Big Apple given second chance to embrace Beltran
Slugger joins Yankees, endured harsh criticism during six-plus years with Mets
NEW YORK -- This city, this passionate and often fickle baseball market, has been awarded a mulligan, a second chance to treat Carlos Beltran properly, with respect and esteem. And we probably can marvel about him once in a while, too. Nearly nine years after Beltran's first steps with the Mets, the five boroughs and their satellite communities, which once reveled in the exploits of three extraordinary center fielders and later cheered Bobby Murcer, Bernie Williams, Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson, get an opportunity to make amends to the former center fielder who will serve as the Yankees' right fielder come spring.
Let's not screw it up this time.
We treated Beltran harshly during his tour with the Mets, 2005 through July 27, 2011, demanding more of him than what could rightfully have been expected. Such is the curse of most players -- Derek Jeter being the exception -- whose contract total reaches nine digits. A switch-hitting center fielder in New York must deal with the legacy of No. 7 Mickey Mantle as well. We afforded Beltran zero slack. Our mistake.
Beltran was a good, occasionally great player in those years. Inertia challenged him in 2005. Free agents don't routinely shine in their first seasons in new surroundings. But his 2006 season was smashing. With Carlos Delgado in place to provide protection in the batting order, he produced at a level never reached by Lenny, Mookie, Murcer or even Bernie. He was in the "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" stratosphere -- 41 home runs, 116 RBIs, 127 runs, 38 doubles, 18 steals, a .388 on-base average and a .594 slugging percentage in 140 games.
And what do we recall of his 2006? What is the focus of our image of him from that season?
"Called strike three."
That lethal breaking ball from the hand of Adam Wainwright, the final moment of the '06 NLCS, became Beltran's identity in New York. The backwards K -- if you keep score that way -- became his scarlet letter. A player with an exceptional glove and brilliant offensive statistics, a player who would place fourth in the MVP balloting that year, was stained by one instant in a game, albeit a critical one.
A reminder: The Mets didn't lose their playoff series against the Cardinals because Beltran kept his bat in the holster on a hellish, two-strike curveball. Recall the bottom of the sixth inning, a half-inning after Endy Chavez's astonishing catch had spared them, the Mets had the bases loaded with one out. They needed a sacrifice fly to take a 2-1 lead. Jose Valentin struck out. Chavez popped out.
Recall the top of the ninth, when Yadier Molina hit a two-run home run that had nothing to do with Beltran. But Aaron Heilman, the man who surrendered it, seldom is held accountable for the two runs it produced. His name rarely is mentioned in the same sentence as Mike Torrez, Ralph Branca, Dennis Eckersley, Ralph Terry and the other victims of iconic home runs. Even Heilman wondered about that.
"I'm not hoping to be remembered for that home run," he said the following spring. "But I did give it up, and we lost because of it. I don't remember Carlos playing a role in that."
Yet Carlos Ivan Beltran has been spelled with an invisible (and perhaps backwards) K in these parts for too long. Get over it. And remember that the Mets were going to win Game 2, they were going to win the game that Chris Carpenter had started, until the seventh inning, when macho-man Mota, aka Guillermo, shook off Paul Lo Duca twice and threw the fastball that Scott Spiezio couldn't wait to crush. Mota didn't lose the game -- Billy Wagner did on a home run by So Taguchi -- he merely lost the series.
Beltran was innocent and remains so, even on appeal by the prime-time alarmists who always felt obligated to fix blame on somebody and create a villain. Why not Heilman? "They've got to blame the guy who makes the most money," Beltran said Friday afternoon at the Stadium.
He was in the South Bronx to make a transition that, he acknowledged, he always had hoped to make -- from non-Yankee to Yankee. He said he had been a Yankees fan as a kid in Puerto Rico; Bernie had been his guy. Wonder how Beltran wound up in center and switch-hitting?
Now, he is where his dreams had put him. Even though his numerical identity had to change, he's pleased as the punch he adds to the batting order. Beltran is the newest Yankees' No. 36 -- Coney, Steve Balboni and Johnny Mize won't mind. He wore 36 in 1998 and '99 with the Royals. But he's been No. 15 (Royals, Astros, Mets, Giants) or No. 3 (Cardinals) ever since.
Thurman Munson and The Bambino wouldn't give up their numbers for the new guy. Beltran accepted a windfall, the second of his career, instead. He's more concerned about other numbers now.
It was the work of Thurman and the Babe, Joe D. and Yogi, Mickey and Whitey, Reggie and Guidry, Paulie and, yes, Bernie, Derek and Mo that persuaded Beltran long ago that he should play some part of his pretty darn good career in the Bronx. Last summer, he said, reporters asked him whether he had thought about a place in a different Empire State city -- Cooperstown. The Yankees, with their revitalized batting order, will afford him more plate appearances -- the order ought to turn over often -- so he can enhance his HOF-hopeful resume.
He's also here to win. That too would help his candidacy. And now we get to see his talents all over again here in the Big City. Perhaps we'll revise our evaluation of him. Probably, we will. Beltran is a genuine star who prospers in the spotlight. He did score the Mets' lone run in the game his strikeout ended, incidentally. He doubled in the first and scored on David Wright's hit. He has hit 16 home runs and driven in 40 runs in 51 postseason games. And allegations that he was a soft player have faded -- appropriately -- after the need for three knee surgeries. And recall that jolting catch he made at the wall in the World Series.
We did treat him unfairly his last time through -- the reporters, the columnists, the drive-time alarmists, the fans and even his owner. Beltran deserved better. And now it appears he's in position to get it.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.