they were standing on the surface of the sun, and hitters looked like they were standing inside the Holland Tunnel. Beltran quickly fell behind 0-2. There was no way Beltran was getting a hit. And he did not.
But what he did do was fight off pitch after pitch. It was a remarkable one-man show, one that should discourage anyone from ever saying that drawing a walk is a passive act. This was a battle of wills: Beltran simply would not let Mantei get strike three by him. In time, Mantei gave in and threw ball four. Then, Beltran stole second base. Then Beltran stole third base. And then, Beltran scored the tying run on a short fly ball that could have been caught by the second baseman (but was instead caught by the right fielder, who STILL could not throw out Beltran at the plate). I wrote at the time, that it was like watching Superman.
The second image I have of Beltran during that time was watching him in the clubhouse play with a remote-control car. This was before a game, and the car would capture other players' attention for a couple of minutes here and there, you know how it is with toys and adults. But Beltran's interest in the car never wavered. You know that line, "He was like a kid." Well, Beltran was like a kid. He played with that car for an hour or more, just guiding it around the clubhouse, around stools and couches, and what struck me about that scene was how blissfully happy he seemed. He didn't look happy like that very often.
I thought in those days that Carlos Beltran was lonely -- not the kind of lonely filled by other players or friends (teammates often talked about trying to bring him more in the mix) but something more deep-rooted and entrenched. At some point, I went to Puerto Rico to see Beltran, and I watched him take batting practice at a high school with kids from around the neighborhood of Manati shagging his fly balls, with his mom and dad watching from the stands, and he seemed so at home, so happy playing the game that seemed to burden him in the major leagues.
"I love baseball," he told me, and that's exactly how it looked in Puerto Rico. "I know it might not look that way all the time. But I do. I love to play this game."
In 2004, he was ludicrously good. His average was down, which made some people miss it. He was traded midseason, splitting his numbers, which made others miss it. But overall in 2004, he hit 38 homers, stole 42 bases, walked 92 times, scored 124 runs, drove in 104 RBIs and had 83 extra-base hits, which would have broken his American League record for switch-hitters except he was traded to the National League Astros. All the while he played amazing center field and was probably the best base runner in the game.
That was also the year he made his first postseason appearance -- and there he was simply better than anyone had ever been. In 12 games, five against Atlanta and seven against St. Louis, he scored 21 runs, drove in 13, hit eight homers, stole six bases (without being caught) and hit .435. People across the country had never really seen Beltran in more than quick highlights, and they were blown away. I always remember one sportswriter coming up to me and say, "You didn't know he was THIS good." But, of course, I did. Any of us who saw him in those early years knew -- you could not miss it.
Then Beltran signed the gigantic contract to play for the Mets. He had a bad season, then had an amazing one (41 homers, 18 stolen bases, 127 runs, 116 RBIs, a Gold Glove). He did not swing at Adam Wainwright's sick strike-three curveball, he heard "swing the bat Carlos," for the next five years, he dealt with painful injuries, he dealt with a star-crossed team that kept blowing leads, he dealt with disappointed fans, he dealt with the same thing that Carlos Beltran always dealt with: This never-fading accusation that he doesn't try hard enough.
"It doesn't matter," he said softly when I asked him how he felt about that accusation. He was born with the ability to make it look easy. Seven times in his career, he has played 150-plus games. Seven times he has scored and driven in 100 runs. Ten times he has his 20-plus homers. Seven times he has stolen 20-plus bases. He is 35 years old now, and he has played through many injuries, and he has played through a lot of disillusionment. And he has endured.
And now he's a right fielder for his fifth team, the Cardinals (flashing the arm that was sometimes hidden in center field, though he no longer throws his body into his throws), and he's not a base stealer, and he is unquestionably weather-beaten. He got off to a great start this year, and then he went into a long funk that made you wonder if he would ever get another big league hit. But it's playoff time and he hit .444 with two homers in the Cardinals' victory over Washington. He's 3-for-7 with two doubles and a homer in two games against the Giants. He's once again the most amazing guy out there (or, at least, the most amazing guy not named Raul Ibanez).
Nobody, of course, is really talented enough to be as good as they want to be. Nobody can just get a hit because they really want to or chase down a fly ball deep into the gap because it's their deepest desire. With Beltran, at playoff time, it just looks that way. That's his gift and his curse all in one.