ST. LOUIS -- You can't play the game of baseball tight. Ron Washington says it happens though. Players get bogged down with pressure and it's not easy to unwind. Players, he says, need be intense competitors and have a fun side. After all, baseball is a game. Washington remembers during his major league career some managers would scowl down the dugout to see who was paying attention, but in his clubhouse he wants the Rangers to have a little fun.
"Just because he is having fun it don't affect me," Washington says. "It don't affect me one way or the other because one thing you can't hide, you can't hide baseball from me. I know if you can play or if you can't."
Adrian Beltre can play. And he can have a little fun. Elvis Andrus, who likes to get into Beltre's personal space, irritates Beltre and they even joke around about it but Washington is OK with this. Take the pop fly that Andrus caught on June 22 -- with Beltre acting like he was going to catch it.
"I didn't know who was actually catching that ball," Washington said. "Beltre sitting there waiting on it, Elvis behind him. I guess they communicated (Washington says with a sly smile and a pause) ... ya' know what I mean." Washington pointed out that "Elvis loves to run Beltre off the ball and there's times when Beltre tells Elvis, in Spanish, 'to pleasantly get out of the way, I'll catch this one.'" Of course, Washington laughs, "It doesn't go like that."
Beltre has been overshadowed by Miguel Cabrera this year but he's hitting .307 with 22 home runs and 58 RBIs, including a .344 mark with eight home runs in July, one of the few Rangers not struggling at the plate this month as the team has dropped 6 games behind the A's in the AL West.
Despite the excellent numbers at the plate, it's Beltre's defense that draws raves as he's won the past two Gold Gloves at third base (and has four in his career).
"If we could get 27 balls going down to Adrian every night, I'll take it, because I know most of the time it's going to turn into an out," Washington said.
Had it not been for a childhood friend, Beltre might not have ended up playing third.
"I first started playing second because my dad told me I was going to be short," Beltre said. "I played there for a month or two and then I had a friend who wanted to play second so I moved to third."
Beltre was 13 when he made the switch. At 5-foot-11, he also didn't end up short as his dad predicted. He has now spent 16 years in the majors and is a career .281 hitter with 368 home runs.
"He takes what the pitcher gives him and I think everyone in the game of baseball knows what he does on defense," Washington said. As Beltre's career totals climb, combined with his excellent defense, talk about him as potential Hall of Famer is gaining ground.
There are only 16 third basemen in the Hall of Fame. Other than catcher, which also has 16 Hall of Famers, every other position on the field has more representation in the Hall.
"For some reason third base is the position that not a lot of players can stick with for a long time," Beltre said. "I just don’t know the reason why."
Part of the reason is that third base requires quick reaction time to field the ball. Players often have to move off the position as they age.
"I don't want to say it's easy but I don't think it's that difficult," Beltre says of playing third. "You know you need to have a plan before the ball is hit to you. It's more about quickness and reaction than anything else."
Baseball-Reference.com lists Hall of Fame third basemen Eddie Matthews and Ron Santo as the most similar players to Beltre through age 34, but it's his defensive reputation that will heavily influence his Hall of Fame chances. B-R credits him with 185 runs saved beyond an average player -- sixth-best since 1901, behind only Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Ozzie Smith, Andruw Jones and Roberto Clemente.
Catchers in baseball will often say when they make a mistake on defense it will upset them more than a mistake on offense and they tend to carry that into an at-bat. For Beltre, he tries to separate his performance on defense and offense.
"That's one of the things that has helped me be more consistent in the big leagues," he said. "I try not to take my at-bats to the field and I try to not take my defense to home plate. It's hard to do. It's not easy to do."
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One of many great traditions in baseball is what happens at batting practice before games. BP is a great way to observe team chemistry. Coaches hang on the batting cage rails, players meet up with friends on the opposing team. Everyone has a job to do but not really -- they are free to be themselves and joke around.
During a recent road trip to St. Louis several players were standing around watching Beltre hit; he completely whiffed on one pitch. The guys around him laughed and gave him a hard time.
Beltre said nothing. He didn't crack a smile or frown. He answered their jesting on the next pitch by hitting the ball so hard the crack of the bat against the ball was so loud everyone in the stadium turned to see how far it would go.
"If you can get to the point where you can enjoy [baseball] and have fun, the way Beltre and Elvis and those guys enjoy it, I think you are going to have a lot of fun and a lot of good things are going to happen," Washington said.
It is obvious the Rangers know how to have fun. That is part of Washington's formula for a winning team.
The Rangers are slumping right now, but Beltre is focused on one thing.
"The first thing on my mind is the only thing I want. It is to win the World Series," he said. "That is why I signed here because I knew that they [had] a good enough team to compete and hopefully win the World Series. Obviously we were in the World Series two years ago, we ended up losing, but this year everybody's focus is to get back to the World Series and win it."