Yankees Magazine: Hungry heart

Carlos Beltran's career may take him to the Hall of Fame. But among his peers, there's more to the story.

June 1st, 2016
As an elder statesman on the Yankees roster, 39-year-old Carlos Beltran can still lead by example. He continues to swing a hot bat, and the first half of 2016 saw him craft his share of dramatic moments. (New York Yankees)NEW YORK YANKEES

Standing in the Yankee Stadium visitors clubhouse, Royals pitcher Dillon Gee tells a surprising story about Carlos Beltran, his one-time teammate with the Mets. Gee recalls that players on the roster would sometimes look forward to days when Beltran was not in the lineup, an odd reaction to taking the field without one of the greatest offensive threats in the team's history.

The Mets might have been a fourth-place team that year, but what they weren't, at least on days Beltran sat, was hungry.

When his personal chef in Puerto Rico brought over his wife's tres leches one day, Beltran was transfixed; "I had never tasted anything like it in my life," he said. He wasn't content just to have sampled it, though. He had to get the recipe, and more than that, he wanted a lesson in preparing it just so. Once he was pleased with the result of his labors, he took his show back to the mainland. And anytime he found himself out of the lineup, he would head to the clubhouse kitchen and cook up a batch for his teammates.

"The whole game, he'd be in the kitchen making tres leches for us for after the game, and it was so good," Gee recalls.

Beltran saw something that he wanted, he put in the work to get it, and he made sure that everyone else got to benefit. But there's nothing new there. He is, according to just about every person in the Majors, smart, approachable and giving. And apparently, he can prepare a spectacular Latin American dessert.

Beltran says that he hasn't yet broken out the baking pan for his Yankees teammates. But as for everything else, it's business as usual for the veteran, whose present-day successes keep getting in the way of sealing his legacy.

Sharing the Wealth

Beyond the gaudy statistics and the charity work and the stoic on-field demeanor, Beltran is just one of the guys, albeit someone almost universally considered the ideal teammate. Now in his third year of a three-year deal with the Yankees, the 39-year-old can only guess where the future will take him. But there's still a game tonight, there's a game tomorrow, and there's work to be done. There are pitchers to break down, strategies to craft, home runs to hit.

"I could sit here and talk to you for an hour about him," said catcher Brian McCann, who rarely has more than a minute or two to talk before a game. "He's an unbelievable teammate. His willingness to share his knowledge. And off the field, he's just an all-around unbelievable person. He's always willing to help others."

Beltran lives by a philosophy that seems cribbed from a sign in a New York City subway car: If he sees something, he says something. Whether a hitch in a teammate's swing or a tic by an opposing pitcher that gives away what's coming, he is a baseball reference open to all who wear the same uniform he does.

"You really got the feeling that when he spoke, everyone listened," said Ben Gamel, a Yankees prospect who tried to soak up everything he could from Beltran during Spring Training this year.

Dustin Ackley, who came over to the Yankees at the 2015 trade deadline, says that almost immediately upon receiving his pinstripes, he also found himself signed up for some unofficial tutoring sessions with Beltran.

"He was one of the guys, when I first got traded over, that approached me the second day," Ackley said. "He was helping me with my swing. When you see stuff like that, that's pretty special. Just the fact that he cares that much about everybody here and is willing to help out in any way he can. He wants to win; he wants to do those things. That makes for a good teammate, and you want guys like that around. Guys like that can change your team, change your season."

Wherever he goes, Beltran's reputation precedes him. The Yankees are his sixth Big League team, so he has played before a lot of different fans and with a lot of different teammates. Aaron Hicks, new to the Yankees this year, had heard plenty about Beltran before he reported to Spring Training. People kept telling Hicks how much his new teammate, a fellow switch-hitter, knew about the game, about reading pitchers, about doing everything the right way. Then Hicks got to know Beltran, "and it was even more drastic than I thought it was. It's even better."

But even those with whom Beltran has only crossed paths at All-Star Games sing a double-album's worth of praise.

Beltran says that he has never really met Red Sox pitcher David Price -- he's pretty sure that they've never even shared a handshake. But Price -- a member of the Yankees' most-hated rivals -- happily takes time in a busy, crowded clubhouse to offer a sense of how Beltran is perceived in all corners of the game.

"In talking to guys who have played with him," Price said, "you hear how much he understands the game of baseball and that he has a tremendous amount of knowledge. To be able to pass that along to your teammates or just guys you know, it's very respectable. You can pick out those guys that are extremely intelligent -- that's why they have the careers that they have and the longevity that they have. You can't hang around the game as long as these types of players without having that knowledge.

"You can think of one thing that just about everyone in this game does well. It's the guys that do multiple things well -- those are the guys that really stand out. And for me, that's Carlos Beltran."

