Soon Carlos Beltran won't be able to cruise the produce section
of his grocery store without being recognized. The days of
uninterrupted trips to the mall and the movies with his wife,
Jessica, will be over. He is due to be sprung from baseball's
witness protection program, otherwise known as the Kansas City
Royals. The team with which he has spent his seven-year career
intends to trade the 27-year-old centerfielder. ¬∂ Though Beltran
has broken one of Mickey Mantle's switch-hitting records, joined
a select company of Hall of Famers with his combination of power
and speed, and established himself, according to Toronto general
manager J.P. Ricciardi, as "one of the top 15 players in
baseball--at least," he's recognized on shopping runs only
slightly more often than he's been selected to All-Star teams,
which is never.
Such a cloak of anonymity fits Beltran just fine. He's a
throwback player who loves to play defense, often begins
sentences with "I pray to God ..." (and means it), spends his
downtime on the road working out with his personal trainer,
signals his love to his wife before every at bat (he draws a j in
the back of the batter's box with his bat) and carries himself
with quiet humility. As teammate Brian Anderson says, with only
slight exaggeration, "Once every two weeks he'll say something in
the clubhouse, just to remind us he's here."
"I pray to God I can be a great player, but I want to keep my
life," Beltran said last week. "I don't want to be hiding from
people. It would be difficult to be recognized everywhere, so
that I couldn't do things ordinary people can do. I love to go to
the grocery store or the movies or go to the mall and be just an
ordinary person. In Kansas City they don't know who I am. Same
thing when I'm home in Puerto Rico. I like that."
The beginning of the end of Beltran's ordinary life occurred on
June 10, when Royals G.M. Allard Baird, watched his team drop a
doubleheader to the woeful Montreal Expos to fall to 21-36. The
next day he said he was ready to deal his centerfielder. The
declaration had the effect around baseball of throwing a slab of
sirloin toward a pack of junkyard Dobermans. The Yankees, Red
Sox, Athletics, Angels, White Sox, Marlins, Padres and Dodgers
have not stopped drooling since.
Part of Beltran's appeal is that he is the only impact player
available on the trade market with the July 31 deadline on the
horizon. The other players available, such as pitchers Freddy
Garcia and Gil Meche of the Seattle Mariners and Kris Benson of
the Pittsburgh Pirates, are uninspiring. With so many teams still
harboring playoff aspirations--at week's end, 19 of the 30 major
league clubs were within five games of a playoff spot--few are
ready to part with pivotal players. "Maybe on July 25, once a few
other teams begin to fall, other players will be available," says
one G.M. monitoring the Beltran front. "But I think Beltran will
be traded by the end of [this] month. He has impact on all three
phases of the game. He's a terrific hitter from both sides of the
plate, he's probably the best base runner in the game, and he
plays great defense. Those guys are rare."
At week's end Beltran, a career .287 hitter, was batting .281
with 13 homers, 48 RBIs (sixth in the league) and a .522 slugging
percentage, which would match the best of his career if it held.
Beltran also had 14 steals. Naturally, he was running a distant
seventh among AL outfielders in All-Star voting. "I pray to God
one day I get to be in an All-Star Game," he says.
Says Ricciardi of the noncontending Jays, "The game looks like it
comes easy to him. He does so many things well. The Royals won't
get as much as they would have gotten in the off-season, but I
think he'll be traded."
Baird has told interested teams he'd like to get a young third
baseman and a promising catcher in return for Beltran, whose
value is reduced by his desire to test the free-agent market in
November. According to one AL source, Baird was in Sacramento
last week to watch Mark Teahen, Oakland's Triple A third baseman,
who would be the key to a deal with the A's. The Red Sox and the
Yankees each have the third baseman-catcher fit the Royals are
seeking: Boston can offer third baseman Kevin Youkilis and Triple
A catcher Kelly Shoppach, while New York can dangle Double A
prospects Robinson Cano, recently moved from second to third, and
Dioner Navarro, a catcher.
Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, calls his client "a 60-day rental,"
and adds, very reasonably, that "given his age and the fact that
he plays a premium position, he'll be the most coveted player to
come on the [free-agent] market since Alex Rodriguez."
Asked what he'll look for from a new employer this winter,
Beltran, who is making $9 million this season, mentioned two
things: that the team be a contender--the Royals had a winning
record and finished within 15 games of first place only once in
his six previous seasons--and that he remain in his beloved
Beltran grew up playing shortstop in Puerto Rico, until one day
the centerfielder on Beltran's youth team could not make a game,
and the manager asked for a volunteer to replace him. Beltran,
then 15, raised his hand. He liked the position so much that when
the regular centerfielder returned for the next game, Beltran
refused to go back to short. "No, I want to play center. Either
that, or I'm going home." He's been in center ever since.
"I love it," he says. "Running after balls, diving, taking a home
run away, it gives me such a good feeling. I am happy to do it."
Says Royals righthander Jason Grimsley, "What's routine for him
is spectacular for anybody else. There's nothing he doesn't do
well. If there was such a thing as a six-tool player, he'd be it.
He's one of the best players you'll ever see."
The Royals selected him in the second round of the 1995 draft and
assigned him to their Gulf Coast rookie league affiliate. The
6'1" Beltran weighed 155 pounds, spoke no English--his diet
consisted of fast-food meals he could point to and order by
number--batted only righthanded and hit no home runs while
finishing the season with a .278 average. "I cried every single
day," he says. "It was the first time away from my family, first
time being in the United States. I always knew, though, if I
worked hard I would make it. I knew I was blessed."
To improve--and because he wanted to stay in the lineup every
day--Beltran taught himself to switch-hit the following winter,
unbeknownst to the Royals. He sought advice from the New York
Yankees' Bernie Williams, a fellow Puerto Rican and a smooth,
switch-hitting centerfielder cut from the same mold. Williams
told him to hit often off a batting tee and work on an inside-out
swing. One night in June 1996, while playing with the Royals
short season Class A team in Spokane, Beltran told his manager he
was a switch-hitter and then banged out three hits lefthanded. He
was in the big leagues two years later, at 21, and was the
American League Rookie of the Year the season after that.
In 2002 he broke Mantle's AL record for most extra-base hits in a
season by a switch hitter, with 80 to the 79 Mantle had when he
was 24. Last year Beltran joined Hall of Famers George Sisler,
Honus Wagner, Kiki Cuyler and Ty Cobb and future Hall of Famer
Barry Bonds as the only players to have three or more seasons
with 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. Moreover, his 87.7%
career success rate makes him history's toughest base stealer to
His teammates buzz daily about trade rumors while Beltran waits
with his typical serenity. "I know this is a business," he says.
"[A trade] is out of my control. I used to think it would be neat
to play my whole career with one team. But as a baseball player
you want to come to the ballpark every day knowing you have a
chance to win and that the game means something. That's what I
His time has come. A frenzied trade market and a pennant race
would be enough to blow Beltran's cover. The ordinary life of
this extraordinary player might never be the same again.
"If there was such a thing as a SIX-TOOL PLAYER, he'd be it,"
says Jason Grimsley. "He's one of the best players you'll ever