Carlos Beltran was looking for a new home, and his goal was to not become a franchise savior. He tried that role unsuccessfully with the New York Mets, when his body would not allow him to finish out his mammoth seven-year contract, and he wound up traded to help the San Francisco Giants’ postseason run in 2011.
At age 34, Beltran still possessed the skill to be a frontline major league player, but his health increasingly became an issue. The St. Louis Cardinals, having lost Albert Pujols, were seeking someone who could adequately fill a top-of-the-order role, provide power in a lineup that was going to rely on timely hitting, and play a steady outfield.
Beltran said he knew he had something left after playing fewer than 100 games in each of his last two full seasons with the Mets. The question was whether his body would be able to withstand covering the outfield for a National League team. The Cardinals offered him a two-year, $26 million deal that was generous considering his injury history.
Fast-forward to last Friday, when Beltran’s bald crown was dripping with champagne after the Cardinals’ NLCS Game 6 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Beltran reaching the World Series for the first time. It was time for reflection.
As a 21-year-old, Beltran was one of Kansas City’s rising prospects, tabbed to help the Royals return to glory. While his game accelerated, the Royals were never able to become a contender and Beltran’s skills were obscured.
Finally, after the Royals dealt him to the Houston Astros prior to the trade deadline in 2004, Beltran’s talents became more exposed to the baseball public. That offseason he signed that $119 million contract with the Mets, only to take the brunt of the blame for the organization never reaching a World Series during his time.
The fact that Beltran missed chunks of time with knee woes only added to the frustration.
“My concern was I needed to stay healthy,” he said. “And if I stay healthy, they’re going to like what I’m going to bring. I got passion for what I do. I know if I’m healthy, I’m capable of going out and performing and helping the team, not only on the field but in the clubhouse, just talking to the younger guys, passing along the things I have learned in baseball. It was a win-win for everybody.”
Beltran has remained healthy with St. Louis, missing just 28 games over two seasons, while providing 56 homers and 181 RBIs as the Cardinals have reached the NLCS twice and World Series once.
Beltran, lacking cartilage in his knees, doesn’t have his former athleticism in the field but he is a capable right fielder who still makes significant plays at critical moments.
He was able to throw Mark Ellis out at home plate in Game 1 of the NLCS and also made a running catch to rob Juan Uribe in Game 6.
Beltran has never lost his uncanny ability to deliver the crucial base hit. He is a career .337 hitter in the postseason with 16 homers and 37 RBIs, and had 12 RBIs in the series wins over the Pirates and Dodgers.
“When you play in postseason games, I think experience always gives you the opportunity to feel a little bit more comfortable,” Beltran said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play in October and like I said, just being able to come through for the team means a lot.”
Beltran’s teammates understand his 16-year crusade to reach the World Series. The younger Cardinals have told him it was their quest to get him to this stage, especially after they blew a 3-1 NLCS lead to the Giants last year.
During their NLCS celebration, a special moment occurred between Beltran and pitcher Adam Wainwright, who struck out Beltran with the bases loaded for the final out of Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS against the Mets.
“One thing that was really cool after we won the other day in St. Louis, Carlos’s wife came up to me and said, ‘Can I take a picture of you and Carlos?’ And I said yes,” Wainwright said. “And she said, ‘Back then [in 2006] it wasn’t in the Lord’s plan and now it is.’ I’m getting chill bumps sharing that with you.
“He’s playing 16, 17 years; he’s trying to get to the World Series for the first time. He’s been in three or four Game 7s he’s been so close, and to not get there, it’s really satisfying to get him there.”
Wainwright then went further with his admiration of Beltran.
“I actually had a dream, I told him this, I had a dream the day before [Game 6] that we lost, and we didn’t get to the World Series, and we weren’t the team to get him there,” he said. “And he ended up signing with the Yankees next year. And the Yankees took him to the World Series. And I remember the gist of the dream was he was sitting on a podium like this saying, ‘I’m so happy to be a Yankee and in the World Series.’ And I was like, oh my gosh. It was a nightmare. Not that that’s not a great team, but I woke up and had sweats, and said we’ve got to be the team to get him here. No disrespect to the Yankees in the world. I know what the media can do. I think the New York Yankees are an amazing franchise.”
No longer that brilliantly gifted outfielder in Kansas City or the sweet-swinging wunderkind in Houston or the focus of ire in New York, Beltran is here with the Cardinals, a savvy, veteran leader filled with humility and gratitude.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s a big blessing. I feel very fortunate. I understand that it’s difficult to get to this point. I think about all those players who have played 15, 16, 17, 18 years and have never experienced anything like this. I’m fortunate,” Beltran said. “The team has been on a mission to get me to this point. I appreciate that. They really want me to win a World Series.
“It just really means a lot. We care about each other, so that’s a good thing. This is a dream come true for me and people that know me. They know how much I want to be in this position.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.