SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Hey, did you hear the one about the third baseman who played spring training games while still strapped to an IV with an open wound from a botched surgery, almost died twice by his own count, and returned to the field by May?
What about the guy whose testicle swelled to the size of a grapefruit thanks to a tear, and played through it?
Or the guy who had 15 inches of his intestines removed during a late-September pennant race, missed one day, and hit a home run two days later? And did so a month after hitting three home runs while playing through the injury?
If Adrian Beltre were nothing more than the guy who'd managed to do all this -- and in his career, entering season 17 in the big leagues, he's played through all that and much more -- he should be a legend.
What's astonishing about Beltre, 34, is that while he's lived through the kind of injuries that sideline people from ordinary activities, he's managed to play through them at a level few third basemen have ever reached.
Using Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement, Adrian Beltre rates seventh among all third basemen. Ever.
Here's the list of third basemen better than Beltre, per WAR: Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones and Brooks Robinson. All but Jones are in the Hall of Fame, and he will surely follow. All of them, including Jones, are household names among baseball fans in a way Adrian Beltre simply isn't.
Why do we hear about Derek Jeter's famous face-dive into a seat a thousand times for every one mention of that guy with virtually identical career WAR to Jeter, who has lived through, and thrived despite, the kind of experiences that few people can imagine, let alone play baseball through?
So I set off for Surprise, Ariz. (the spring training home of the Texas Rangers) to try and figure out why that was, whether his anonymity comes from circumstantial or more sinister reasons, and most important: Why did Adrian Beltre play baseball while strapped to an IV?
"I went two months without solid food," Beltre told me as we chatted in front of his locker Thursday afternoon, a few hours before a Rangers-Giants spring game. "I went through a couple months without doing anything, just an IV just being stuck to my arm, giving me food. And I was just bored, so I wanted to go out there. And I was gonna take -- not that it was smart, a good thing to do -- I was gonna take ground balls with the bag, with the IV, take ground balls and get ready for the season. I thought I could do it, and I did it."
Thirteen years later, Beltre does share longevity with the third basemen ahead of him on the WAR list. Beltre broke in at 19. Robinson broke in even earlier, at 18, while Brett and Mathews were 20. And all but Mathews played until age 39, with four of the six turning 40 in the major leagues.
But how and where they experienced their longevity may hold one key to their significant fame advantage over Beltre. Schmidt, Robinson, Brett and Jones played their entire careers with one team. The other two multi-team third basemen on the list are Mathews, known mostly for his Milwaukee Braves tenure, and Boggs, whose fame is split between the Red Sox and Yankees.
But whose uniform do you picture Adrian Beltre playing in?
For some, it may be the Seattle Mariners. But after Beltre had a career year in 2004 with the Dodgers, then signed with the Mariners in 2005, he didn't return to that level of production. Some people concluded afterward that the guy who played through everything was competing at less than full effort when a contract wasn't on the line.
The truth is more complicated, and has nothing to do with effort. Beltre went through the multiple surgeries for appendicitis in 2001, and acknowledges it took him far longer than the time he returned to the field to feel like his complete self again. The guy who put up a 114 OPS+ at age 21 slipped to 91, 97 and 88 in the three seasons that followed the trauma. Only in 2004 did he get to that 48-homer, 163 OPS+ plateau again.
A player who excels as much as Beltre did so early in his career is usually a good bet to break out the way he eventually did. That it took him a while is just common sense.
"I can't recall exactly how long it took me, but I do know they expected me to come back the second half of the season (after the surgery)," Beltre said. "I came back in May. I wanted to get back on the field. I know I struggled a little bit. I probably didn't feel strong enough to be out there every day. But mentally I was there. I was ready, and I wanted to play."
Still, his numbers dropped in Seattle, and that's another thing going against Beltre -- what are usually the peak years for a player were merely adequate for Beltre offensively. And to really appreciate him defensively, one needed to watch him regularly in Seattle, which wasn't happening for much of the country.
Interestingly, Beltre seems to have figured out how to not only stay on the field in his 30s, but play through them. He's stayed on the field for 154 games or more in three of the last four seasons, including 161 last year. And his OPS+ over that span in 137.
He's done this, first in Boston, then the last three years with the Rangers, two times getting to the playoffs. So the hidden in plain sight thing isn't really an excuse anymore. And his first seven seasons, including the IV one, took place in Los Angeles. So arguably, it never really applied.
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So what is it, then? Is his race to blame? Are we simply seeing a national incapacity to equate a Dominican player with the kind of grittiness that gets assigned, with disturbing regularity, to mainly white players?
For his part, Rangers manager Ron Washington doesn't see it that way.
"Ah, I don't buy that," Washington said, sitting in a back field dugout on Thursday afternoon. "The people who came up with that would have to answer if that's right or wrong."
Beltre responded to my question about the role ethnicity plays in his perception without denying the basic reality that there's a gap between the way he plays and the way he's portrayed.
"I do what I do because I love it," Beltre said. "I don't play for what the media thinks. I like to have the respect of my peers, my teammates around me. It's what I've done in the game, that's it. But I'll always -- I come from the Dominican Republic, another country. It's, for me, my dream, has always been baseball player. Everything I went through to be here, to get to the big leagues, is more than enough for me."
Washington pointed out that Beltre certainly has earned that peer respect. "But I can tell you what: baseball people know who Beltre is. Every team in baseball knows who Adrian Beltre is. The media market he's in may not have put him out there, but I guarantee you knowledgeable people in the game of baseball know who Adrian Beltre is."
One thing that changed last season was Beltre's defensive numbers, down from exceptional to slightly below average. For most of his career, his glove has been as impressive as anyone -- third highest defensive WAR in baseball history by a third baseman, only trailing Buddy Bell and Brooks Robinson. A normal Beltre season will allow him to pass Bell this year, and leave only Robinson ahead of him. But in his age-35 season, a normal Beltre season may not be so easy to reach
"My mindset is, first of all to be healthy enough to be out there," Beltre said. "And second of all, I don't really play defense to not make errors. I don't play defense to look good. I play defense to help my team and win ballgames. And my challenge has always been, if the ball's hit near me, I'm going to do everything in my power to get the guy out."
So I had to ask him: does he ever think about how much healthier he might be at this point if he didn't, say, play with some of his more serious injuries?
"I mean, I wouldn't recommend it," Beltre said, his earnest responses yielding a smile at last. He laughed when I pointed out that even if he did, few would take him up on the advice. "But that's what I did, that's what I felt like doing. And I would do it again... I don't regret anything I've done in baseball."
Even as he strives to stay at the level he's attained, largely unnoticed, for nearly two decades, Beltre simply doesn't think about the scope of his career to date, or what it will feel like when he finally stops taking every baseball challenge.
"I'm not that type of guy," he said. "I don't know how many home runs I've hit unless I see it up on the scoreboard. I don't keep track of that. I'm not a big WAR guy, either. All that new stuff that's coming out now. I don't keep up with that."
"I don't really want to think about (retirement)," Beltre added. "But obviously, it's closer than it's been for years."
When that time comes, his manager believes the adulation that's been maddeningly slow to come Adrian Beltre's way will be his at last.
"I think if Adrian stays healthy, and is able to continue to play the game at the level he's playing it at, I don't think they're gonna be able to ignore it."