Adam Wainwright and Carlos Beltran will be forever linked by a frozen moment in time. In the 2006 National League Championship Series, Wainwright snapped off the curveball of a lifetime and Beltran stood at home plate as the pitch nestled into catcher Yadier Molina's glove and sucked the life out of Shea Stadium. The St. Louis Cardinals went on to win a World Series, and Beltran was immortalized in New York Mets history as a not-so-innocent bystander.
When Beltran signed a two-year, $26 million contract with St. Louis in December 2011, Wainwright called to offer congratulations and make sure they were on the same wavelength. He knew the press was going to revisit the moment ad nauseam, and he wanted to make sure the incessant questions didn't drive a wedge between him and Beltran in a way that might hinder the team.
"I called him and said, 'Hey, I'm happy you're coming over. I think we should get this out in the open because we're going to be asked about it,'" Wainwright said. "And you know what he told me? He said, 'That was in the past. It was a great moment for you and not for me. But let's leave it in the past.' I told him, 'You got it, no problem.' I respected him so much for that, and I continue to respect him now."
The conversation was a microcosm of Beltran's career: low on drama and high on results. He's soft-spoken, determined and almost regal in his ability to rise above petty dramas and distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. The closest thing to a controversy you'll find surrounding Beltran came during a recent game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he attempted to bunt with two Cardinals on base and sent the local talk shows into a frenzy.
Carlos Danger, he is not.
When an athlete is so unassuming and mind-numbingly consistent, it's easy to lose track or sell him short. Beltran won an American League Rookie of the Year award with Kansas City and admittedly "cried like a baby" when the Royals sent him to Houston in 2004. Then he signed a $119 million contract with New York, where he made five All-Star teams and once smacked into Mike Cameron in an outfield collision for the ages.
All of a sudden Beltran is 36 years old and not quite as limber as he once was. The face is fuller, the body thicker and not so lithe, and he has to pick his spots. But the numbers reflect a bountiful career that keeps getting better. Beltran just made his eighth All-Star team, a distinction that ties him with Andre Dawson, Duke Snider, Jim Rice and Chipper Jones, among others. The first three are in the Hall of Fame, and Jones is on his way.
"As any teammate or person who's played against him will tell you, Carlos is one of most naturally gifted people in this era," Wainwright said. "He's a Chipper Jones-type gifted athlete. They have speed. They have power and average from both sides of the plate, and there are a lot of ways they can beat you."
As a Hall of Fame voter, I'm conditioned to look at an elite player with one eye on the present and another on posterity. Do his numbers jibe with what my eyes tell me, and does my gut say I'm watching a future Hall of Famer when he steps in the box? Someday, maybe a decade from now, Beltran's name will appear on a ballot, so it's helpful to file away those images now and save them for, say, 2023.
I've been on the fence about Beltran for a while now as a Cooperstown candidate, but I'm almost ready to climb off and commit to a yes. The man has a knack for sneaking up on people. Or maybe I just needed to pay closer attention.
Pluses and minuses
Craig Wright is already convinced. He's a longtime baseball statistician and author who has his own system for rating players' all-around contributions, and he's a hard-core Beltran booster.
"The honest-to-gosh truth is this man could step off the curb and get hit by a bus tomorrow and I would vote for him for the Hall of Fame," Wright said. "When I project his career out three more full seasons, he has an argument to be a first-ballot guy. It won't necessarily happen for him, but he'll have the credentials."
Wright thinks two factors will work against Beltran: (1) He's played for Kansas City, Houston, New York, San Francisco and St. Louis, so he lacks a true team identity; and (2) he's proficient at everything but not dominant enough in one area to have made it his signature contribution.
Beltran grades out better against his peer group in some areas than in others. Since the 2001 season, he's seventh in the majors in runs (1,157) and stolen bases (265) and 13th in home runs (325) while playing in home parks that weren't always hitter-friendly. But he's a mere 33rd in slugging percentage (.510) and 51st in on-base percentage (.364).
"He's a very well-rounded player, and well-rounded players who don't dominate in a specific category tend to be downplayed in people's minds," Wright said. "They don't realize that if you're very good in a lot of things, you can have immense value without being a superstar in any one. He's not Rickey Henderson. He's not Tony Gwynn. He's not a 50-homer guy. But what doesn't he do well?"
Of course, these are not the only arguments against Beltran. He has 354 career homers and 2,188 hits, and writers who base their selections on "counting stats" will note that he's well short of some classic milestones. The 300-homer, 300-steal club is a nice place to reside, but Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders are fellow members and neither of them is destined for Cooperstown.
Still, voters who look beyond the mainstream numbers and take time to parse Beltran's career will find several strong arguments on his behalf:
• The statistical cognoscenti love him
Beltran ranks 83rd in career wins above replacement among position players at 67.1, a total that places him in some elite company. He's ahead of Roberto Alomar, Snider, Dawson, Willie McCovey and Billy Williams and just a tick behind Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg.
Wright ranks players by a measure called wins shares above replacement level that's a variation of Bill James' win shares. A career 150 WSAR is typically enough to get a player into Cooperstown. Beltran is at 148.1 and will likely pass that threshold later this season. Dawson, in contrast, made it to the Hall with a total of 135.
Wright contends that Beltran is already qualified for Cooperstown as a C-plus or B-minus caliber Hall of Famer -- which would put him in a group with the likes of Joe Medwick and Larry Doby and ahead of Dawson and Lou Brock, among others. With three more productive seasons, Beltran has a chance to surpass 380 career win shares. In the past 30 years, every player to appear on the Hall ballot with 380 win shares has been a first-ballot inductee, with the exception of Tim Raines.
