The incomparable Carlos Beltran

Moment of clarity There are going to be plenty of tributes to personal favorite Carlos Beltran once he’s no longer a member of the Mets, which looks like it’s going to be any day now, but I figure I’d get a slight head start. I’ve never met Beltran, but I have a few anecdotes to share.

And as Kanye West said, people never get the flowers when they can still smell ‘em.

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I don’t think Beltran was ever wired to be a New York sports superstar in the conventional sense. In a city where archaic relics like WFAN and the New York Post are still relatively significant entities, colorful personality and amplified volume are valued by the lunatic fringe just as much as athletic talent and leading by example.

Beltran transitioned from an underappreciated superstar to an injury-prone scapegoat, and has now settled in as simply a very good baseball player. The criticism has mostly waned, replaced by an underlying wistfulness as it sinks in that a significant Mets era is about to end.

It has dawned on even Beltran’s staunchest, most irrational detractors — Joe Benigno comes to mind — that their bitterness and anger was completely misplaced. You still see the tired “Blame Beltran” meme pop up at times, but it’s mostly invoked out of sarcasm, and at this point those comments are as superfluous and garish as the ones they intend to mock.

Above the fray, Beltran continues to have this quiet elegance about him as the twilight of his career gradually grows larger on the horizon.

Beltran was magnificent in center field for the Mets, and as his aging body has dictated, he seamlessly transitioned to right field without the public aggrandizing to which we’ve become accustomed. (Consider Derek Jeter’s recent contract negotiations.)

He has perennially been a productive and dangerous hitter, and he seems to glide on the basepaths with efficiency that some wrongly perceived to be a lack of effort. We’ve also seen Beltran emerge as more of a vocal leader, a trait he’s always been said to lack, though maybe it simply was never noticed that he’s always been this way.

Perhaps with four of the other five top players on the team on the shelf, Beltran’s light was finally free to shine through.

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I feel like when we look back at the vicarious connections we form with our favorite players, it’s less about what they were when we watched them, and more about what we were.

I’ve mentioned before that to get my foot in the door at the sports website I work for now, I took an overnight job during the 2004 baseball season. I have so many indelible memories from my first job in sports — Schilling’s bloody sock, Pedro’s midget, that damned Kazmir trade, that one incredible Jose Lima NLDS start — not to mention his lovely wife.

Iconic All of those are filtered through the prism of a primarily nocturnal existence. I would wake up in the middle of the afternoon and start mentally preparing myself to get on a 12:30 a.m. bus to New York City, then get caught up on the night’s baseball action when I got to the office. In between, I’d stop somewhere to drink tea, collect my thoughts and people-watch.

During the final month of the 2004 regular season and the entirety of the postseason, I was asked to record an podcast every night on the overnight, though I don’t know if “podcasts” even existed back then. I was to summarize the day’s scores and significant stats, splicing them together with audio highlights from the games. (I endeavored to find particularly absurd John Sterling clips.)

I don’t recall much in particular from those podcasts, which I doubt a whole lot of people purchased at, if I recall, $1.99 a pop.

The only thing I distinctly remember is habitually saying, “The incomparable Carlos Beltran,” in an unabashed rip-off of the call on that Michael Vick touchdown from 2002 vs. the Vikings.

After arriving from Kansas City, Beltran had been very, very good in his 90 regular-season games for Houston; he hit .258/.368/.559, with 23 home runs and 28 steals without being caught.

But he was absolutely mind-bending in October. Beltran hit .435/.536/1.022 with eight home runs and six steals and scored 21 runs in 12 games. He played outstanding defense. No amount of superlatives can suffice; he was flat-out beyond description.

I’d liked Beltran as a Royal, drafted him every year I could in fantasy, and I loved the concept of him becoming the greatest hired gun of all time, the equivalent of renting the 1977 Reggie Jackson for the stretch run. The Astros ended up losing NLCS Game 7 to the Cardinals; no coincidence that it was one of just two postseason games that Beltran didn’t manage a hit.

That October remains fresh in my mind, as is the frigid morning the following January when I arrived home after an overnight shift and managed to stay awake long enough to watch the Mets introduce Beltran at a press conference, after already having signed Pedro Martinez.

I was transitioned off the overnight shift three months later, but Beltran and Pedro remained on my favorite team for a few years as walking reminders that a very challenging period in my life nevertheless had some truly positive moments to take with me.

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Beltran’s seven-year tenure with the Mets is sort of a blur to me. For one, I’ve attempted to put much of the past few seasons out of my mentality the way you do with anything you don’t really want to remember that closely.

1 of 1A few things do stand out. The collision with Mike Cameron is one, and thankfully it didn’t permanently wreck either one of them. The run up Tal’s Hill in the 17-inning game is another.

And of course, there was his home run off the scoreboard in Game 1 of the 2006 NLCS against the Cardinals at Shea Stadium, the one playoff game I’ve thus far seen in person. Earlier in the day, I had run 20 miles preparing for the New York Marathon. Darryl Strawberry threw out the first pitch.

For a myriad of reasons, it was an unforgettable moment in time for me.

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The Wainwright curveball, while overshadowing that dent in the Shea scoreboard, doesn’t in the least take away from Beltran’s consistent excellence and grace, nor do a couple years of knee issues, and it’s disappointing a good number of people never got over it.

But my favorite Beltran moment will forever be October 2004. I had a Beltran Astros jersey made up a few years back; I like to break it out sometimes and think about a year of my life when I would work all night, hoping the lost hours of sleep would someday pay off and help me get to where I wanted to be.

I’ll obviously miss Carlos Beltran on the Mets, but this is how sports works: Nobody stays forever. Darryl heads west, Doc flames out, Piazza gets old.

And yet, when you need them, they’re always there — to help you remember where you came from, and to measure how far you’ve come.

Esoteric

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