T.R.’s Memoirs: Adrian Beltre became a Hall of Famer with Rangers
(AP photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Editor’s note: The Baseball Writers Association of America is currently conducting its Hall of Fame balloting. Adrian Beltre is on the ballot for the first time. Former Rangers beat writer TR Sullivan, who covered the team for 32 years, looks back at Beltre’s career.
The Rangers will find out Jan. 23 if their medical and training staff will be included with the highest honor that is bestowed in baseball.
They will find out if that pre-eminent and tireless group will be recognized for their work by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It would be a deserving tribute to former and current trainers Jamie Reed, Kevin Harmon and Matt Lucero. Strength coach Jose Vazquez and massage therapist Raul Cardenas as well.
Oh yeah, the massage therapist had a big role in this one.
They will all deserve much credit if retired third baseman Adrian Beltre is elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. All indications are that Beltre will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer — he is 13 for 13 already in the early ballots that have been revealed publicly — and, if so, it will be partly because the Rangers medical staff strove mightily to keep him on the field during his eight years in Texas.
It was worth the effort. Without them, Beltre might not have been named to three All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves and three Silver Slugger Awards, played in his only World Series and reached 400 home runs or 3,000 hits. He might not be recognized for what he is today:
One of the all-time best third basemen in baseball history.
Noted sabermetrician Jay Jaffe puts Beltre as the fourth-best third baseman of all time in his “JAWS” rankings, as seen on baseball-reference.com. A casual Google search of other semi-quasi experts include Beltre in their top 5-10 among Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, George Brett and a few others.
A few points need to be made.
One, Beltre deserves said accolades. Secondly, he absolutely was not considered by anybody one of the best third basemen of all time when he first signed with the Rangers during the winter of 2010-11.
Beltre is going into the Hall of Fame in large part because of what he did in Texas.
At the time he signed with the Rangers, Beltre was approaching 32 years old and was a 14-year veteran. He had appeared in just one All-Star Game and had won just two Gold Gloves. He had enjoyed a phenomenal season with the Dodgers in 2004, but other than that not much stood out on the back of his baseball card that suggested he was Hall of Fame material.
Good hitter, good fielder, respected professional and also viewed as an underachiever in more than a few people’s assessment of his career to that point.
His six-year, $96 million contract — really five years and a performance-based option — came as a surprise that winter, arising only after the Angels botched their chance to sign him and the Rangers were unable to re-sign pitcher Cliff Lee. The Rangers also had Michael Young playing third base on a team that went to the 2010 World Series. Dislodging their undisputed team leader was hardly foreseen by anybody, even if Beltre was an upgrade defensively.
An upgrade, that is, if Beltre would be able to hold up physically over the course of the contract.
When I expressed my doubts about that to one Rangers official, he acknowledged that was a concern and suggested, “I see him as a designated hitter at the end of the contract.”
Look, Beltre was not a wimp or a soft player. He didn’t seem injury-prone at the time. He played the game, the way it is supposed to be played. This is a guy who played without a protective cup between his legs and kept doing so even after being seriously injured in 2009 by a hot smash delivered directly to the family jewels.
To put it more succinctly, he took one in the balls. Quite painful, but he still refused to wear a cup.
The simple fact is Major League Baseball is physically taxing and long-term contracts come with significant risk for players as they move into their 30s. Consider, the Rangers pushed hard to sign free-agent third baseman Anthony Rendon four years ago, offering a lucrative six-year deal with an option.
Rendon was 29 at the time and ended up signing a seven-year deal with the Angels. Four years later, Rendon has been racked by injuries and has been a complete bust.
Beltre was not a bust in Texas. Instead, his bust will likely be displaying the Rangers cap when unveiled next summer in Cooperstown.
So what if was quite a wild ride and not always with a fairy-tale script.
Up from the D.R.
Beltre was originally signed by the Dodgers out of the Dominican Republic. He was 17 when he played his first professional game in the United States in 1996. He ordered food by pointing at the menu, hoping against hope whatever was brought to him didn’t have pickles. He hated pickles.
By the time he was 19, the Dodgers deemed him ready for the big leagues. He made his major-league debut June 24, 1998, after veteran third baseman Bobby Bonilla went on the disabled list.
Beltre never went back. Dodgers general manager Tommy Lasorda — he had stepped down as manager — was smitten with his blue-chip prospect, and Bonilla was shipped to the Mets that winter. Lasorda’s unchecked enthusiasm for Beltre only added to the high expectations.
Beltre fell short over his first five full seasons. An emergency appendectomy and second surgery in 2001 were big setbacks. Beltre was the Dodgers’ regular third baseman during that time and averaged 18 home runs and 73 RBIs per season while hitting .265 with a .432 slugging percentage. The defense was good, but, again, it was hardly the stuff of a Hall of Famer.
