Beltre ranks at top of baseball’s third basemen

SURPRISE, Ariz. — As tough as Cal Ripken Jr.

Has to be hype, right? Ripken, baseball’s all-time Iron Man, played in 2,632 consecutive games.

Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre can’t be that tough. No way.

Yet, Rangers head trainer Jamie Reed triggers the comparison, saying Beltre is “mentally as tough a player as I’ve been around.”

Reed is perfectly qualified to compare Beltre to Ripken — he worked with Ripken as an assistant trainer with the Baltimore Orioles from 1989 to ’96.

So, I ask Reed a follow-up question, just to make sure I understand what he is saying — and that he is certain of his own words.

Beltre is as tough as Ripken?

“He’s right there with Cal,” Reed says. “Cal had certain injuries also, and obviously he would blast through them. But this guy is every bit at that level.”

We are talking, quite simply, about one of the most respected players in the game.

A few days back, I contacted former Ranger Michael Young and told him I wanted to write about Beltre.

“You couldn’t have picked a better guy to do a story on,” Young replied in an email. “I have no idea why more people don’t talk about this guy. In my view, the entire sport is missing the boat by not watching A.B. more.”

Young went on to list Beltre’s attributes — “incredible defender, great hitter, fantastic teammate, total gamer, plays through pain.”

“Guys like A.B. are what the game is all about,” Young said.

Young is gone from the Rangers now, traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Two other sluggers, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, left the Rangers as free agents.

The easy narrative is that the Rangers are now Beltre’s team, but as Murphy puts it, “Baseball is an exhausting game over the course of 162 games. It’s hard for one guy to be the leader of a team all year long.”

Beltre, 33, also deflects talk about becoming the Rangers’ sole leader. He is younger than closer Joe Nathan, 38. He has been with the club only two seasons, or five fewer than second baseman Ian Kinsler. And two of the Rangers’ free-agent additions, designated hitter Lance Berkman and catcher A.J. Pierzynski, also will provide veteran guidance.

Let’s leave it at this, then: Beltre is perhaps more important to the Rangers than ever before.

Which is sort of funny, considering that when the Rangers signed Beltre to a five-year, $80 million free-agent contract in Jan. 2011, many viewed him as a poor consolation prize for a club that had just lost left-hander Cliff Lee.

Commissioner Bud Selig lambasted the deal at the next owners’ meetings, according to major league sources, calling it the worst of the 2010-11 offseason — yes, even worse than the Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth signings.

Berkman, who chose the St. Louis Cardinals over the Rangers as a free agent that winter, criticized the Beltre deal publicly, saying that the contract was “pretty much a reach for him.”

Some reach.

Beltre helped lead the Rangers to the 2011 World Series, then finished third in the American League MVP balloting last season. His 36 homers and .921 OPS ranked second in his 15-year career only to his 48-homer/1.017 OPS with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004.

“I made a mistake with Beltre,” Berkman acknowledges now.

Berkman says that even though Beltre averaged 151 games, 24 homers and 88 RBI from 2005 to ’08 in the first four of his five seasons with the Seattle Mariners, “My sense was that he had kind of fallen off the face of the earth.”

“I made the comment, ‘I’m not sure that he’s a $100 million player,’ ” Berkman says. “But after playing against him (in the World Series), I knew I was wrong.”

The secret to Beltre’s success, the reason he fights through injuries with such zeal, is actually quite simple.

He can’t get enough of baseball.

“He’s going to play until he’s on his deathbed, it seems like,” says Rangers left fielder David Murphy.

Beltre told last July that he actually flirted with death twice after the 2000 season, first when his appendix burst in mid-January, then when he suffered a severe infection after surgery.

He reported to spring training with the Dodgers anyway, going through workouts with a colostomy bag on his hip. Though he eventually required a second operation, he still appeared in 126 games.

Yet, even after recovering, Beltre wasn’t particularly content. He reached the majors at 19, but his pattern of slow starts gnawed at him. He said it was not until the 2003 season that he realized, “This is my job. I’m going to have fun with it. Nobody is going to take it away from me.”

“I always loved the game. But sometimes, early in my career, I was a little too hard on myself,” Beltre says. “I didn’t enjoy the game as much. Now I see things differently. I know any day can be my last game.”

His teammates see it all — his passion, his competitiveness, his joy. Never mind that Beltre has earned $116.14 million in his career, according to His diligence sets the tone for the entire club.

