They’re all older now. 585 Mets games is a long time. But the characters were the same, reunited again years later. Carlos Beltran was back the lefthanded batter’s box, again watching an Adam Wainwright curveball break into Yadier Molina’s glove. Low and inside this time. Ball one.
Probably much like everyone else, I wondered what was going through Carlos Beltran’s mind in the second inning of last night’s game. Was he thinking about everything we fans have been thinking about for the last 1,377 days? Was his mind off in the parking lot, back in that moment, still lingering in the soft neon ghost of Shea? How could it not?
Or was Beltran treating that at-bat like any other at-bat, facing the pitcher — that pitcher — like he would any other? Was his mind just wrapped in the thoughtless focus of intensity? Was it Wainwright, Molina, and Beltran, or just a pitcher, a catcher, and Beltran? Someone asked if he was thinking about that last time at the plate against that pitcher, and he replied, “No.”
And did he hear the tepid applause that marked his return home for the first time this season, and did he wonder why it wasn’t louder? Does he already understand why it wasn’t louder? Does he know why?
He must know. The Mets great center fielder must know by now that many people made a judgment about him — about what was in his heart — 1,377 days ago when he didn’t swing. In a single moment, in a half-second, they decided that deep down Carlos Beltran was a coward, selfish, soft. They decided the player with a higher postseason OPS than Ruth, than Gehrig, than Aaron, than ANYONE, was just a choker. Carlos Beltran struck out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of game seven, and that was all anyone needed to know. Nevermind that Beltran took them to the gates with arguably the best season by a Mets position player ever. Nevermind the eight runs and four RBI in the seven game series. Nevermind that he scored the Mets only run that final game. It became instantly forgotten; all that remained was the final image of Beltran sinking away from the plate as the Cardinals celebrated.
At the same time, it’s not just that. There are other reasons that Beltran is not overwhelmed with adoration. Many of the things he does so well — his intelligent baserunning, his graceful fielding, drawing 90 walks a season, scoring 115 runs every year — are the sort of skills that require some deeper thought to appreciate. Another part may be that he is a player from one culture playing in front of media and fans primarily of another. Four of his six seasons on the Mets have been marked with lost time due to injuries. He’s generally quiet, he doesn’t smile a ton on the field or in the dugout. All of these things contribute to the sometimes icy receptions from fans. That being said, I think most of the uneasiness comes from that one at-bat; I suspect he knows that.
We, as fans, all have it burned in our minds, but sometimes I wonder if Beltran is haunted by that moment most. I wonder if that inning eats at him more because it was the biggest moment of his career and he didn’t swing. That was his time and he struck out. We all know that fans question Carlos Beltran; I wonder if Carlos Beltran ever questions Carlos Beltran.
I remember him talking about it in the papers a while ago, that he wanted to be up in those big spots for the Mets again. He talked about wanting that moment of redemption — maybe that’s what drives him now. Maybe that’s why he played meaningless games last September on a bad leg. Maybe that’s why he’s playing with a bulky brace now, running with knee damage that cannot be really healed but only “tolerated.” Instead of having microfracture surgery in January — a Frankenstein knee rebuilding that allows basketball players to bounce around again after a lengthy recovery, a procedure that I’ve read about so often through this that I would feel fairly confident performing one with some chloroform, a scalpel, and a bit drill — Beltran had surgery to just clean out his knee so he could play part of this season. These don’t seem like the actions of someone who is “soft” or scared of pain. These seem more like the actions of someone who is borderline reckless, desperate to play and prove that he can come through despite the pain. Someone who needs to be on the field just in case that moment comes again.
The second pitch from Wainwright was a fastball, belt high and away. Beltran drove it to the opposite field, down the third base line, the ball bouncing up and off a fan’s hand for a ground rule double. Now there was applause, louder, welcoming Beltran home. David Wright moved from first to third on the play; he scored the Mets’ first run since Saturday on an Ike Davis groundout a moment later. The Mets scored six times off Wainwright, driving him from the game after five innings. Beltran was 2-2 with a walk in his three appearances in those innings.
But that wasn’t the moment Beltran was looking for. In some minds, it was an echo of a missed opportunity and some measure of revenge; in reality, it was nothing of great importance. Just a rusty veteran at the plate, batting for a skidding team against a hot pitcher on a warm night near the end of July.
But games must be won in July to get back to October. He is limping about now so that he might limp about then. And I think that’s where Carlos Beltran wants to be, maybe more than anyone.