NEW YORK -- The end of Carlos Beltran's career isn't likely to come with retirement ceremonies and gift presentations. He's become a vagabond toward the end of his career. After spending the early part of his time in the majors with the Kansas City Royals, Beltran has played for four different teams the past five years, and that type of instability usually doesn't generate overwhelming sentiment for players.
When the time comes -- and while it's not here yet, it's soon arriving -- the 37-year-old Beltran will likely just fade away, and perhaps he will be largely forgotten by the masses. There will be a certain segment who will always appreciate what he's accomplished, but the mainstream fan likely won't think much about Beltran once he's gone.
Beltran is the most under-appreciated player of his generation. There could be a variety of reasons for this, although there isn't overwhelming evidence to support any one of them: Because he's played in a few small markets; because he's Latino; because he's never won any major award other than his 1999 Rookie of the Year; because he's never played on a World Series champion team. Beltran's lack of mass appeal is somewhat of a mystery.
"That appreciation doesn't really mean much to me," Beltran said recently about his legacy. "I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished, and that's most important to me."
But the beauty of Beltran's career is how elegantly he's steered it toward the end. Early on, Beltran was criticized for not appearing to have fun on the field. He took everything so seriously that people naturally assumed he was always miserable -- and yet there was also the argument that he didn't care enough to become as great as his abilities would allow him to become.
It was only when people went to visit him in Puerto Rico, where he would often spend hours instructing young children, when they saw that actually he loved the game, adored it with a passion. He smiled. He laughed. He cared. Baseball did make Beltran happy, although not everybody could recognize it.
Beltran always appeared more comfortable around younger people, perhaps because his abilities were always far beyond that of people his own age. It was as if Beltran was waiting his entire career to become the sage veteran, because he could not act like an experienced player when he was a young superstar. And he embraced the role of a veteran once he finally reached the age where teammates would listen to what he had to say.
For a long time, Beltran, as the most highly-paid member of the New York Mets of the mid 2000s, has been remembered for the called third strike he took against St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright during the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Just like that infamous curveball froze Beltran, his accomplishments for some have also been frozen in time. Nothing Beltran accomplished before or since has mattered because, in that singular moment, some would argue the most important of his career, Beltran could not convince himself to swing, exactly the sign of passivity that had gotten him so much criticism.
But so much has happened since that called strike. Beltran underwent a rather ugly divorce from the Mets, precipitated by his decision to have microfracture knee surgery prior to the 2010 season against the wishes of team doctors. But Beltran, refusing to believe that his injury had no recourse and that he was doomed to become an immobile player, trusted the opinion of his own doctors. And Beltran was right. His career was rejuvenated by the surgery.
Most importantly, since that strike call Beltran has become a leader and a philanthropist. As he heads toward retirement in the next few years, Beltran may not receive gifts, but he's earned the respect of his teammates and his countrymen. There is no better evidence of that than the two years (2012-'13) he spent with the Cardinals.
"He's a good leader, he knows how to talk to players, he knows how to talk to young players, older players, it doesn't matter," said Cardinals outfielder John Jay. "He can relate to you. He's somebody that I still keep in contact with. I consider him a good friend and someone I'll hopefully talk to beyond baseball. He had a big impact on my career."
His legacy transcends baseball in the United States. The opening of the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy is ensuring that baseball in Puerto Rico, which has suffered a sharp decline in the past 10 years, will resurface. Last year, two players from Beltran's academy were drafted and 37 others received scholarships to play college baseball in the United States.
As a young boy growing up in Manati, Beltran learned first-hand the difficulty of prospering in a poverty-stricken environment. Both his father and mother worked tirelessly to ensure the family could survive. Beltran never forgot his parents' sacrifice. But he was lucky. He was a tremendous baseball player and the opportunity to better his life was afforded because of his athletic skills, although it wasn't easy. Eventually he earned millions of dollars.
"God gave me the opportunity to better myself through baseball," Beltran said. "I understand that there are kids out there like me growing up who need an opportunity, a place where they can continue to develop. Also, education is incredibly important to me. When you combine education with sport, whatever sport that may be, you give kids the inspiration to go every day to school to study. One sees the impact and the results the school has provided for kids. You see the grades have improved because they have the mentality that they need to study so they can play baseball. We understand that not every kid can be a professional. But you understand that they can use the sport to get a scholarship to play baseball in the United States so they can continue their education and become a professional in their area of study. This is something that truly fulfills me. To follow a kid's path as they develop and then graduate, it's beautiful."
In that sense, Beltran may not only the most under-appreciated player of his era, but perhaps one of the most important -- someone whose impact will extend beyond his playing career.
