After their first day off in three weeks, the Mets prepare to host the St. Louis Cardinals over the weekend. The four-game set is significant in many ways: it is New York’s last home series before they embark on a brutal road stretch (the Capital, the Bronx, the Trop); it is the team’s first appearance in front of a national, primetime audience this season when they play on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball; it also marks the return of one of the greatest and paradoxically underrated men to ever put on an Amazin’ uniform.
Now batting for the St. Louis Cardinals, the right fielder, #3, Carlos Beltran.
That’s right, Carlos Beltran makes his first visit to Citi Field after his tenure with the Mets ended last July. Beltran was shipped off to San Francisco in the middle of a series in Cincinnati (a series my dad and I went to – I’ll bet we passed him on the Interstate), and Sandy Alderson got future ace Zack Wheeler in return. Over the offseason, Carlos signed a two-year deal with St. Louis worth $26 million; he was seen as the glue that would hold the Redbirds together after Albert Pujols’s defection to the California sun. At the time, such sentiment was seen as laughable: sure, Beltran was a superstar once, but he was a far cry from the man the Mets signed for $119 million over seven years way back in 2005.
But here we are two months into the season, and oh, how the tables have turned. Carlos is batting .294 and making Busch Stadium look like a Little League park: his 15 home runs lead the National League and 42 RBIs put him second behind the Dodgers’ Andre Ethier. Meanwhile, Phat Albert spent the first month and a half of the season counting his quarter of a billion dollars before realizing it was time to come out and play. The result is an Angel squad that only now is back up to .500 and a Cardinal bunch thoroughly entrenched in the pennant race, led by he who for six and a half years was doing the same for his weekend’s gracious hosts.
There is no doubt Carlos Beltran was great during his years in Flushing: a 5-time All-Star, he batted .280 in 839 games (averaging just over one hit per contest), notching 149 home runs, 208 doubles, and 559 RBIs. He was a hard worker and mentor to the younger players, especially Jose Reyes and David Wright, whose own leadership has taken a prominent role this season. He had one of the greatest individual seasons in Met history in 2006, hitting 41 round-trippers and driving in 116 runs, good enough for the Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and 4th place in the NL MVP voting. That year he led his team to a division title and to within a game of the World Series. And to top that off, there was this bit on Conan O’Brien days after his signing. Awesome.
There were also the not-so-great moments in Carlos’s Queens career: his quiet, workman-like demeanor did not fully satisfy the fans who wanted some “rah-rah” emotion from their expensive superstar. Knee problems kept him out for half the 2009 and 2010 seasons and hampered his ability when he came back in July 2010. And while he may have had one of the best seasons ever in 2006, the indelible image from that year will be Carlos taking The Curveball from Adam Wainwright in Game 7 of the NLCS. The frustration with this missed potential boiled over last May with Fred Wilpon’s “Snakebitten” piece in The New Yorker.
Despite the love-hate relationship with the fans in New York, I hope Mets fans will be able to look past all that and give Carlos Beltran a warm welcome when he takes his first at-bat on Friday night. I myself have had to deal with these conflicting emotions in the past: for years I could never forgive Carlos for taking the strike that lost the pennant. But I’ve realized that scapegoating Beltran for that moment is just plain unfair. For one thing, holding on to that kind of anger is useless; it leads nowhere and hurts everyone involved unnecessarily. Forgive and forget. Besides, without Carlos, the Mets don’t get nearly as close to the World Series in 2006; he did more than his part in the regular season and in that NLCS (3 HRs, 4 RBIs, 1.054 OPS). As great as he was, he couldn’t have gotten a hit every time; that notion is quite literally impossible in baseball, where the very best statistical hitter in history (Ty Cobb) failed to get a hit in 63% of his at-bats. and a guy is doing great at the plate if he fails “just” 70% of the time. Finally, it didn’t help that Adam Wainwright chose that moment on October 19, 2006, to throw the best pitch he will ever throw in his career. Carlos was already on the next pitch when the darn thing snapped from 12-to-6. (Coincidentally, it is Wainwright who will take the hill Friday night against the Mets, only this time Beltran’s thinking will be far from revenge.)
Carlos seemed to mend his image with Mets fans before being dealt last season. His 15 HRs and 66 RBIs in 98 games reminded folks of why he came to New York in the first place. He received a standing ovation in what turned out to be his final home at-bat at Citi Field. And most recently, Beltran was voted the greatest centerfielder in New York Mets history, earning 68% of the vote on SNY’s MetsBlog. But the last bit of medicine can be administered just after 7:00 on Friday night if, after the P.A. man announces the St. Louis right fielder, the Citi Field faithful stand up and give some love to their former #15.