Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Beltran, Then and Now

This piece about Carlos Beltran is a part of my series on the 2005 season.  I can't really talk about Beltran, however, without coming back to the present day and the reason why Carlos' tenure as Mets Manager was over before it even began.

First the look back. In the offseason of 2004-2005 new General Manager Omar Minaya had already mad a huge splash by inking future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez to a 4-year contract.  According to Minaya, he promised Pedro to continue aggressively trying to improve the team.  He kept his word with his pursuit of Beltran, one of the game's top players who, going into his age 28 season, was still in the prime years of his career.
The pursuit of Carlos Beltran continued into January.  The Astros and the Mets were the two teams pursuing him the hardest.  It was rumored that Beltran had a strong preference for the Yankees, but the Yankees were spending their money elsewhere that off-season.  Finally in January it was announced that the Mets and Beltran had come to terms on a 7-year contract.  I remember hearing the news and being surprised at my emotional reaction to the signing.  The Mets had actually signed a great young player in his prime to a contract. It made me feel proud to be a fan.

Now, of course, the New York press never got tired of taunting Mets fans with Beltran's obvious preference to sign with the Yankees in their usual breathless and obnoxious manner. Honestly, I never gave a damn about that.  I was happy that he was ours.  The Mets still had a way to go to be a contender in 2005, but the upcoming season immediately became more intriguing.

When I've written about that season I've talked about heroes (Pedro) and goats (Looper and Matsui), but the 2005 edition of Carlos Beltran doesn't fall comfortably into either category.  He struggled offensively all year and that earned him a lot of attention from the Shea Stadium boo birds. For the season he hit .266 with 16 HR and 78 RBI.  After posting impressive OPS+ numbers over 130 the previous 2 seasons he managed a quite unimpressive 97 in his first season in New York.

It wasn't all horrible.  His defense and base running were still fine.  He had moments at the plate despite his struggles. Still, there was a lot of debate if Carlos was "tough enough" to play in New York, and for a significant percentage of the fan base he was a goat in 2005.

Unlike our other goats, Carlos Beltran came back in 2006 and more than justified the signing.  He put up superstar numbers in 2006, 2007 and 2008 while also playing a great CF.  Injuries limited him the next two seasons as the Mets fortunes in general plummeted, but he bounced back in a big way that final year in New York, playing a full season and posting an OPS+ of 154, the highest of his career.  His play convinced the San Francisco Giants to part with Zach Wheeler at the trade deadline for a couple of months of Beltran.

A common theme among the New York press was that Mets fans didn't appreciate Beltran enough, but that, as so many of those overused tropes of the local media, wasn't really true.  I always truly appreciated his talents, and know plenty of others that felt the same. I still had a warm spot in my heart for Beltran despite the fact that 3 of the 4 teams he played for the last years of his career were among my least favorite teams - the Cardinals, the Yankees and the Astros.

In my mind all these years later I can still call up a series of great Beltran memories at random. A walk-off home run against the Cardinals in 2006. A great catch on the ridiculous Tal's hill in Houston to keep a game scoreless in the 14th inning.  Being there in person for my first ever Mets playoff game, Game 1 of the NLDS vs St. Louis, and watching Beltran's 2-run homer break open a scoreless tie and lead the Mets to victory.

I know there is a segment of the base who can't forgive Beltran for striking out to end that series, but to me failure is part of the game.  It's how baseball can lift you up to almost unimaginable heights one moment and break your heart the next.

Fast forward to now.  When the Mets signed Carlos to be their manager this past off-season I was surprised at the decision.  New York is such a tough place to manage for experienced managers, and the Mets were handing the keys to a guy who had zero managerial experience.  It made me pretty uneasy, but it also intrigued me, too.  What a story it would be if Carlos Beltran managed the Mets to a World Series victory that eluded them in his playing days.

As we all know, that dream died before it even had a chance to begin. Over his playing career Carlos had earned a reputation as one of baseball's good guys, but that reputation got chewed up and torn to shreds by the Astros' cheating scandal.  The team that back in the day brought us Mike Scott scuffing and cheating his way to success now contributed a sordid story of cheating on a massive scale.  While Beltran wasn't the one who originated the scheme - which began in Houston's front office - he was instrumental in fully implementing it.  You can't read about this thing without realizing Beltran played a true bad guy role in the whole mess.

Beltran offered a decent and sincere sounding apology when he resigned from the Manager's job he never really had a chance to execute, but that apology does little to alleviate the fact that what he was actively taking a part in was literally cheating,  Indeed, you can argue that the scheme literally affected the outcome of actual games in a tangible way.  Contrast that with Pete Rose (deservedly, I believe) being banned from baseball for betting on his own team's games.  There was no proof that Rose's bets caused him to actually affect the outcome of a game.

I don't see how Carlos gets elected to the Hall of Fame with this hanging over his head.  If I had a vote I would have a hard time putting him on my ballot.  It's one thing going along with something shady, it's quite worse when by all testimony you were a driving force behind it.

I've asked myself how a decent guy like Beltran could have allowed himself to do the things of which he's been accused, and I'm at somewhat of a loss.  Maybe he wasn't as good a man as he seemed, or maybe the answer is more complicated.

The majority of Carlos Beltran's great years took place in baseball's steroid era, where plenty of great players rationalized the "edge" that taking performance enhancing substances gave them.  That attitude became such a part of baseball culture and blurred the simple line between right and wrong.  Cheating on the obvious and rather large scale that the Astros sign stealing scandal was rationalized in the way that steroid use had been, as merely looking for a competitive edge.

Only Carlos Beltran knows what was in his mind during that year in Houston, but one thing is for sure. The man who spent 2005 as both hero and goat has ensured a place in history as something worse: an absolute, indisputable cheater.  And that truth makes me quite sad.

Stay well, everyone.  Back tomorrow.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

I'm not sure if anyone who read the old blog will find their way here after all these many years, but if you do please drop me an email or comment if you'd prefer. I'd honestly love to hear from you. Also, I will be posting here regularly if you're inclined to come back.

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  1. Nice post about a guy that is very difficult to write positively about.

    I was allowed in the Mets spring training clubhouse when Beltran was a teammate. He was, at best, sullen, always distant to his fellow players, and sometimes nasty to reporters.

    Positive chemistry in a clubhouse is a necessity for a winning team.

    I did not miss him when he left.

  2. Thanks for the personal insights, Mack


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