• He does have a niche -- as one of baseball's greatest switch-hitters
Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Dawson and Beltran are the only players in history with 300 or more homers and steals, 1,300 or more runs scored and RBIs, and 400 or more doubles, but Beltran is the only switch-hitter in that group.
Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones provided exceptional power from both sides of the plate. Tim Raines, Vince Coleman and Willie Wilson possessed the speed element, and Bernie Williams and Roberto Alomar brought a combination of both to the table. But no switch-hitter in history has provided a better amalgam of power and speed than Beltran has.
He's efficient too. Since 1950, only two major leaguers with at least 100 career stolen bases have posted a higher success rate than Beltran's 86.5 percent. One is Chase Utley. The other is Jayson Werth.
• He's a postseason monster
Among players with 100 or more postseason at-bats, Beltran is the career leader with a .782 slugging percentage and a 1.252 OPS. He's trailed by a couple of guys named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Beltran's 20-for-46 rampage with Houston in the first two rounds of the 2004 NL playoffs was one of the most mind-blowing displays of October dominance in baseball history.
A moderate 'wow' factor
Beltran isn't generally regarded as a player who will make fans postpone a trip to the concession stand, but his mastery of the subtleties contributes to his allure. Beltran's teammates talk about his intelligence as a player and how attuned he is to the rhythms of the game. Wainwright says there's not a more astute hitter in the majors at the art of ferreting out tipped pitches. If Beltran is watching and an opposing pitcher wiggles his glove when he's about to throw a changeup or his pupils dilate as he prepares to bring the heat, he's dead meat.
Those smarts translate to the field. Beltran has refined the art of charging balls deliberately enough to convince opposing baserunners that it might be a good idea to try to stretch singles into doubles or doubles into triples -- and then picking it up a notch and throwing a laser with accuracy. He's a Larry Walker-caliber baiter.
Beltran is happy to share his insights and little tricks with teammates. When rookie outfield sensation Oscar Taveras arrived at St. Louis' camp in spring training, manager Mike Matheny assigned him to groups with Beltran, Jon Jay and Molina so that he could embrace the Cardinal way and understand how to handle his responsibilities as a big leaguer.
"I've been in this game a long time," said Cardinals bench coach Mike Aldrete. "I watched Carlos Beltran and I knew he was a good player, but when we got him over here, I gained a whole new appreciation for who he is and what kind of player he is. It's not only on the field, but for what he does in this clubhouse. That's especially true in spring training. He has patience and knowledge, and he's willing give it to young players and even his contemporaries who might not be as good with the finer points of outfield play and baserunning. He's really good with teaching."
Beltran emanates a certain vibe as a fluid, stylish player (one writer has referred to him as "elegant") who makes tough catches look easy and drives balls into the bleachers without a lot of sound and fury. Even the scouts who praise him -- which is pretty much anyone with a stopwatch and a set of functioning eyes -- wonder if he always goes full-bore. Beltran's knee problems helped further that impression, particularly late in his tenure with the Mets.
"He's not Chase Utley out of the box," said an NL scout. "He does things so gracefully and effortlessly. If you're in a bad mood or you're not in the right frame of mind, you might think he's lazy. But over a period of time you realize, 'This is just the way the guy moves.' He's not a grinder or a guy who gets down and dirty. That's just his natural body demeanor."
Nevertheless, Beltran suits up and plays. He has appeared in 150 or more games seven times in his career and surpassed 160 games twice.
"He plays through a lot," said Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso, "and he doesn't let anybody know when it's bothering him."
Beltran underwent knee surgery in January 2010 amid a spat with Mets management, and the procedure did wonders for him. Although he still wears a brace on his right knee, it's more a precautionary measure that gives him peace of mind. He is no longer bothered by tendinitis in his right knee and doesn't even feel a need to ice it anymore.
As he's gotten older, he has become more conscious of the impact of diet on performance and appreciative of the need to throttle back occasionally. He'll spend one day lifting weights with his lower body and another doing upper-body work, making sure to use the third day to recuperate.
"When I was younger I used to go to the cage and kill myself hitting," Beltran said. "When you're young, sometimes you abuse your body and you don't think about it. As you mature and get older, you understand you don't have to do it as hard as you can every day. You need to manage yourself.
"I love being 36 and being able to compete with guys who are 21, 22 or 23. They have all the energy in the world. Maybe I don't, but I've got experience, and that's really valuable in this game."
Beltran doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon, but will he stay in St. Louis? The Cardinals will eventually have to make room in the lineup for first baseman Matt Adams and Taveras, whose progress has been slowed by an ankle injury this season, and they'll have only so many at-bats to go around. General manager John Mozeliak declined to address Beltran's status in an email to ESPN.com, saying "we will address next year's club in the offseason."
In a relatively thin free-agent market, Beltran should find plenty of other NL suitors and considerable interest from the American League, where he can extend his shelf life with the designated hitter option. The thought of sitting on the bench and waiting for his four at-bats a game is foreign to Beltran, but he knows it's a scenario he might be forced to entertain.
"I don't think about it, honestly," Beltran said. "As long as I'm healthy and I feel like I'm helping the team, then I just want to play this game. Right now, I'm 36. Sometimes you come to the ballpark and feel like you want to play three or four more years, and some days it's hard. Right now, honestly, I would say maybe three or four more years."
Beltran has always idolized his Puerto Rican countryman Roberto Clemente, who entered the Hall of Fame posthumously by special election in 1973. Clemente was a transcendent star who disappeared much too soon. Beltran, in contrast, is sneaking up on the Hall electorate one season at a time. If the voters pay close enough attention, he will one day pay homage to his hero on the steps of Cooperstown.