The first inning is still two hours away, but the most exciting 15 minutes of every Los Angeles Dodgers game day has arrived: the home run contest between third baseman Adrian Beltre and rightfielder Shawn Green during batting practice. They are perfect foils. The lefthanded Green, who owns the team season record for homers, with 49 in 2001, is 6'4" and lanky, all angles and leverage. The righthanded Beltre, who in this break-through season was only four homers shy of Green's record at week's end, is a 5'11", 220-pound physical specimen who produces terrifying bat speed. Beltre steps to the plate first, and after he hits a towering home run to dead center, Green announces to the small crowd assembled around the batting cage, "Game on, ladies and gentlemen."
"It's always on," Beltre snorts. "Don't think today is going to be a special day for you."
First-year hitting coach Tim Wallach leans against the cage, barking out the score. Wallach, who clubbed 260 homers in a 17-year major league career, invented the rules of this home run derby to encourage his sluggers to hit with power to the opposite field. Each hitter gets three turns in the cage and an equal number of swings per round. Any homer going the other way or to centerfield counts as one point. At Dodger Stadium--where on this night the boys in blue will take on the Arizona Diamondbacks--pulled homers are worth a point only if they reach the blue seats, which begin more than halfway up the bleachers, some 400 feet from home plate. An opposite-field homer that reaches the blue seats is worth an additional point, while a ball that lands anywhere on the roofing beyond the bleachers (500 feet away) is good for four points.
After Green rips two homers to left center, taking a 2-1 lead, Wallach says, "Belly, you're going to have to work for it because Green's feeling a little sexy today." Beltre promptly launches three bombs to rightfield on successive swings. "That's not even fair," Green mutters. Leaving the cage ahead 4-2, Beltre says nothing but gives Green a huge smile and a wicked cackle.
As Green returns to the plate, Dodgers equipment manager Mitch (Bones) Poole pleads, "Elevate, Greeny. Please." Only pride is at stake for the two hitters, but Poole and Wallach have a standing $20 bet in which Poole always gets Green.
Green leads 6-5 heading into the final round. He turns on a pitch and smokes a line drive off the rightfield foul pole. By now Dodgers senior vice president Tommy Lasorda has joined the crowd behind home plate, and he gushes, "That's how [Mike] Piazza used to hit 'em." But the homer doesn't count in this duel, and an intense Green offers only a two-word retort: "F--- Piazza."
Beltre steps in for his final turn, and with one swing left he's still down a point. Earlier in the season he trailed by three on his final trip but won with an epic blast onto the roof in left center. (In games only Piazza, Mark McGwire and Willie Stargell have gone that deep.) There are no such heroics this time, however. Beltre fouls off the last pitch and immediately crumples in half, laughing wholeheartedly and absorbing a chorus of good-natured disparagement.
Someone consoles Wallach on the $20 he lost, but he says with a shrug, "That's O.K. Belly's been taking care of me lately."
The payoff is not limited to BP. At week's end Beltre led the majors in home runs, with 45, and was third in the National League with a .340 batting average and fifth in the league with 106 RBIs. He has been the difference-maker for the Dodgers, who led the NL West by five games after taking two of three from the Cardinals last weekend. In 2003 L.A. was last in the majors in runs; with Beltre carrying the load this season the Dodgers are a respectable ninth in the NL, complementing the league's best defense, strong pitching and a deep bench. At 25 Beltre has emerged as an MVP front-runner. (The Dodger Stadium crowd chants MVP! during every at bat.) With Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds splitting the St. Louis Cardinals vote, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, among many others, sees a two-horse race between Beltre and Barry Bonds, whose San Francisco Giants ended the week in second place in the West but one game ahead in the wild-card race.
"You look at Bonds's on-base percentage [.614], his slugging percentage [.831]--the numbers are overwhelming, as they always are," says Tracy. "But you have to take it a step further. Adrian has done as much for his team as Bonds has--if not more--and we're in first place."
