There are certain rare times in baseball when you can tell a batter perceives whatever a pitcher hurls his way as a watermelon, when you can turn to your friends and say “Watch, he’s gonna hit another home run right here.” I can still remember the first time I witnessed such a phenomenon, watching the Dodgers’ Pedro Guerrero embark on an epic tear from my seat in the Astrodome in 1985. For a few weeks, he was just unstoppable.
That’s how it felt to watch Carlos Beltrán during his transcendent first season with the Astros in 2004. There is no other word—he made an amazingly difficult game look easy and almost single-handedly took his new team to its first World Series. You didn’t just expect him to reach base every time he came to the plate, you came to expect a home run. And anything hit within the ballpark in the general direction of center field was going to end up in his glove. What’s more, unlike Guerrero, he was doing it in the playoffs.
Man, to have seen him at the height of his powers! Running, fielding, at the plate—Carlos Iván Beltrán excelled at all of them. After getting acquired in a three-team deal on June 24, 2004 from Kansas City, where he had been the lone star for a sad-sack team for the better part of a decade, Beltrán smacked 23 home runs, knocked in 53, and stole 28 bases. And when the regular season ended, Beltrán was just getting started. I’d been an Astros fan for 24 years when those playoffs began and had never seen anything like it before, or even since.
In the dramatic 2004 five-game series against the Atlanta Braves, all the switch-hitter did was hit four home runs, and drive in and score nine apiece for a batting average of .455. Next came the dreaded St. Louis Cardinals, and while Beltrán wasn’t able to get Houston over that hump that year, it was not for lack of trying: The Puerto Rican hit another four home runs in that seven-game series, along with twelve runs scored and an average of .417.
But mere recitation of stats doesn’t begin to cover it. Over the second half of that season and even more so in that playoff run, Beltrán was the best position player I’d ever seen in a Houston Astros uniform. Forgotten in all the talk of his batting feats is his defense: The guy was an unearthly good centerfielder, a vital attribute for any successful Astros team, where there is much more ground to cover than in the average stadium. What’s more, he was as crafty and speedy a base-stealer as I’ve ever seen. He was the Platonic ideal of a ballplayer.
Even at the plate you could see his grace—his swing was as pretty as they came—and that polish was even more apparent when paired with his speed on the bases and in the outfield. Much as the Rocket’s Hakeem Olajuwon’s basketball skills were enhanced by playing soccer and team handball in Nigeria, Beltran’s athleticism was honed by cross-training: As a kid in Puerto Rico, he had dreamed of becoming a professional volleyball player. He was well on his way, until his dad broke it down for him:
“Carlos, I want to ask you something: How many volleyball players have come from Puerto Rico who are playing in the United States?”
I could not come up with one.
“O.K.,” he said. “Now, how many baseball players do you see representing Puerto Rico in the big leagues?”
There were many.
My dad never put any pressure on me. He just told me that he thought I had great potential to be a pro ballplayer in the United States. And then he let me make my own decision.
After the Astros lost the 2004 National League Championship Series, falling just short of their first World Series bid, yet again, Beltrán became a free agent. When he found the Astros unwilling to give him a no-trade clause, Beltrán departed for the New York Mets.
Unfairly, Houstonians immediately regarded him as a Judas, and on his return trips to town, they sarcastically chanted his name and cussed at him whenever the ball came his way. One Astros fan recently publicly apologized on Houston radio for heckling Beltrán with a $20 bill attached to a fishing pole. For twelve long seasons, Beltrán was one of the city’s most reviled sports villains. The disdain only intensified during his brief stint last year as a Texas Ranger, the Astros’ new arch-rival since Houston’s move to the American League. At the time, with the Rangers owning the Astros on the field and far more recent post-season success in Arlington, it seemed like Beltran was just rubbing salt in our wounds.
“Booing Beltrán became just this thing you did,” says baseball historian and Heritage Society of Houston program director Mike Vance. “I think some people didn’t even know why they were booing Beltran, but everybody else was, so why not? And because he went to New York, it just felt worse. It felt like you’d been rejected by someone you really wanted to date and they’d found someone else prettier and richer than you.”
And then, he came back to Houston, just this year, seemingly aware that he was coming full circle. He was no longer the young gun seeking mentorship from fading legends like Biggio and Bagwell. The roles were reversed.
Now forty years old, he slumped to career lows in almost every major category at the plate, his once-godlike defensive skills eroded to the point where Astros manager A.J. Hinch chose to use him most as a designated hitter. He’d stolen as many as 42 bases in his prime; this year he stole none. His home run totals were less than half of what they had been even last year. You were hoping against hope that there was one last October bomb in Beltran’s bat, but there were no postseason heroics this time around—in part-time duty, he only managed three hits in twenty at-bats. As a player, he was done.
But as a presence, he was absolutely vital. Beltrán had been all season long, through the ups and downs of a typical major-league season and the literal storms that ravaged both his temporary hometown and his homeland.
“Regal” was the word you heard to describe his clubhouse presence, and the elder statesman of the Astros is one lion who found the exact right spot to spend his winter. Beltrán was finally in a position to impart wisdom to young Astros like Carlos Correa, a fellow Puerto Rican who grew up venerating him. Perhaps he even gave his teammates the same advice he’d once gotten from Puerto Rican golf legend Chi Chi Rodriguez:
“Carlos,” he said, “what do you want to accomplish in life?”
I said, “I want to be successful, Chi Chi … successful at the game of baseball.”
And he said to me, “Oh, that’s super simple.”
I was confused. Simple? Was this a joke?
So I said to him, “If it’s so simple, why don’t you see more successful baseball players? Why can you only count the very best in the league on only two hands?”
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“To be successful in life, Carlos, you have to surround yourself with successful people. You can’t be afraid to ask questions to those people that you look up to.”
And so he did. Beltrán started seizing the chances he had to talk to people like Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds. He was not scared to ask the “dumb” questions, and he surrounded himself with a fast pack whenever possible. The first time he was able to do so was in Houston, way back in 2004, when for the first time in his already somewhat lengthy career, he found himself in the company of future Hall of Famers like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Up to that point, in cash-strapped Kansas City, he’d been surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of Major League Baseball—a precious few has-beens, but mostly a legion of never-had-its—but the Astros of 2004 were the teammates he needed to continue his growth. And thirteen years later, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer found in Beltran the same leadership he’d once sought from Biggio and Bagwell. This time, the Astros won.
Astros fans are now bonded to Puerto Rico in ways we never thought possible before. In Houston’s most multi-ethnic of stewpots—Mexican, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, even Colombian, Brazilian or Venezuelan, to name just some of the Latin-American threads in our crazy quilt—a strong Puerto Rican presence is difficult to detect. Yet we owe so much of our baseball history to Puerto Ricans, both the triumph and the heartbreak. As a kid, my idols were Jose “Cheo” Cruz of Arroyo, Puerto Rico, whose batting stance I used to emulate—bat held high over head, waggling around like a cobra in a snake-handler’s basket—and power-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop Dickie Thon, who grew up in Puerto Rico to briefly become the National League’s answer to Cal Ripken Jr., before a tragic beaning turned him into a journeyman player.
Decades later, the worst natural disaster in Houston history comes along, and Carlos Beltrán and Carlos Correa are there at the center of it, to bring this city succor and healing, even as Puerto Rico’s suffering was greater than our own.
“Muchas Gracias, Béisbol” is the title of Beltrán’s epitaph on his own career.
To which I can only say, No, muchas gracias Carlos Beltrán. Y muchas gracias, Puerto Rico.