“It’s inspiring for me to see, the way the game has changed, how much money is out there,” Murphy says. “He doesn’t have to worry about money anymore. Yet he plays the field and comes to the game every day like he’s a young guy. You don’t see that much in baseball anymore.”

Berkman agrees.

“It’s crazy to say, but that’s getting to be more rare these days,” Berkman says. “When I was coming up, the mentality was, ‘If you can walk, you can play.’ Nowadays, it’s like, ‘If a guy is a little sore, let’s give him a day off.’ Caution, caution, caution to the point where now you’ve got a group of players who think, ‘If I’ve got a sore hamstring, I’m not playing for a week.’ “

Beltre is quite the opposite — he won’t even leave the field when injured. Just ask Reed, who recalls a sequence last season when Beltre injured his left shoulder diving for a ball. Beltre reached base in his next plate appearance, then ran to second, Reed says, “at about 50 percent with his arm tucked in.”

At that point, Reed ran out to the field.

“You’ve got to come out,” Reed recalled saying.

“What are you talking about?” Beltre replied. “I’m fine.”

Here’s the thing about Beltre, though: As odd as it sounds, he knows how to play hurt. In fact, Reed says, the Rangers once allowed Beltre to play through a hamstring problem even though he was only 75 percent.

“He’s probably the only guy we would let do that,” Reed says, “because he can manage it and still play well for weeks at a time.”

Dave Magadan, the Rangers’ new hitting coach, says that Beltre exhibited the same qualities in 2010, when the two worked together during Beltre’s one season with the Boston Red Sox.

“Some guys will play through injuries. But he does not lose his production when he’s playing through those injuries,” Magadan says. “He’s got such good awareness of his body, he can play with those injuries and not make them any worse.”

How do you measure such a player? Not simply by his offensive and defensive statistics.

Beltre has appeared in an average of 146 games in his 14 full seasons despite missing significant time in three of them. That measure alone is meaningful, but ask Beltre about all this, and he just sort of shrugs.

“It’s in me. I love playing the game. I feel I’m letting the guys down if I don’t play,” Beltre says.

“Why not play? I don’t play for numbers. I play to help my team win. I can go 0-for-4 even when I’m feeling my best. So, I just want to be out there.”

 The subject turns to leadership, and Beltre mentions an incident from early in his Dodgers career. In fact, he recalls the exact sequence that led to a Dodgers veteran screaming at him in the dugout, in full view of his teammates and anyone watching on TV.

Beltre says he was furious that the veteran confronted him publicly over a decision that he had made in the field — a decision that was correct. According to Beltre, the Dodgers’ infield coach supported him in a meeting afterward, and the veteran apologized.

“You don’t talk to me like that,” Beltre recalls telling the veteran. “The next time you talk to me like that, we’re going to have problems.”

The point of the story?

When Beltre confronts a teammate, he will not do it publicly. He will convey his message privately, lest he embarrass a teammate the way he was embarrassed with the Dodgers.

“I like to lead by example,” Beltre says. “But when something needs to be said, I will say it. If you like it, great. If you don’t like it, I don’t care. It needs to be said.

“When you have a good clubhouse and let little things go by, it grows and grows and grows. Then, when you try to fix it, it’s too late. If somebody steps out of line early, you better let him know, ‘That’s not the way we do things here. You better fix it or you’re going to have trouble.'”

Strong words, but in truth, Beltre isn’t particularly vocal. Murphy calls him a “quiet leader  . . . an authority figure” — and yes, old school in the way he polices younger players.

Many times, though, Beltre need not say a thing. His mere example forces young players to adopt a stronger work ethic. And his influence extends to teammates of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Beltre, a native of the Dominican Republic, speaks excellent English as well as Spanish.

“He reminds me a lot of Luis Gonzalez,” Magadan says, referring to the former major league outfielder. “Luis was very good at relating to whites, to blacks, to Latins, to the Japanese — he got along with everybody. And that’s what Adrian does. He has an effect on every single guy in the clubhouse.”

Oh, the Rangers will miss Young and Napoli and Hamilton; no one hitter can replace all three. Who knows? Beltre’s offensive numbers might drop off significantly without them, particularly if Berkman cannot stay healthy.

That’s not the point, at least not yet.

The point is what those who know Beltre best say about him. That he is as tough as Cal Ripken. As cross-cultural as Luis Gonzalez. As good an all-around third baseman as there is in the game.

Young is right. People need to talk more about this guy.