Carlos Beltran back at Citi Field with Cardinals

Carlos Beltran was honest: Sometimes he misses New York – and

sometimes he doesn’t.

The St. Louis Cardinals slugger returned to Citi Field on Friday

for the first time since he was traded by the New York Mets last

summer, concluding a rocky tenure in the Big Apple that included

several outstanding seasons and one momentous strikeout.

”I felt personally, in the years that I was healthy, I had my

best years in baseball,” Beltran said.

Moments before the first pitch of a four-game series, the Mets

played a 1-minute video tribute to Beltran on the big scoreboard in

center field. In the dugout, he smiled and tipped his cap.

When he came to bat in the first inning, Beltran received mostly

cheers from the sparse crowd, save for a handful of boos and

catcalls. He shattered his bat on a foul ball and struck out

against old pal Johan Santana.

”I’m happy to be back,” Beltran said. ”I have a lot of

friends here that I really miss.”

Sitting in the St. Louis dugout hours before the game, Beltran

answered questions (in two languages) from a media mob for 20

minutes. He hosted a charity event in New York on Thursday night,

an off day for both teams, that was attended by Santana, Mets

manager Terry Collins and trainer Ray Ramirez.

Beltran said he really enjoyed his 6 1/2 seasons with the Mets

after signing a $119 million, seven-year contract in January 2005

that brought with it the weight of lofty expectations. He only

wishes he could have been healthy the entire time and helped the

team win a championship.

The Mets came close in 2006, when Beltran took a called third

strike with the bases loaded to end Game 7 of the NL championship

series against St. Louis.

It was a pivotal moment for both franchises. The Cardinals went

on to win the World Series that season and again last year. The

Mets collapsed down the stretch in 2007 and 2008, and haven’t been

back to the playoffs.

With the Mets trailing 3-1 and fans on their feet at a rocking

Shea Stadium, Beltran froze on a nasty curveball from rookie closer

Adam Wainwright in October 2006. In a fitting twist, Wainwright

started Friday night for the Cardinals in the opener of a four-game

series and Beltran was back in center field for the first time all

season because of injuries to teammates Jon Jay and Skip

Schumaker.

Beltran, a three-time Gold Glove winner in center, graciously

moved to right before the 2011 season to ease the strain on his

surgically repaired knees and make way for speedy protege Angel

Pagan.

”He came with such tremendous expectations, and expectations

can hurt you in a way,” Collins said. ”Here was a guy who was

supposed to hit 40 homers every year and be a perennial All-Star

and not have a bad knee and be a guy that carries a ballclub. And

when he was healthy, he did that. He had numbers to support that

when he was healthy. There were times when he was injured that he

didn’t. And so, as we know, sometimes that doesn’t fly.”

After a huge 2004 postseason with Houston, Beltran became a free

agent and was lured to New York by new Mets general manager Omar

Minaya. With few familiar faces in the clubhouse, the switch-hitter

struggled to adjust and batted only .266 with 16 homers and 78

RBIs.

Fans booed him, but Beltran bounced back in 2006 with perhaps

the best season a Mets hitter has ever had: 41 homers, 116 RBIs and

127 runs. New York won the NL East and Beltran finished fourth in

MVP voting.

He followed that up with two strong seasons, but was limited to

145 games from 2009-10 because of injuries. He returned to form

last year and waived his no-trade clause, allowing the Mets to

obtain an elite prospect when he was dealt to San Francisco.

”I felt the years that I was healthy, I did a pretty good job,

and I feel proud of what I did,” Beltran said. ”At the end of the

day, it’s not about what you do and numbers, it’s about winning

championships. We didn’t win anything, so I guess it doesn’t mean

anything.”

Still, it was an up-and-down tenure in New York – and he had a

difficult relationship with Mets fans at times.

”Probably fans also like to see players that show emotions,

come here in the media and say crazy things. I’m not that type of

player,” Beltran said. ”Everyone has a different personality. For

me as a player, I have a personality where maybe I don’t show a lot

of emotions on the field, but that doesn’t really mean that I’m not

enjoyng what I’m doing. I love what I do. I love to play baseball.

It’s just that that’s the person that I am and if I try to be

different, I’m being fake to myself. So I don’t like to be fake. I

like to be me all the time.”

Stung by the early boos, Beltran once declined to come out for a

curtain call until good buddy Carlos Delgado practically shoved him

out of the dugout. And some fans never forgave the six-time

All-Star for failing to get the bat off his shoulder on that

fateful pitch from Wainwright.

”If that’s what they want to remember, that’s them. I can’t

control that,” Beltran said. ”I just wish I could have done

different. It didn’t happen.”

Looking toward the future and with Beltran in the final season

of his deal, New York shipped him to the Giants just a few days

before last year’s trade deadline for top pitching prospect Zack

Wheeler. And that was the end of Beltran’s time in New York.

”Sometimes I do miss it, sometimes I don’t. Being honest,”

Beltran said. ”I consider my time here a life experience for

me.”

Wheeler is throwing well at Double-A Binghamton, while Beltran

is off to a great start with his new team. After signing a $26

million, two-year contract with the Cardinals in December, he began

the night batting .294 with 42 RBIs and an NL-best 15 homers. He

ranks among the league leaders in several categories.

”I think he’s one of the most efficient players I’ve ever

seen,” rookie manager Mike Matheny said. ”I think in every aspect

he’s been a huge part of what’s becoming the makeup of this

team.”