The fact that baseball is a game is often used to diminish it. "A game" is almost always preceded by "just," and the phrase is meant to prove that baseball shouldn't be taken seriously, or to claim that it can't be held responsible for any significant influence, or to distract from everything else that it can be. Adrián Beltré did something different with this fact. His career was a celebration of baseball because it's a game, not despite it. In watching him, it was impossible to forget that it's all just a game—and he made that not just a good thing, but a beautiful one.
After 21 major-league seasons, Beltré announced his retirement on Tuesday. His record speaks for itself: 477 home runs, 1,707 RBIs, 3,166 hits. He was a four-time Silver Slugger, five-time Gold Glove, six-time finisher in the top ten for MVP. By Baseball-Reference, Beltré will retire with 95.7 WAR. Only 25 position players in the history of the game have accumulated more; the only third basemen ever to do so are Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews. It's a Hall-of-Fame career, and if there's any justice, it will be rewarded as such.
Yet none of these numbers do any justice to the experience of watching him play. Beltré's most striking feature was not his skill, though. It was his joy. To watch him was to understand that enjoying baseball and taking it seriously do not have to be mutually exclusive acts. Fun was not a luxury item in his game, rationed out and tacked on when it could be spared. Fun was his game, built into the foundation of everything that he did. He was here to play in every sense of the word.
They say that every baseball game will show you something that you've never seen before, but this sounds truer than it feels. The game is built on repetition, on a small set of potential outcomes, on predictive models that work more often than they don't. You usually have an idea of what's coming, even if you don't know exactly what it's going to look like. A batter goes on one knee for a wild swing, and so he'll whiff. A lazy pop-up is hit to the shortstop, and so he'll catch it. An umpire tells a guy to move into the on-deck circle, and so he'll move into the on-deck circle. And so on.
Beltré's baseball was not like this. Beltré's baseball saw the most mundane rhythms of the game as opportunities for joyous improvisation. Beltré goes on one knee for a wild swing, and he hits a home run. A lazy pop-up is hit to the shortstop, and it's the next act of an ongoing slapstick comedy routine between Beltré and teammate Elvis Andrus. An umpire tells Beltré to move into the on-deck circle, and so he grabs the on-deck circle and moves it over to where he's standing. Beltré played like he didn't believe in the idea of a routine out; as a result, nothing about his game was routine.
Part of Beltré's act was filling empty space. It was taking gaps in the action, moments typically skimmed over only because they cannot be skipped outright—the walk back to the dugout, the pause after a force out, the lead-up to the postgame celebration—and making them into little pockets of charm. These made for the clearest display of his humor, and they made for the best highlights: clowning around with an opposing pitcher, pretending to tackle a baserunner, grabbing a broom to defend himself from a shower of Gatorade. But all of this was just a small part of what made Beltré Beltré. The rest was in the game itself. It was the spirit of his swing, unleashed even at pitches that bounced in the dirt and flew above his head and ran way out of the zone. It was a set of soft hands at the hot corner, wielded with a special ferocity. You could call it a style, but that isn't quite right. It was an energy—crackling, kinetic, vital.
Beltré seemed to see something special in baseball; it looked like a source of purpose, not one of obligation. Without him, it's still a game. It just won't be nearly as much fun.