ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — More than three hours before his team took the latest step in a heated wild card race, infielder Tim Beckham was greeted at his stall in the Tampa Bay Rays‘ clubhouse with an overdue welcome. His path through the minors had led him from Princeton to Hudson Valley, Bowling Green to Charlotte, Montgomery to Durham, each step offering lessons in a six-season chase.
Beckham, the Rays’ first-round pick in 2008, looked to his side as Evan Longoria approached him. The greeting between the two was short, but the look on the veteran’s face was one of sincere pleasure, an awareness of what this moment meant to the young player and the patience required to live a major league debut.
Longoria extended his hand, and Beckham did the same. They hugged. Beckham’s wait, after an extended journey, was over.
“Congrats, man,” Longoria said.
Beckham never doubted this time would come, but he can be excused for wanting it to happen quicker. He was taken first overall — four spots ahead of two-time All-Star and former Florida State star Buster Posey, as some who follow the Rays are fast to mention — and his path is a study in how results of the scouting process are unscripted, unpredictable: One year in rookie ball/Low-A, one year in Class A, one year in High-A, one year in Class AA/Class AAA, two more in Class AAA.
Beckham, only 23 years old, had the unfortunate task of following Longoria (2006) and left-hander David Price (2007) as a Rays first-round pick. He was selected as a shortstop out of Griffin (Ga.) High School, just south of Atlanta, after Tampa Bay officials debated taking him or Posey. That June night, Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, spoke to the Associated Press about the choice with enthusiasm.
“At the end of the day, when push came to shove, and we were racing time,” Friedman said then, “I think it was pretty clear to everybody that Tim Beckham was the guy at the top of our board.”
Beckham’s road from a name on that board to a man who slipped on a white No. 29 Rays jersey was long and winding, and even now, there are no guarantees he will make a visible impact. Wednesday afternoon, Rays manager Joe Maddon said the young player “might not hardly get on the field” in Tampa Bay’s final 12 regular-season games. Maddon envisions using Beckham as a defensive replacement at shortstop or second base late in games, perhaps long after an outcome is decided.
But there is something to be said for beginnings, for long waits rewarded with the satisfaction of reaching a desired destination. Beckham learned of his promotion Tuesday night, after going 1 for 3 with a walk in Durham’s 2-1 loss to Omaha in the Triple-A Championship Game in Allentown, Penn. He had enough clothes packed only for the short trip north, and he never heard rumblings that his promotion could be near.
“I didn’t doubt myself,” Beckham said. “It has been a long ride, but I haven’t lost confidence in myself. I never will.”
But there were worrisome signs early in his career, speed bumps that provided pause. Beckham had a career-high 43 errors in 2009 with Class A Bowling Green. That season began a stretch when he committed at least 20 errors in three consecutive campaigns. (He had 25 with High-A Charlotte in 2010 and a combined 22 with Class AA Montgomery/Class AAA Durham in 2011.) Then he received a 50-game suspension last year for a second violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program for a drug of abuse, reportedly after a positive test for marijuana.
Those marks, however, are past. Beckham is confident he has become a more mature, complete player. Still, his history is an example of how baseball can humble, how the game introduces detours and obstacles to obstruct the best-laid plans.
Has Beckham made it? In a way, with his appearance Wednesday, finally, yes. But work remains, in these closing weeks and beyond, as do chances to show how much he has developed on and off the field.
“(Baseball) can bring you back down to Earth,” said Rays catcher Chris Gimenez, who played with Beckham in the minors. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Albert Pujols or Chris Gimenez. You’re only as good as your last play. … It matters how you deal with that. You can either put your tail between your legs and dig your own grave or you can come out of it, whatever it takes. I feel like he’s definitely in that direction.”
“I’m excited for him,” said Rays infielder/outfielder Sean Rodriguez, who made his debut in the majors a week short of his 23rd birthday. “The road he has been on is amazing.”
Maddon sees the promise as well. With growth, Beckham’s potential can be reached.
“You just have to be patient sometimes,” Maddon said. “I’ve seen it. With this kid, I would really be patient because I think the makeup is that good.”
An answer will come in time. But Wednesday, at last, after a long wait, the start had arrived.