The first time St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny met outfielder Carlos Beltran was in 1995. The two were teammates of sorts for Lobos de Arecibo in the Puerto Rican winter league.
Matheny was with the Milwaukee Brewers then, trying to establish himself as a major league catcher. Beltran, 18, had just been drafted by the Kansas City Royals, but wasn’t actually on the Lobos’ active roster. No, Beltran’s role was to shadow another Puerto Rican center fielder, Bernie Williams, and learn from him.
Matheny found the whole thing curious, noting that sometimes the team didn’t even allow Beltran to take batting practice.
“I was too young,” Beltran said. “They didn’t believe I could play.”
Beltran smiled broadly, making it clear that he was joking. He had to be; it is doubtful that anyone has ever questioned the ability of Carlos Ivan Beltran.
Matheny, now Beltran’s manager, calls him “one of the smoothest athletes on a baseball field I’ve ever seen.” And Sunday night at AT&T Park, Beltran again displayed his wondrous talent in the Cardinals’ win over the Giants in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
For a while, he seemed destined to be remembered for three injury-marred seasons with the New York Mets, but not now. Impossible as it sounds, Beltran is playing nearly as well this postseason as he did for the Houston Astros in 2004. And maybe enjoying it more.
His two-run homer Sunday night gave the Cardinals a 6-0 lead and knocked out San Francisco left-hander Madison Bumgarner with two outs in the fourth inning. The Cardinals held on for a 6-4 victory, and Beltran once again was asked to the podium in the interview room, the place reserved for the evening’s stars.
This is his first postseason since 2006, but Beltran, a switch-hitter, essentially is doing what he always does at this time of year: crushing the ball. He is a career .370/.481/.824 hitter in the playoffs, and his home run rate of one every 7.71 at-bats is the best in postseason history — ahead of Babe Ruth, who hit one every 8.60 ABs.
Alas, Beltran has played in more than 1,900 regular-season games and 29 playoff games, but never appeared in the World Series. After returning to the clubhouse Sunday night, he made it clear that while playing in his first World Series would be “a dream,” he already considers his time with the Cardinals a success.
“I was talking to my wife (Saturday) and telling her, ‘If I don’t make it to the World Series, I feel like I have won this year,’” Beltran said. “This team gave me the opportunity to play in meaningful ballgames . . . to be in the playoffs.”
Beltran, 35, occasionally is misunderstood, drawing criticism for playing too passively; the called third strike he took from now-teammate Adam Wainwright for the final out of the 2006 NLCS is, for many New York Mets fans at least, the defining moment of his career.
Athletes with Beltran’s style and grace often are accused of giving less than their best effort, making the game look too easy. But while some may view Beltran’s even-keeled personality as something of a weakness, others see it as a strength. Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay, who is eight years younger than Beltran and plays his former position, says his teammate’s level nature, on both good days and bad, is his most admirable quality.
Funny thing, too: This postseason is bringing out a different side of Beltran, a more exuberant side. He spoke to reporters like a giddy teenager after the Cardinals’ comeback victory over the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the Division Series. And he again talked excitedly about the Cardinals’ run on Sunday night.
“The way we have played this year, the way we have fought to be in the position that we’re in right now, playing that (wild-card) playoff game in Atlanta, that was unbelievable,” Beltran said. “That was like playing in the seventh game of the World Series. I felt personally, if we win this game, this team has a chance.”
And Game 5 in Washington, when the Cardinals overcame the Nationals by scoring four runs in the ninth inning following a leadoff double by Beltran?
“Unbelievable,” Beltran said again. “I didn’t sleep that night. I still go like this sometimes in my room” — shaking his head — “it was unbelievable what happened in Washington; it was incredible how we were able to win that ballgame.”
Actually, it’s incredible that the Cardinals are in this position at all without first baseman Albert Pujols, the offensive linchpin of their World Series champions in 2006 and ’11. The team signed Beltran to a two-year, $26 million free-agent contract to help compensate for Pujols’ loss. The initial plan was for Beltran to play center against some lefties, but he wound up full-time in right due to injuries to Lance Berkman. As it turned out, Beltran wound up appearing in 151 games, his highest total since 2008.
He carried the Cardinals for the first several months, then dipped from July 6 to Sept. 11, batting only .197 with a .625 OPS. But he got hot again at the right time, then even hotter in the postseason. Yes, the sample size is small, but Beltran’s October performance looks familiar: He is 10 for 26 in the playoffs with three homers and three doubles.
Still, Beltran’s teammates and superiors often say that as good a player as he is, he’s an even better person. Infielder Skip Schumaker still marvels that on the first day of spring training, Beltran took him and several young players to a batting cage and explained all of his pregame routines. Right then, Schumaker said, he knew that Beltran would be a special teammate.
Beltran the player, though, is the most special thing of all. Many switch-hitters hit righties better than lefties, benefiting from the greater number of looks. Beltran, though, actually has fared slightly better against lefties in his career, and he’s 4 for 12 with three homers against them this postseason.
When Beltran is healthy, there is little he cannot do. Right now he is healthy, and visibly happy. That smile on his face — a smile we haven’t always seen during his 15-year career — is one heartwarming October sight.