On the Outside, Looking

Facing elimination again, a lifelong fan tries to understand why the championship that has eluded Carlos Beltran matters so personally.

I was in high school when a rookie Adam Wainwright was acting-closer for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 MLB playoffs. The entirety of the postseason happened between French tests and SAT prep.

I was in high school when, as a Mets fan, I devoted all my spare time to a team that convinced me it would smoke the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, despite lugging around a starting rotation of 40-year old Tom Glavine, 25-year old John Maine, Roberto Hernandez trade throw-in Oliver Perez and Steve Trachsel, of 15 wins with a nearly five ERA fame. Crucially, I was convinced before October 19th, 2006—the night of Game 7 of the NLCS against the Cardinals. St. Louis pushed us to the brink, but the brink was a detour on the path to our own ticker tape, not an edge to really, actually tumble off. For much of October 19th, 2006, the prospect of losing was a surreal unlikelihood, a thought you pay some mind to out of courtesy but are detached from. Its gravity didn’t register.

A high-powered offense will equip you with irrational confidence. The 2006 Mets had seven players hit double-digit home runs, with the middle of the lineup accounting for over 100 home runs and over 340 RBI between them. A young Jose Reyes flirted with a 4×20 (stolen bases, doubles, triples and home runs) season, and a just-as-young David Wright added a second plus-four bWAR to an impressive early-career ledger.

All that pop was punctuated by an MVP-level season from Carlos Beltran.

Beltran’s first year in New York was inconsistent and unfortunately gory (I won’t link to his collision with Mike Cameron, but if you’re interested in it for some reason, look it up). His second season delivered on hype. 41 homers, 116 driven in, a .982 OPS, an All-Star nod and a Gold Glove. Supported by Wright and Carlos Delgado, Beltran turned in a top-two season in the National League, and was the best player on the best team in baseball.

I was in high school when I attached a lot to Carlos Beltran in the bottom of the 9th of NLCS Game 7 just over 11 years ago to the day. Even with an 0-2 count—a notoriously difficult count to produce in—and even with two outs—a notoriously difficult scenario to add runs in—Beltran failing was a surreal unlikelihood, a vague possibility in a scenario that supported the outcome we got, not the outcome I wanted. I wanted to see us win. I wanted to see him win.

For some reason, I still do.

***

The baseball season is so long, its abrupt conclusions feel like they came about for shock value alone. Six to eight months of buildup, of character arcs and rich plot progression can end catastrophically—that is, total loss, no retries—in a week, sometimes slightly more, often even less. To pile on, it’s usually the end that carries any notable shelf life. That’s great for one team, but it fucking sucks for 29 others.

For everything the 2006 Mets did, that season’s remaining vibrancy comes from three plays.

For about four years after the 2006 NLCS, I watched THE Endy Chavez catch about once a week. Even now, the clip will cycle through nighttime highlight browsing. It still carries euphoria. It’s a blip during a long season, a couple of seconds of a play that ranks 70th on the game’s win probability chart. It doesn’t matter a ton in calculated baseball parlance. It matters a lot more to a pulse.

I’ll periodically add Yadier Molina’s tie-breaking ninth-inning home run to my nostalgia trip, mostly when the reel needs melancholy.

The one clip that’s purposely omitted from any of this is Beltran’s at-bat in the bottom of the ninth. Here it is:

There are three reasons I don’t regularly watch this clip. First, since 2006, both Wainwright and Beltran have been consistently involved in postseason baseball. The clip has made its way on to involuntary playlists regularly enough. Just because I haven’t actively sought it out doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it in the 11 years since.

Second, its vibrancy in my memory is so bright, I don’t need to re-watch it to clearly remember the at-bat. I might’ve forgotten who was sitting behind home plate or how St. Louis celebrated afterwards, but the refresher isn’t totally necessary. The important details can be conjured with striking clarity at a moment’s notice.

And third, I just don’t want to watch Carlos Beltran like that.

Understand what Carlos Beltran means, both back then and since. He was, through an admittedly subjective lens, about as close to organic perfection as there was at the early turn-of-the-century. He played with a looseness that translated to humble confidence. Everything in his game was refined until he was polished, understated brilliance over nine innings. His swing was steady and swift, a routine cut through air and baseball with no jagged hitches: bend at the knees, see the ball, crush the ball. In the field, Beltran strode elegantly, covering square feet effortlessly on elongated legs like a compass charting a map of known outfields. He reached top speed without a violent gallop, instead gliding across swaths of grass the way fishing spiders cruise over water.

Something about him made him an easy foil to the remnants of steroid era superstars. Maybe because he was fallible in a way Barry Bonds wasn’t. More likely, it was body-type; though tall and fit, Beltran was never bursting at the buttons like Bonds, Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire. Personality played a role for the people that mattered to. He wasn’t brash or egotistical or disrespectful, epithets handed out to Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, among many other stars (a majority of them Latin—there was a racial bias at play here, make no mistake) of the time. He was confident and his on-field ability spoke loudest for him. He spent much of his early years as either a ray of hope in the deep abyss of Kansas City baseball, or a budding all-timer who nearly carried a Houston Astros team on his bat in 2004. And he did it without tangible attachment to the requisite rumors of the time. He wasn’t someone the average fan, exhausted from the constant churn of the performance enhancing rumor mill, wanted to see crash and burn.

