KANSAS CITY -- Carlos Beltran remembers well leaving Kansas City.
"I cried like a baby that night," he said.
It was almost exactly eight years ago -- June 24, 2004 -- when the Royals traded Beltran, their premier player, because he would become a free agent following the season.
"It's funny, even though you know it's going to happen, when it happens it's like 'Wow!'" Beltran reflected. "What is going to happen now? I'm going to the National League, I played all my career in the American League. Now I'm going to go to Houston, I don't know anyone there. My wife, Jessica, has to move everything.
"When it happened, I cried. Because I was emotional. I signed with the Royals, I came up with the Royals, I had many years in that organization. But at the end of the day, those types of moments make you stronger as a person and make you understand a little more the game of baseball and how things happen. Baseball is a business, big business."
Curiously, in all those years after the trade, despite Interleague Play, Beltran had never played against the Royals until last weekend at St. Louis. In the process he made history, stealing his 300th base to become baseball's first switch-hitter to have 300 stolen bases and 300 home runs.
This weekend, for the first time since he left, Beltran will play at Kauffman Stadium.
He comes with the Cardinals, signed after the departure of Albert Pujols to help fill that void. That he's done very well, hitting .307 with 48 RBIs and 19 home runs, second most in the National League.
"I just can't wait to go back and look at the stadium," Beltran said last weekend in St. Louis. "I know all those memories are going to come back. That's where my career began, and Kansas City will be in my heart forever."
How might KC fans receive him when he steps to the plate on Friday night wearing the birds on the bat?
"No idea," he said with a smile. "But you know what, I've been through a lot of places -- like when I go to Houston, they boo me there like crazy, and in New York, it's cheers and boos. So I'm not really going to focus on that. I just want to be at the ballpark and play the game."
Beltran played the game very well for the Royals from 1998 through that day in 2004. An elegant and fluid center fielder, he was the 1999 AL Rookie of the Year, drove in 100 or more runs four times, hit over 20 home runs four times, stole 164 bases and batted .287 in his 6 1/2 years with the Royals.
What if, somehow, the Royals had kept Beltran and he spent his whole career here?
"I never think about that, because it didn't happen," he said, "but those fans, I bet, saw the best of Carlos Beltran. My youth, stealing bases, jumping on the wall, running bases, hitting triples -- playing the game hard."
The Royals and general manager Allard Baird felt they couldn't afford what agent Scott Boras envisioned for his client and dealt him to the Astros in a three-team trade. The Royals got third baseman Mark Teahan and pitcher Mike Wood from the A's and catcher John Buck from the Astros.
The Royals apparently never made Beltran a concrete, multiyear offer in a bid to keep him.
"I don't really recall getting a real offer. I knew they talked about having something done, but we never got to the point where we were serious about it," Beltran said.
He and Jessica were enjoying a cookout at teammate Mike Sweeney's new home in Lee's Summit after an afternoon loss to the Tigers -- Beltran hit his 15th homer -- when Baird called with the trade news.
"I have so much respect for Allard Baird," Beltran said. "When I played there, even though it was my sixth year, I felt like I was a rookie. But Allard kept me informed of the whole situation and it took a lot of pressure off me, coming to the ballpark not thinking that I was going to be traded that week or that series. He handled the whole situation with so much professionalism and you appreciate that."
In an odd twist, that year AL players voted Beltran to a spot on their All-Star squad, but he played for the National League as a substitute for injured Ken Griffey Jr. He was the first player in history picked for one league's team to play for the other league.
The Astros obtained a dynamo who helped the club to the playoffs, then bashed eight home runs in 12 postseason games against the Braves and the Cardinals. That electrifying performance helped earn Beltran a mega-contract -- seven years for $119 million with the Mets, beginning in 2005.
He played in the demanding atmosphere of New York for more than 6 1/2 of those years with many ups (41 homers in a playoff year, three 100-plus-RBI seasons, five All-Star teams, three Gold Glove Awards) and some downs (quad and knee injuries).
"I took that as a learning experience in my life, because I felt like Kansas City was the best place ever for me to begin my career. I was focused entirely on baseball, I didn't have serious distractions, and when I got traded to Houston, it was a little bigger market. And having Roger Clemens and [Craig] Biggio and [Jeff] Bagwell and all those players, there was a lot more attention paid to that ballclub," Beltran said. "And when I signed a contract with the Mets, it was completely different. It was a big market -- you have to deal with things other than baseball, be accountable to the media when you have good days or bad days and it's an environment where sometimes, if you're not focusing on what you have to accomplish, it can throw you off."
Fortunately, when he didn't perform as expected that first year in New York, he had the unwavering support of his wife, Jessica, which made it easier for him to snap back with a big 2006.
Jessica and Carlos have known each other since their high school days in Puerto Rico. They were married just before he received the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1999. They now have two daughters, Ivana, 4 1/2 years old, and Kiara, 7 months old.
Beltran, 35, has a proud twinkle in his eyes when he talks of his children. They have made a big difference in Beltran's life. These days, he might be going to Ivana's dance recital or quietly rocking Kiara to sleep.
"For me, it's a blessing. When I wasn't a father, I went home and thought about the game so much it wasn't healthy. And now being a father, when I have a bad day at the ballpark, I can go home and spend time with my daughters and they make me forget about the night that I had," he said.
Right knee problems and surgery curtailed his 2009 and '10 seasons with the Mets. The years were adding up, too. Maybe people were starting to think that Beltran was ...
"... almost done," Beltran said, completing the thought with a chuckle. "What can I say? I take that as a motivation. I've always been a competitor, I've always been a guy to work hard. In this game, you always have to prove yourself every year."
He did. Last year for the Mets and the Giants combined, he hit .300 in 142 games with 84 RBIs and 67 extra-base hits including 22 homers. The Cardinals, unable to re-sign Pujols, brought in Beltran on a two-year, $26 million deal.
He's doing so well that this weekend isn't likely to be his only visit to Kauffman Stadium this summer. Beltran is second among NL outfielders in the All-Star balloting. KC will see him again on July 10, and he'll enjoy the return.
"Good things happened there for me," Beltran said. "Even though we never won a championship, Kansas City, for me, was the best."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com