- Carlos Beltran experienced his fair share of heartbreak over his long career. In 2017, he finally got his World Series ring.
The 20-year career of Carlos Beltran had, before Wednesday night, consisted of seven teams, 2,586 games, 2,725 hits, 435 home runs, nine All-Star team appearances, a Rookie of the Year award, seven trips to the postseason, and a memorable called third strike on a curveball. It did not include that most coveted of pieces, though: the World Series ring. Seven times had Beltran's teams made it to the playoffs, and seven times had they come up short. He almost carried the Astros (in 2004) and the Mets (in 2006) to the Fall Classic, and he finally made it there with the Cardinals in 2013, but the peak of the mountain remained cruelly out of reach.
No longer. The Astros' Game 7 win over the Dodgers gave nearly every player on Houston's roster their first taste of a championship, but none more long-awaited than Beltran, who at 40 years old and coming off a wheezing season looks like he'll be able to walk away from the game (if he so chooses) with the ring he so richly deserved. If there's one objectively good thing that every fan can agree on at the conclusion of this season, it's Carlos Beltran finally winning a World Series.
More great players than you can count have put together legendary careers without the reward of a title to tie it all together. Ted Williams played in one World Series in his career, hit .200 in it, and lost. Barry Bonds, at the peak of his powers, clobbered four home runs and walked 13 times and was a one-man offense during the 2002 World Series, but he lost his only trip to the Fall Classic. Ernie Banks, Ralph Kiner, Juan Marichal, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski, Fergie Jenkins, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr.—Hall of Famers all, and between them not one ring (and in the cases of Banks and Kiner and Jenkins, never even a taste of the postseason). What other sport can boast so many all-time superstars who never once got to hoist a trophy? It's a cruel and random enterprise.
Baseball is seldom fair, but if anyone still in the league deserved to avoid the sad fate of Williams and Bonds and so many other greats who never got the glory, it's Beltran. His career has been an underappreciated marvel for two decades. In his prime, he was an almost perfect blend of power, patience and speed. His defense was otherworldly. He was arguably the most effective base stealer in the history of the game, with 312 swipes on a success rate of 86%; among all players with 100 or more career steals, that figure ranks second all-time, behind Chase Utley (88% with 151 stolen bases). His 69.8 career WAR is more than Manny Ramirez, Gwynn, Ivan Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Eddie Murray, Carlton Fisk, Ryne Sandberg, Banks, Robbie Alomar, Yogi Berra, Craig Biggio and Jackie Robinson, just to name a few.
But for as much as he did on the field, Beltran is just as important off of it. He's long been renowned as a clubhouse leader; that's the very reason the Astros brought him in last offseason, to be a mentor to a team full of young and inexperienced players (something he did for an equally youthful Yankees squad in 2016). Back in May, when I talked to Houston's stars about what had spurred their red-hot start to the season, they all pointed to the presence of Beltran as a source of wisdom and maturity, helping them weather the ups and downs of a big league year. "It's like a burst of fresh energy," said reliever Chris Devenski of Beltran. "When you have guys like that, it's a big-time push."
Beyond his mentorship, there's also the role that Beltran, who is Puerto Rican, has taken in helping Latino players throughout his 20 years as a major leaguer. He was a driving force in the move to have every team have a translator available for Spanish-speaking players. He has been a mentor and an example for countless Latino players across every organization he's played for, speaking as the voice of an older generation that paved the way. "At the end of the day, if we achieved it, if we made it, they can too," he told the Star-Ledger back in 2014 when he was with the Yankees. And he's been a hero for the people of Puerto Rico, donating millions of dollars to the island to help set up baseball academies and schools—and, recently, raising $1.3 million to help those affected by Hurricane Maria while being an outspoken voice on the plight of his native land.
In so many ways, Beltran is the ideal for what you want in a player. But he has been forever underrated, brilliant in ways that most fans didn't see. His performance in the 2004 NLCS for the Astros against the Cardinals—.417/.563/.958 with four home runs and four steals in an epic seven-game series—was completely overshadowed by Boston's comeback against the Yankees. He almost single-handedly won the pennant for the Mets in 2006, hitting .296/.387/.667 with three homers against the Cardinals in that year's NLCS, but the image forever frozen in your mind is Beltran standing stock still as Adam Wainwright breaks off the best curveball of his life. He was a high-OBP machine in the days before that became vogue, and his defense and hitting seemed so effortless as to feel like he wasn't trying hard enough; he was, in a sense, like the Latino J.D. Drew (or, better said, J.D. Drew was the white Carlos Beltran).
So let's celebrate, then, one of baseball's true good guys getting his just reward. For 20 years, he worked and battled and gave everything he had for teams that were never quite good enough. He was the GOAT and the goat, and despite struggling through arguably the worst year of his career in 2017, he was still there to guide players who were still in diapers when he stepped to the plate as a 21-year-old rookie against Buddy Groom and legged out an infield single to third base way back on Sept. 14, 1998. There's no guarantee that Beltran would have gotten one more chance; the likeliest scenario was him sitting at home as a free agent, waiting for a call from his agent that never came, or forced to sign a minor league deal and showing up to spring training as the cagey veteran on his last legs—one cut midway through March and forced to retire by a league that no longer wanted him.
That was the ending no one wanted to see. This one is far better. To those thousands of plate appearances, games, hits, words of advice to younger players, cheers and tears, Beltran gets to add that long-awaited ring. Now there awaits one last honor, and one just as deserved: a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, to join Williams and Banks and Griffey and all the rest.