At his peak, Beltran was as close to a baseball paragon as you could find once MLB decided to stop looking the other way on PED use. He wasn’t universally applauded; in the immediate aftermath of the steroid era, no one was immune to speculation; leaving Kansas City and then Houston for a big market added blemishes to his reputation for many. Signing a nine-figure deal in an era where that still earned some open antagonism guaranteed blowback. But by and large, and especially for a fan of the uniform Beltran wore, a high-profile failure would seem comparably unjust in a way it wouldn’t for, say, Rodriguez or Bonds.

Beltran doesn’t get a lot of credit for what he accomplished during his Mets tenure. His time in Flushing started with enormous expectations that New York never came close to meeting after 2006. 2007 and 2008 are marked by September collapses, and around then, the fans moved on to fawning over Reyes and especially Wright. 2006 was undoubtedly the high point of his Mets stay, but in his final four and change years in blue and orange, he was an All-Star three times and a Gold Glover twice. Injuries robbed him of playing time in 2009 and 2010, and he was traded in 2011. In the end, the prominent positive memory of Beltran’s time in Queens was Zach Wheeler.

Since leaving the National League side of New York, Beltran has featured on teams with postseason intentions and even legitimate World Series aspirations. Yet he has always come up short of the ring teased in 2004 and ’06. He went to the San Francisco Giants first, amid their even-year World Series run. He was there in an odd year. Then, it was to St. Louis, where he made the World Series for the first time in 2013, only to succumb to a stellar Boston Red Sox squad. Three years in the Bronx followed, and he was traded to the Texas Rangers a year before the Yankees’ current magical run. Now he’s at the threshold once more, and once again, he’s dangerously close to missing the cross.

I’m not the only one that wants Beltran to succeed. A ring for him has become a lifetime achievement award, as seen by baseball writers and fans. Beltran, by most accounts, is a guy who played the game the right way, and saw the potential heights of his career become unobtainable because of bad luck. He found longevity when longevity looked unlikely six or seven years ago. By my estimation, he’s had a Hall of Fame career that could use a championship capstone, but doesn’t necessarily require one. It would be nice, though, and I’m not alone in thinking as much.

But my desire to see Carlos Beltran win the World Series feels a little different. There’s the element of what he deserves, and a wish to see the wraith of 0-2 curveball outside corner exorcised. A hometown team connection starts to make sense of it, but like the other elements along with, these things are as shared and objective as subjective reasons can be.

Seeing Beltran succeed feels more personal.

***

I think sports fans generally break down into two groups: those that can compartmentalize sports near-completely, and those that let sports bleed into other parts of their lives. I think the former is uncommon, while the latter breaks down into at least two more sub-categories: those who can control the bleed, and those who hemorrhage on every success and failure of their home team.

I mentioned I was in high school during the 2006 NLCS. Back then, I was firmly in group two, sub-category two. I went to high school in Queens, surrounded by Mets fans. So much of what we were at the time was intertwined with that Mets era. High school brought a lot of us together like skin around assorted bones. The Mets, for the circle I turned in, were our connective tissue. Guys like Beltran and Wright were so seminal to us, they were practically buddies of our own.

The Mets teams between 2006 and 2008 were blood-in-veins important to me. I lived and died on their wins and losses. The crossover between fandom and life-dom was so hopelessly fused, their shortcomings directly influenced my own. Whole winters became sunk costs because we never won a World Series back then. The ends of those seasons felt cruel and driven by shock value. Like failure in baseball, those three winters are vivid.

Now just over 11 years to the day removed from that pitch and that take, I’ve aged out of the highest highs and lowest lows associated with both the Carlos Beltran era and jersey fanaticism. That personal life/fandom life crossover that can be satisfying and detrimental all the same isn’t as pertinent. But it isn’t neatly wrapped and properly concluded either. Distant as Beltran’s time in Queens is, what it never became lingers, even if its only a remnant pang that thuds intermittently. Of the limited residuals from the mid-2000 Mets still left, Beltran winning a ring has the best shot at being belatedly, vicariously fulfilling in the very-near future.

Recently, I’ve crossed paths with plenty of familiar faces, a by-product of being a decade removed from the high school/fandom abyss. We’re a little older in a “passage of a notable amount of time” kind of way. We’re wiser, too. Allegedly, anyway. I’ve met a bunch of beloved old friends who have accomplished great things even while our beloved team hasn’t.

I think that’s why I personally want Carlos Beltran to get that elusive ring: I’d like to see all my beloved old friends accomplish great things, even if what brought us closest together doesn’t.

As a final nod to that volatile era of life/fandom crossover I’ve moved away from, I’d like to have a little piece of a great thing for myself.

Khurram Kalim is a staff writer for Bronx to Bushville.

Advertisements