Beltre reflexively deflects praise to his teammates, but when pressed, he says, "There have been a couple moments this year where I've just stopped and said, 'Wow.' I am enjoying every minute of this. With all the expectations that have been around here through the years, it's an amazing feeling to have accomplished so much."
The expectations came with Beltre's precocious talent. The Dodgers signed the Dominican Republic native at 15 in 1994, violating major league baseball's minimum-age rule of 16, a transgression that did not come to light until five years later when the team was disciplined by the commissioner's office for having falsified documents relating to Beltre's age. He had reached the big leagues in '98 at 19, and in 2000 he hit .290 with 20 home runs and 85 RBIs in 138 games while playing superb defense at third. Beltre's ascension solidified a position that had seen seven different Opening Day starters during the '90s.
But Beltre's progress stalled in January 2001 when he suffered a ruptured appendix while at home in the Dominican Republic. He underwent a botched surgical procedure in Santo Domingo, and those around Dodgertown will not soon forget the sight of Beltre wearing a colostomy bag in spring training. Shortly before Opening Day he needed another surgery to close a wound from the first procedure, and it would be more than a year before he felt he had returned to full strength. He averaged 22 homers and 78 RBIs over the past two seasons while hitting a disappointing .257 in 2002 and .240 in '03. After signing Beltre to a one-year, $5 million contract for this year, the Dodgers' brass made it clear that they were out of patience waiting for his star to rise.
"He had to learn this game while playing at the major league level, and that's damn hard to do," says Lasorda, who as general manager in '98 brought Beltre to the bigs after only 64 games in Double A. "The talent was always there--that was never the question--but Adrian had to grow up."
Beltre matured in a hurry during the past off-season, when he and his wife, Sandra, welcomed their first child, Cassandra. Wallach is the other key addition. In spring training he closed Beltre's stance, producing better plate coverage, but more important, Wallach has instilled a new discipline in a free swinger who had 37 walks and 103 strikeouts last year. (At week's end Beltre had 41 walks and 77 whiffs this season.) The two have almost daily chats about the art of hitting, and through videotape Beltre has learned to break down how a particular pitcher will attack him at the plate. "I have a game plan every time I go up there now," he says. "I never really did before."
Then there are the effects of the batting-practice home run contest. "It has helped me a lot," says Beltre. "Before, when I wanted to drive the ball, I was only looking for a pitch on the inside half of the plate that I could pull. Now I know I can do damage going to rightfield, so I'm not trying to guess on pitches and I'm not swinging wildly at breaking stuff away. I just react."
Says Arizona ace Randy Johnson, "You used to be able to get him to chase your pitch. He'd get himself out. Now he's much more selective, and that's made him a lot more dangerous. You can see he's locked in up there every single time."
Beltre has pushed the Dodgers to the brink of their first playoff berth since 1996 while playing most of the year with bone spurs in his left ankle. That toughness is part of what has made him a team leader, but he's also beloved for his kindness. He's a regular visitor to the children's ward at L.A.'s White Memorial Medical Center. That compassion has grown out of Beltre's relationship with his 13-year-old brother, Elvin, whose meningitis at a young age left him with impaired speech and motor skills. Adrian calls Elvin in the Dominican Republic every other day and credits his brother with spurring him to reach out to disadvantaged kids.
Beltre leads in a stoic manner. He's a curious type who spends team flights with his nose buried in a laptop computer, creating elaborate playlists for his iPod. He will be a free agent this winter but has adopted a stance of studied indifference toward his contract status. (His agent, Scott Boras, calls Pujols's seven-year, $100 million deal "the starting point.") "I don't think about it," Beltre says. "I just want to play ball."
Despite the pressure of a pennant race, Beltre brings an obvious joy to the ballpark, and it's on display during every batting-practice home run derby. After being vanquished by Green the other day, Beltre offered a forced handshake and a little advice. "Greeny," he said, "enjoy your victory because I'm going to kick your butt tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day...."
The rest of the National League knows the feeling.