Few as good as Beltran in so many ways

November 14th, 2017

Let's take you back to a moment in 1999, when was a shy 22-year-old kid still trying to figure out who he wanted to be in baseball. He was a rookie for the Royals then. He struggled with English and so he almost never spoke. Beltran had never played above Double-A ball, so he wasn't quite sure what to make of the big leagues.

The Royals knew they were rushing Beltran. They really didn't have much of a choice. They couldn't afford the generally overpriced free agents who had made up the team a year earlier. They didn't have many options to play center field. When the season began, then-Royals manager Tony Muser told Beltran, "I don't care if you hit .200, you just play good defense and be aggressive, and I'll keep playing you."

Muser did not have to keep that promise, because Beltran did not hit .200. He basically started hitting stunningly well right from the start of the season. By the middle of July, Beltran was hitting .300 with some power and some stolen bases, he led the team in runs and, improbably, was second in RBIs even though he was hitting in the leadoff spot.

Muser told Beltran, "I want to move you to the No. 3 spot in the lineup."

And this is how Beltran replied: "I am not afraid."

That's when the Royals knew they had a great one.

And Beltran was a great one. The remarkable thing about his career -- a career that should end up in Cooperstown -- is that he was so many things. Few players in history have ever been so good in so many ways.

Beltran retires a champ after 20-year career

Beltran was a breathtaking center fielder for a time; he won three Gold Gloves, but he was really good in the years before anyone noticed.

He was a historically great basestealer. In his career he stole 312 bases in 361 attempts; that's a success rate of 86.4 percent. That's the highest stolen-base percentage in history for anyone with more than 200 attempts.

He was a supremely productive hitter. He had seven seasons with 100 runs and 100 RBIs, the same number of seasons as Stan Musial.

As the years went on and Beltran lost some of his speed, he began hitting for more power. He hit 435 career home runs, three fewer than Andre Dawson and four more than Cal Ripken Jr. He hit 565 doubles, just ahead of Eddie Murray, just behind Pudge Rodriguez.

Beltran walked 1,085 times, three more than Derek Jeter.

Beltran's best moments with each team

In 2004, Beltran's first go-round with Houston, he put on one of the greatest postseason shows in the history of the game, cracking eight home runs, stealing six bases and scoring 21 runs in 12 games.

There are only a handful of baseball players like this, players who could transform into whatever the situation demanded. In a 2003 game against Arizona, the Royals needed a run in the ninth inning but were facing the D-backs' overpowering closer, Matt Mantei. Beltran put up an at-bat for the ages, a seven-pitch battle, and he earned a walk. He then stole second. He then stole third. And he scored on a sacrifice fly that was so shallow, it could generously be called "deep second base."

"Carlos Beltran can be anything he wants to be," then-Royals general manager Allard Baird said after that game, like he said many other times.

Justice: Beltran's next chapter only matter of time

Baird was one of the people who scouted Beltran in Puerto Rico. Baird meant that as the ultimate compliment -- and the ultimate challenge. In those days, Beltran was so bashful, so unsure, that nobody could quite figure him out. Everything looked easy for him. This led to questions. He ran down seemingly impossible fly balls without breaking a sweat. And people wondered how hard he was trying.

Beltran ran from first to third so effortlessly -- Bill James ranked him the best baserunner in the game throughout the early to mid-2000s -- that people wondered why he didn't do it on every single.

He hit home runs with such ease, just flicking them out of the park whether he was hitting right- or left-handed, that people wondered, "Shouldn't he hit more of them?"

All of it did lead people to wonder, especially in those early years: What is this guy about? How much does he love baseball? How great does he want to be?

I was lucky enough to cover Beltran in those days. In 2003, I went to see him in his hometown, Manati, P.R. There I saw him crush baseballs during a batting practice at his old high school. I saw the way the kids in his town looked up to him, like a hero. He was no longer the shy kid. Beltran told me then, for the first time, that he wanted to be one of the greatest players ever. He talked about wanting to leave a mark on the game.

"God blessed me with a great talent," he said. "And I want to live up to that talent."

He did. Over a 20-year career, Beltran reached staggering heights in just about every way. Only five players in history are in the 500-double, 400-homer, 300-steals club. And even though that's a thing I only just invented, those five players -- Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Andre Dawson and Beltran -- make up a pretty good club. Add in that all five of them won multiple Gold Gloves. Yes, a pretty good club.

Let me take you back to a different moment in 1999. George Brett had just been elected to the Hall of Fame. And in the moments after, there in Cooperstown, Brett was answering some questions, and someone asked him about Beltran, who was just a rookie then.

"He can make it here," Brett said, "if he works hard and is never satisfied."

Later I asked Brett if maybe that was putting a bit too much pressure on such a young player. Brett laughed.

"Nah," Brett said. "The kid can handle it. He can handle anything."