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Beltran's evolution into a team leader has perhaps been the most striking part of his transition from phenom to veteran. Not many had pegged him for a vocal clubhouse role.
When Beltran entered the Cardinals clubhouse during that first spring training with the team, Jay was too intimidated to speak with him. Jay had grown up admiring Beltran as a player and he didn't know whether Beltran would be too bothered to help a young player. He didn't assume Beltran was unfriendly, but so often superstars had their own routines at the ballpark that simply couldn't be disturbed.
Beltran quickly erased any anxiety Jay might have had by approaching him for a conversation. The two talked for a long time. Those conversations settled into a routine.
"He loved talking about hitting and he loved the game of baseball, which was awesome," Jay said. "To get to hear his stories, and he's been around a long time and played with a lot of good players. When you look at his numbers and see what he's accomplished in the game, it's pretty remarkable. I look back at those two years playing with him as pretty special for me."
Most impressive to his young teammates, Beltran worked tirelessly in the batting cage, taking more swings than anyone. At the plate, Beltran's approach taught them that selectivity was different than passivity. And Beltran was always approachable and accountable to the media, never afraid to admit to the press he had made a mistake -- and he never left those questions to be answered by someone else.
"What separates him from other people is that not only is he a superstar caliber player, but he's a very genuinely humble guy who cares a lot about winning and cares a lot about his teammates," Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said. "He's just a good person. He's the kind of guy who just takes guys under his wing. Nobody is making him do that. He does that on his own... He loves the game of baseball. That's one thing I really could see that's very obvious with him. Sometimes you see guys that have played as long as he has and they're doing it for whatever reasons, but he truly loves to play. It's just fun to be around."
Beltran believed it had become his responsibility to help out his younger teammates, because he had been blessed with certain abilities. It was selfish for him not pass on his knowledge of the game to others.
"For me I had a lot of people who tried to help me and in the end, I was a person who asked a lot of questions to try to keep learning," Beltran said. "And that helped me try different things and to become a different player."
At the start of his career, it took Beltran almost four years to become accustomed to the grind of the game, which was baseball's most valuable lesson. A certain discipline was required to maintain a consistent attitude. Baseball is a grueling sport; there would be many lows, and it was important for Beltran to never be bothered by them. He was committed to remaining positive.
But he never allowed himself to get too happy with his success, either. Perhaps that's why people believed at the beginning of his career that he wasn't having fun. He just didn't want to lose himself in success because the game had taught him that failure was inevitable. For Beltran, baseball was as much a mental game as it was it was a physical one.
During conversations with his younger Cardinals teammates, Beltran passed on these lessons.
"Physically, we're all here in the majors because we have a talent," Beltran said. "But may times you get lost in the game, not physically, but mentally when you don't get the results you normally expect. Many times when you're a young player you forget that this is a daily game and that the season is long. You start worrying too much. Not that you shouldn't worry, but you worry to such an extent where it affects you every day. It's important to help those younger players overcome that."
Several months after his last appearance in a Cardinals uniform, Beltran's name still resonates in the St. Louis clubhouse.
"Carlos was special, a true gentlemen and one of the elite players in the game," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "He was someone I admired and even though we were only together for two years, we developed a friendship and I still stay in touch with him today."
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Beltran's Hall of Fame resume continues to build. Last year, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick made a convincing case for him. "For me to even be considered is a tremendous privilege," Beltran said. "I hope I can improve my numbers and to keep improving my resume. If the moment comes and I'm in then terrific, if not, I'll just thank God because really I feel blessed to have had this opportunity."
A more pressing concern for Beltran is to continue helping out his teammates. Earlier this year, the unheralded rookie Yangervis Solarte, after a standout game, was selected to appear on the Yankees post-game show. Solarte, nervous about his English, asked for a translator. The Yankees did not have one on hand. Instead, Beltran offered to help the rookie during his interview. It was a show of selflessness that not many players of Beltran's caliber would have emulated.
After Michael Pineda was forced to answer questions from a large press gathering at Fenway Park after he was caught using pine tar, Beltran was also the only Yankees player to express disbelief that teams did not offer a translator to help out a player in such a controversial situation.
He has become one of the most vocal Latino players, and his voice carries tremendous importance.
"He's an idol for all the Puerto Rican kids," Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said. "All the kids admire greatly the way he plays the game, his professionalism is at an incredible level. He's admired not only in Puerto Rico, but also in all of Latin America."
When his career does conclude, Beltran said he's unsure of what he will do. Certainly he will devote a lot of his time to help his academy flourish. But he wouldn't discount some type of role in the major leagues.
The end is near for Beltran, but it's not here yet. And there's still time to show him the admiration he deserves.