There was little doubt about the physical talent, but there were those who thought it showed up more in batting practice. Beltre was referred to by some as a “five o’clock hitter.”
As spring training approached in 2004, there was talk Beltre would be traded to the Yankees after their third baseman Aaron Boone went down with a torn ACL. The deal didn’t get done, and the Yankees ended up acquiring Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers.
On Opening Day of 2004, Beltre found himself hitting seventh in the Dodgers lineup, a sign of where he stood in their offensive pecking order. By the end of the year, he had moved up to No. 4. That’s because he had the best year of his career, hitting .334 with 48 home runs, 121 RBIs and a .629 slugging percentage. He finished second to Barry Bonds in the MVP voting.
Beltre was also a free agent at the prime age of 25. He wanted to stay in Los Angeles, but the Dodgers played it coy. Beltre ended up signing a five-year, $64 million deal with the Mariners.
That deal proved to be a mistake, the classic free-agent case of a player taking the most money and ending up being in the wrong place. First of all, the Mariners were going downhill. After winning 90-plus game for four straight seasons, including two division titles in 1999 and 2003, the Mariners slumped to 63-99 in 2004.
Beltre was joining a franchise that was crumbling on the field, and he was playing at Safeco Field, a tough place for hitters. Especially right-handed power hitters.
After what appeared to be a breakout season in 2004, Beltre fell back to pedestrian numbers in Seattle. Over five years, he hit .266 with a .432 slugging percentage and an average of 21 home runs and 79 RBIs per season. He won two Gold Gloves for his defense, but as for his offense?
His five years in Seattle were viewed as somewhere between a disappointment and a disaster at the price the Mariners paid and after what he did in 2004.
He was now a free agent. No longer hot property, Beltre signed a one-year $10 million contract with the Red Sox. He found redemption in Fenway Park, where the fabled Green Monster in left field provided an inviting target for right-handed hitters.
Beltre had the second-best season of his career to that point, hitting .321 with 28 home runs, 102 RBIa and a .553 slugging percentage. Loved the Green Monster. After averaging 31 doubles a season over 11 years, Beltre led the league with 49 in 2010 while playing racquetball with the Wall. He was selected to the All-Star Game for the first time in his career.
Beltre was also a free agent and once again hot property. It didn’t seem like the Rangers were interested, given their top priority was Lee. When the winter meetings convened at Disney World in December, there were a few Beltre-Rangers rumors floating around even though the specter of Young still hovered in the air. The Rangers were also still hoping to bring back Lee.
At one point, I ran into Boras and asked him about Beltre to the Rangers.
“We are talking to them, and they are very interested,” Boras said.
You have to understand two things about that statement:
No. 1. Agents are always pumping up interest in their clients.
No. 2, I always had a good relationship with Boras going back to 1989 when he represented Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers.
Simply put, during my 32 years of covering the Rangers, Boras had far more credibility than many agents I ran across.
The Rangers didn’t get Lee. He signed with the Phillies.
They signed Beltre, just after the New Year, with the intention of turning Young into a DH/super utility infielder. The deal came down just after club president Nolan Ryan said, “Michael Young is our third baseman.”
When the press conference was held at the Ballpark in Arlington the first week of January, Boras and I spoke privately.
“This is the place I had targeted for Beltre from the beginning,” Boras said.
There was still much hullabaloo to address with Young before that all got resolved. As it was still going on at the beginning of spring training, Beltre kept his head down, and everything was finally settled before the Cactus League schedule began in March.
The Rangers had a new third baseman.
Growing in Texas
The Rangers were in Las Vegas for a two-game exhibition series against the Cubs. It was the middle of spring training in 2012, a brief break from the month-long tedium in the desert. The Rangers brought along a sizeable contingent of players to Sin City, and manager Ron Washington was asked about his concern about his players running wild in Las Vegas.
“I’m not worried about it,” Washington said. “I told Beltre to take care of it.”
Looking back on the history of the Rangers, it is painfully obvious their ventures into lucrative long-term contracts for free agents have produced mixed results. In that regard, they are no different than any other MLB franchise. You can go back to the advent of free agency in the mid-70s when the Rangers signed pitcher Doyle Alexander, infielder Bert Campaneris and Richie Zisk to contracts considered quite lucrative at the time. All three failed to live up to expectations and were traded well before the end of their contracts.
Between that, owner Eddie Chiles’ financial woes and the complete inadequacy of Arlington Stadium — plus the infamous collusion era — it’s obvious why Rangers almost completely avoided free agency in the ’80s.
Signing Nolan Ryan was a huge boost to the franchise — but he originally signed for one year and an option — and first baseman Will Clark helped bring about the Rangers’ first-ever division title in 1996. John Wetteland was an All-Star closer, but not the difference-maker the Rangers expected.