The Ultimate Team Player

Sitting in an Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Beltran processes the long list of compliments from his peers. He's a regular here -- so much so that the waiter is able to bring his preferred bottle of water, salad and chicken dish just by following a few barely verbal cues. Beltran simply doesn't mess with what works.

It's gratifying for anyone to hear such kind words, of course. And away from the ballpark, Beltran's personality really comes out, the sometimes-stern, still face he wears on the field replaced by a warm, engaging and chatty persona. But he still stops short of basking in the praise.

"I believe it's my responsibility," he said, as if cutting off the parade of plaudits. "When I was growing up, I had a few guys who took their time to talk to me. When I was a little down, they came to me and they said, 'Hey, brother, you'll do fine. You're doing OK.'

"When I approach a younger guy, I always do it with the mentality of, 'Hopefully, I can impact him the way that I was impacted.'"

There are plenty of younger guys to approach on this Yankees roster. Up the middle, the club regularly fields three 26-year-old players: Hicks, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius.

Last year, after Gregorius arrived in New York via trade, the young shortstop faced a host of challenges. He was young and on a new team. He was replacing one of the most beloved players in franchise history. And he stumbled out of the gate. It was a recipe for disaster in a place like New York. But some advice that Gregorius had gotten when the trade first happened proved prescient.

At home in Curaçao, Gregorius had been chatting with former Yankees outfielder Hensley Meulens, now a coach with the San Francisco Giants, who knows Beltran pretty well. Meulens told Gregorius that he would learn a lot from his new teammate. Beltran turned out to be a willing tutor.

"Sometimes we get caught up in our own job, and we don't take time to get to know a guy," Beltran said. "Didi last year, he comes to a new team. He doesn't know anyone. He's young. He's replacing Jeter. So the first thing I said to him was, 'Hey, brother, I know that you just came here, but don't feel like you're replacing anyone. You've just got to be you. The only shoes you've got to fill right now are your own shoes. That's all. Just work hard, do your thing, and I'm here to help. You want to talk about baseball, you want to talk about hitting … anything you want, I'm here.' We talked through the whole year, and he struggled early, but he was able to turn it around, so it was fun to watch that."

The message cuts to the root of who Beltran is as a player -- and as a person. He is exceptionally generous, something seen in his incredible devotion to charity work, in particular with his foundation and the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy. But he is also working toward a goal, in everything he does.

Excellence in baseball is, by its nature, unselfish. The sport doesn't allow for a night like Kobe Bryant's farewell, a 60-point, 50-shot affair that somehow captured the good and bad of the Lakers legend's career and personality all at once. For the most part, personal success in baseball breeds team success. Beltran's achievements on the field may get him fame and earn him money, but they'll definitely pump up his team. And if he can say a few of the right things, and in doing so, ease a young teammate's burdens and make him a better player? That might be the thing that puts his team over the top.

"It helps us," he said. "It helps us as a team. If I'm the guy swinging the bat well, and two of my teammates aren't, well, let's talk about it. I want them to. I'm going to get to a time when I'm struggling -- that's part of baseball. But I have experience. I've been in the game a long time. Everything that I say to them is from my own experience. 'Brother, I know you're going through this. When I go through it, you know what I try to do? I try to go to the cage, and instead of taking 50 or 60 swings, I take 30 or less. Sometimes less is better.' I give them my own experiences, and then I go to the video and study with them: 'Look at your posture when you're doing [well]. Look at your posture when you're not doing so good.'

"When you struggle, I've got your back. When you understand that people have your back, you feel less stress. Less pressure. Because you know that if you don't come through, the guy behind you is going to do whatever it takes."

Leaning on Legends

Beltran doesn't feel 39. He repeats that constantly, laughingly, like he's a guy getting away with something. He watches contemporaries retire, and rather than bemoan the game moving on from his generation, he takes pride in the fact that he's still standing.

The legs that made him a wildly successful base stealer (86.4 percent) and a regular Gold Glove Award winner in center field aren't what they used to be, but he can still rake. The interesting thing is that, as a player who benefits so much from his video study, his preparation and his baseball smarts, Beltran has more at his disposal than ever. He might have lost a step or two, but he replaced it -- and then some -- with the resources available to players in 2016.

"Right now, it's easy for me to study," he said. "Very easy. We have our iPads, we go to a room at the hotel or at home, I sit down for a half-hour and study."

"There's not a moment that goes by on the plane, in the dugout, in the clubhouse, when he's not trying to get an advantage," Ackley said. "Anything that helps him or his team out. That's what makes him special. Baseball is his life, and he's good at it."

Maximizing resources has always been one of the key weapons in Beltran's arsenal. Just as he makes himself available to anyone on his team who needs some help, Beltran has always been good about leaning on those who came before him. If he feels something wrong with his swing, he'll get Hall of Famer Eddie Murray on the phone. Beltran feels that Murray, one of the greatest switch-hitters in history, understands what he's going through, and he relies on him for advice.

