NEW YORK -- When Carlos Beltran strode to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday afternoon, a sizable chunk of the crowd of 37,416 had already vacated Citi Field, or were in the process of doing so.
Yes, the temperature was 90-plus, and the home team trailed by four runs. But this was the Mets' final home game before the July 31 Major League Baseball trade deadline -- meaning it was likely Beltran's final game here as a member of the Mets.
Of those who remained, some stood and gave Beltran a healthy round of applause. Others cheered but remained planted in their seats. And still others just sat and watched, seemingly oblivious to the unfolding circumstances.
For a moment, a chant of "Car-los Bel-tran" or "Thank-you Car-los" seemed to be building. But then, just as quickly, it faded away.
Beltran received cheers again after he hit a harmless fly ball to left field for the second-to-last out of the Mets' 6-2 defeat at the hands of the Cardinals. He kept his head down and retreated quickly to the dugout but acknowledged the crowd's reaction after the game.
"Yeah, I heard the fans cheering," Beltran said. "It was great."
"Let's hope I can come back," he added, with a chuckle.
After injury-plagued seasons in 2009 and 2010, Beltran is enjoying a renaissance in 2011 at the age of 34. Despite going 0-for-3 with a walk Thursday, Beltran is batting .290 with a team-high 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. He leads the major leagues with 30 doubles, and he made the All-Star team for the sixth time in his career.
And with practically every other key player on the Mets missing significant time this season due to injury, Beltran has played in 93 of the team's 97 games.
But with the Mets teetering on the edge of the National League wild-card race, and a new front office trying to slash payroll and revamp the team's roster, Beltran has been put on the trading block. And he is in such high demand that he will almost certainly be dealt before the Mets' next home game Aug. 1.
Mets manager Terry Collins spoke glowingly of Beltran before and after Thursday's game.
"I think Carlos Beltran came into spring training determined to be healthy and show everybody what kind of player he's always been," Collins said. "That was his main focus when he came into camp, and he's proved that he's still a great player."
It's hard to believe it's been seven years since the Mets handed Beltran that $119 million contract following his incredible postseason with the Houston Astros in 2004. We didn't see much of him the past two years, when he appeared in only 145 games combined. But he played in 140 or more games in each of his first four full seasons with the club.
His first year wasn't much to write home about, as he battled through a quadriceps injury and his statistics suffered as a result. But who can forget the dynamo he was in 2006, when he hit .275 with 41 homers and 116 RBIs and won a Gold Glove in center field.
Beltran led the Mets to the NL Championship Series that season and finished fourth in the MVP voting. He even hit three home runs in that NLCS. But in the minds of many Mets fans, all the great things Beltran did in his first 545 at-bats were wiped out by at-bat No. 546 -- when he left the stick on his shoulder with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, striking out looking to end Game 7 and send the Cardinals to the World Series.
Ironically, Beltran said Thursday that 2006 is actually his favorite memory as a Met. "When we went to the playoffs," Beltran said. "I think that will be the best moment. ... We worked so hard in spring training, all season, to try to get to that position. So, it was great."
Beltran has never been a fan favorite here -- despite the fact that he has never caused trouble off the field. Maybe it's because he's not a "homegrown" product, like Jose Reyes or David Wright. Maybe it's because he's a quiet guy when it comes to dealing with the media. Or maybe it's because he didn't deliver on Oct. 19, 2006.
Likely, it's a combination of all three. And maybe that explains the lukewarm farewell at Citi Field on Thursday.
"I've always had a good relationship with the fans," Beltran said. "I'm just here to play the game of baseball. I know some fans relate to some players better than others, but I have no issue with the fans."
In 834 games thus far as a Met, Beltran has hit .280, slugged 149 homers, driven in 554 runs, made five All-Star teams and won three Gold Gloves.
And as he prepared to board a flight to Miami with his teammates, perhaps walking out of the Mets' clubhouse for the final time, Beltran said he is proud of those accomplishments.
"The time that I've been here, I've just given everything I had for this team and this organization," Beltran said. "I feel proud for everything I've done, and I have no regrets."
"I think Carlos deserved whatever response the fans gave him," Collins said, "because this guy has given seven years of his career here, and I'm sure given them a lot of great moments to watch."
Actually, he deserved better.