The Rangers’ abstinence from free agency in the ’80s would have served them well after the turn of the millennium. During the first decade of the 21st century, the Rangers gave out whopper free-agent contracts to Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Chan Ho Park, Kenny Rogers, Darren Oliver, Kevin Millwood and Juan Gonzalez. For all the millions that poured out of owner Tom Hicks pockets, the Rangers experienced just two winning seasons and no postseason between 2000-09.
Given that history, it was reasonable to question the wisdom of signing Adrian Beltre. But it worked out.
By any measure, Beltre was a great signing for the Rangers, as one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, a power-hitting bat in the middle of the order and a team leader that his manager could trust in keeping his younger teammates in line in Sin City.
“Adrian is a baseball machine,” Young said. “I knew he was good when we got him, and his reputation as a great teammate preceded him. He blew all expectations out of the water. Just off the charts [as a] player and teammate.
Once again, three-time All-Star, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner. In the eight years Beltre wore the Rangers uniform, he hit .305 with a .357 on-base percentage, .509 slugging and an .866 OPS that ranks seventh best in a franchise renowned for great sluggers putting up fantastic numbers.
Almost every Rangers fan has their favorite Beltre moment: the three home runs against the Rays in the deciding Game 4 of the 2011 ALCS, his 3,000th hit in 2017, twice hitting for the cycle (bad legs and all), the two-run home run against the Angels in the division-clinching last game of the 2015 season.
Or any number of defensive plays that stand out.
Me? I don’t who it was against — maybe Atlanta on the road — but Beltre chasing a pop foul ball deep down the left field line and making an over-the-head catch on the dead run.
Or the memory of Beltre being Beltre, the home runs off one knee, pointing to the first-base umpire on a check swing like he was the catcher, mimicking shortstop Elvis Andrus when he was catching a pop up. Or the other way around.
Or Andrus leading the dugout charge to rub Beltre’s bald head after hitting a home run, leading the old man to thoughts of homicide.
“Can I go to jail for that?” Beltre said. “Sometimes I’m serious, I want to kill him. But you’re not allowed to do that to one of your teammates.”
His ridiculous trash-talking mock feud with Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, his old buddy from Seattle. Yeah, that one did get a little bit tedious after a while.
“It’s just between me and him,” Hernandez said. “After that, I just flip the switch. It’s special to play against him. He’s like my big brother. It’s always fun to face him.”
Who is going to forget the night, with the Rangers trailing 22-10 to the Marlins, Beltre was thrown out in the bottom of the eighth inning by second base umpire Gerry Davis.
His sin? Beltre was on-deck and standing too close to home plate. Davis told him he needed to move back to the on-deck circle. At the Ballpark in Arlington, a portable mat was used as the de facto on-deck circle.
Davis wanted Beltre on the mat. So Beltre dragged the mat to where he was standing.
“I was not trying to be funny,” Beltre said. “He told me to stand on the mat, so I pulled the mat to where I was. I did what he told me.”
Nah, he wasn’t trying to be funny.
The fans loved it. His teammates loved it. So did the writers who enjoyed listening as Beltre hold court at his locker before or after a game, dishing out wisdom, insight and snappy comebacks when he got on a roll.
“I’m confident, but not so confident that I’m cocky.”
“The way I’m hitting, I better make those [defensive] plays.”
“I want to have the best team … but I don’t have to pay those checks.”
The trick was finding him at his locker. One of the enduring images of Beltre with the Rangers is seeing him walking through the clubhouse naked with a towel around his waist, going to or from the hydrotherapy pool. Or the massage room. Or the training table.
In all, Beltre went on the disabled list seven times during his eight seasons in Texas. Six of those seven were for hamstring or calf injuries, the most volatile part of his body. Keeping him healthy was quite the task, but well worth the effort.
He was still able to average 137 games and 524 at-bats per season while with the Rangers. He did so while playing at a high level. He only played 94 games in 2017 because of injuries, his lowest total ever in a full season.
But he still hit .312 and finished with a .917 OPS, the fourth-highest of his career. His range factor at third base that season was 3.01 chances per nine innings, the second best of his career. It was 3.04 in 2018 before he finally retired.
“It’s difficult to tell you I’m going to be careful playing the game when you just play the game,” Beltre said. “In that situation, when it asks you to do something, you’re going to do it.”
One final memory of Beltre …
Middle of spring training, the Rangers are playing a Cactus League afternoon game in Surprise. Beltre is not playing that day, presumably to rest his legs.
About the fifth inning, sitting in the press box, the media was informed that the starting pitcher is now available in the clubhouse. I leave the press box and walk along the upper deck plaza toward the first-base side stairs. The walk affords an unobstructed view of the Rangers primary practice field behind the main stadium.
Out there is Adrian Beltre on the left-field grass. He is throwing batting practice to his young son Adrian Jr.
In July, “A.J.,” his sisters Cassandra and Camila, and their mom, Sandra, will be in Cooperstown, a village in upstate New York. They will be there to see Adrian Beltre inducted into the Hall of Fame.