And he can't understand why anyone wouldn't go about their business the same way.

"If you have a big ego, sometimes you feel like, 'What do I need to do with this guy?'" Beltran said. "Why? If you have all these people who have been successful, and they're there, and you just have to call them, just reach out to them, and they can give you a little insight or information about how they handled situations or how you can handle yours, how are you not going to use that? I want to use all my resources. And that's what I do in baseball. I go to Eddie. Cecil Fielder, who is a good friend also, we always end up talking about baseball. There is no other conversation. 'How's your family? Family's good? Let's get back to baseball.'

"Two nights ago, I'm taking BP. Reggie [Jackson] comes to me, and said, 'How do you feel?' I'm honest. I say, 'I feel in between. I feel like I'm hunting for a fastball, but at the same time, I want to hit the slider. And that's super tough. Because you can't be ready for both.' And he said to me, 'Carlos, you know what? When I look at you in the cage, when I look at you taking BP, when I look at you doing things the way you do them … you're perfect. Go out there, get a good sweat, and compete. Right now, you're thinking too much.' And I said, 'You're right, I'm thinking too much. I am. Today, I'm going to hunt fastball. And I'll try to lay off everything that is breaking.' And I hit two homers.

"Reggie came after the game, and I gave him a hug. And I said to him, 'Thank you for the vote of confidence.'"

Sweet Success

See, here's the thing about tres leches cake: It's pretty much flawless as is. Why spend so much time perfecting something that's already perfect? Beltran could have stopped at about a dozen bakeries on his way to the ballpark and picked up a perfectly satisfactory cake for his teammates. But he was willing to work to give his buddies his very best.

Nineteen years into his career, Beltran is still relying on his predecessors, and he's still paying it forward. You can see why it's so important to him to be able to reach a player like Gregorius, or Castro, or Ackley, or Hicks, or anyone else on the roster. Beltran doesn't have a World Series ring, and it's clear that he would very much like one.

But otherwise, most of his legacy is secure. His contemporaries throw around praise like they're eulogizing him, but then he goes out and hits two home runs in a game and you remember that he's still adding to his story.

This might be his last contract, or he might want to sign one more; he is particularly intrigued by the idea of getting to 20 Big League seasons. He wants to take some time off whenever his career finally ends, to become the full-time dad to his three children that baseball never allowed him to be, but the idle lifestyle won't suit him for long. Eventually, he says, he'll be back in the game, whether coaching or in a front-office capacity.

"I think if he wasn't a coach, it would be a disservice to baseball," Ackley said.

Whenever it does end, Beltran has a strong case for Cooperstown. He'll retire as one of just five players with 500 doubles, 400 homers and 300 steals, the others being Barry Bonds, Andre Dawson, Alex Rodriguez and Willie Mays. And despite one Bugs Bunny curveball from Adam Wainwright that probably deserves a Hall of Fame plaque of its own, Beltran has thrived in the postseason. His career .844 OPS through mid-May of this year jumps to 1.115 in the playoffs, meaning that when the pressure is biggest, he basically turns into Lou Gehrig.

"I think he's a Hall of Famer," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said, words that are echoed by a chorus of Beltran's teammates and peers.

But Beltran has bigger dreams than an eternity in Cooperstown. He'd be honored, of course, but it's not what he sees as the preferred end of his road. He is an icon back home in Puerto Rico, maybe not quite on the level of Roberto Clemente, but as close as mortals can hope to be.

Clemente's legacy rings familiar to anyone who spends time chatting with Beltran. Probably the most memorable words Clemente ever spoke -- among the most singularly profound statements from any public figure ever -- came in a speech he gave in Houston a year before he died in a plane crash while undertaking a humanitarian aid mission. "If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth," Clemente said.

And so it is with Beltran, who feels that time is best spent building a future, whether for his own family, or for young kids at his academy in Puerto Rico, or for celebrated prospects in the Yankees system. If he can spend time getting through to Jorge Mateo in the spring, and then know that 10 years from now, Mateo will reach out to the next budding superstar, then that's the legacy he seeks more than any other.

"That's the most important thing," Beltran said, in a manner that distinctly echoes his idol's words. "For me, that's more important than any award. If I was able to impact somebody in a positive way, or help that person to turn something in his career, to extend his career, that's what you care about the most. When I hear stories about players that played 18 years, but they didn't talk to anybody, they didn't help anyone, well, what's the point? You didn't impact anyone. For me, if you play all this time in baseball, you had a good career, but you impacted zero, it's not worth it. For me, what is important is making sure that I use my knowledge, my time, and everything that I have learned to try and pass that on. That's the beauty of baseball."