Thursday, July 28, 2011

Carlos, We Hardly Knew Ye

Normally, I don't write about my sports passions.
You think politics raises hackles, try being a sports fan.
Yesterday, a player of note left the New York Mets for a presumably better life: Carlos Beltran.
Beltran came of age in the 2004 season, specifically the 2004 playoffs. He set a major league record...actually, two, come to think of it. He was traded from the American League's Kansas City Royals to the National League's Houston Astros during the early part of July. He had been selected for the annual All Star game while with Kansas City, but was denied a spot on the NL roster until another player was injured, thus becoming the first player to make both leagues' All Star teams in the same season.
The record he's most noted for is hitting a home run in five consecutive post-season games. No player before or since has done that. Not even Babe Ruth.
The Mets signed him to an eye-popping $119 million, seven year contract in that off-season. And then the fun began.
In 2005, he dived head first into his teammate-- you read that correctly: both players were diving for a sinking line drive. In addition, he was nagged by leg injuries which limited his ability to run, field and hit. He still managed to produce numbers that the Mets could point to: a .266 batting average, 78 runs batted in, 83 runs scored and so on.
In 2006, largely injury free, Beltran tore up the league, hitting 41 home runs, and led the Mets to their last post-season appearance, one out away from the World Series.
In what would amount to signifying moment of his Mets career (and would sum up the futility of being a Mets fan in the 21st century,) Beltran made that final out, taking a called third strike in the bottom of the ninth of game 7 against the eventual champs, the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 2007, Beltran still put up good numbers-- he was one of the few bright spots in a disatrous September for the Mets, but you had the sense his age was catching up to him. In 2008, he started slowly, seemed lost at times at the plate and in the field, but managed to stay injury free and appeared in 161 games. And yet, the team collapsed from a seven game lead in the division to missing the playoffs on the final day of the season for the second season in a row. Many fans pointed to that called third strike in the 2006 playoffs as taking the swagger and confidence out of many players on the team.
Too, there were all kinds of off-field problems for the team as a whole. Then-manager Willie Randolph was under constant pressure from the general manager's office, most notably assistant GM Tony Bernazard (Google him. His story is fascinating.) Randolph was fired, and there were ugly rumours of racial motivation on the part of the management team (which was Hispanic) over Randolph (who is black.)
His replacement, Jerry Manuel, could do no better and in fact, was much worse than Randolph. The Mets tanked into a maze of injuries to key players, and yes, even Beltran joined the parade, opting for basically season-ending knee surgery in January without consulting the team first (he returned to the team on July 15, and hit a paltry .245)
And now he's been traded away. And I feel sad. Not because a player is gone, no, Beltran has value, the Mets (with their Madoff miasma) are going nowhere anytime soon, and so he deserves a better situation.
I'm sad because of what could have been for him here. In his just-short-of seven years with the Mets, he compiled a .280 batting average, hit almost 150 home runs, was a five-time All Star, four time Golden Glove winner, and yet only had one playoff appearance with the team. He put it out there, and got little in return.