Beltre, from the Nutcracker to the Hall of Fame?

Adrian Beltre at second after ripping a double down the line off Wade Miley for number 3,000 . . .

Adrian Beltre at second after ripping a double down the line off Wade Miley for number 3,000 . . .

By his own profession, the best moment in Adrian Beltre’s life wasn’t the hard line drive he smashed past third base for hit number 3,000 Sunday afternoon. And it would have been moment enough for a Hall of Famer in waiting on the day they inducted Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez—himself a longtime Ranger—into the Hall.

The moment the Rangers’ third baseman loved the most was what happened right after he pulled up at second base. When his three children ran toward him before deking and heading to the right field wall, where they unveiled a logo honouring the milestone rip. Then they ran back in to hug the daylights out of their accomplished father.

“When I saw that, I felt like I was in the cloud,” the 38-year-old third baseman told reporters, “because I really saw the joy in their faces. It was a nice moment to enjoy with them, my family, my wife.” In due course, he gave himself a rare accolade: “We have a lot of great baseball players in the Dominican Republic, and I’m proud to be one of them.”

Even the Orioles, who had a 4-0 lead when Beltre swung 3-0 on starting pitcher Wade Miley, could only be impressed. Of course, they could afford to be, since they got back to business and eventually finished a 10-6 win, on an afternoon Beltre’s Rangers teammate Rougned Odor hit two home runs, a solo in the sixth and a two-run job in the eighth with Beltre himself aboard.

“We couldn’t have drawn it up better where we win and we get a chance to see that,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter after the game. “Everybody in the game has a lot of respect for him, not only statistically but the way he’s handled success over the years.”

Beltre has been described as possibly the only on-field stoic who has more fun than most people in the game. Just days earlier, he couldn’t resist when plate umpire Gerry Davis, working a game between the Rangers and the Marlins, ordered him to stand on the on-deck circle proper (Beltre, like many players, likes to stand just off it) and Beltre simply moved the Rangers-logo circle pad a couple of feet toward himself.

Inexplicably, Davis ejected Beltre. Fans have since been reported trying to send Davis a sense of humour.

This is a player whose trademark swing isn’t necessarily one you want your kids to emulate but works like a charm for him, the knee-drop that’s been his trademark almost as acutely as his rangy play at third base. A player who once dropped to his knee and fell on a swinging strike, corkscrewing one full rotation on that knee, then picked himself up, dusted himself off, dropped to his knee on the next swing and hit it over the left center field fence.

Beltre is the first Dominican and the third third baseman to reach 3,000 hits, after Wade Boggs and George Brett. He probably leads them and everyone else in the 3,000-hit club with whatever his batting average is when he takes a knee. As it is, the .286 lifetime average he has at this writing is higher than Craig Biggio, Carl Yastrzemski, Robin Yount, and Dave Winfield and one tick beneath Eddie Murray.

Extra bases are a particular passion of Beltre’s. Through today, over 36 percent of his lifetime hits have gone for extra bases. In the 3,000-hit club, it puts him below four of the club’s top five home run hitters. In ascending order: Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Rafael Palmeiro, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez. And he’s thirteenth on the all-time doubles list. I’m not sure baseball has a triple-double measure, but Beltre would have to be high enough on that stick.

If you think of Beltre only as a machine with the bat, you ought to be reminded that he’s been likewise in the field. FanGraphs ranks him the number eleven defensive player of all time, any position, and second among all third baseman. Using the figure of defensive runs saved above average, Beltre’s +246 is second only to Brooks Robinson. They called Robinson the Hoover. They ought to call Beltre the Electrolux.

By the way, Beltre is only 46 shy of 500 home runs. He may have missed the first two months of this season with a calf injury, but nobody’s putting it past him to reach that milestone, maybe next year. Maybe even on Hall of Fame day.

You didn’t realise he was that good, either, though the Dodgers certainly did—they busted baseball rules to sign him at age 15 out of the Dominican Republic, which cost them a year of scouting in the area and compelled then-commissioner Bud Selig to award Beltre $48,500 in damages. And his defense was Hall of Fame caliber right out of the chute. Beltre almost literally learned to harness his hitting ability on the job.

It probably didn’t help that he spent his first eleven seasons in home parks that could have killed him at the plate, never mind that somehow he led the National League in home runs with 48 in his final Dodger season. In his first Seattle season he was considered a huge bust; again, Beltre learned on the job. He also admitted he overdid it trying to live up to his first big free agency payday.

Then he learned the hard way about playing third base without a protective cup, which he’d done his entire career to that point, when a hard smash injured a certain part of his anatomy in 2007. He returned after two weeks. As he approached the plate for his first at-bat back, the Safeco Field public address system played “March of the Toy Soldiers”—from The Nutcracker. Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. arranged for that little homecoming gift.

Exactly one year to the day later, Beltre became the fourth Ranger to hit for the cycle. Ever. And he still plays without a cup. Forget the Nutcracker. This guy’s walkup music ought to be “Great Balls of Fire.” You didn’t see that, Junior.

His life with the Rangers has evened out his home-road splits. Spending one season in Boston plus his Ranger years in parks that were great for him, his lifetime splits now show him hitting two points higher on the road with equal home runs at home and traveling. He has 45 more runs batted in on the road lifetime, but he could balance that budget before his career is over.

Beltre’s been one of those Hall of Famers who sneaks up on you. He hasn’t got a lot of black ink; in fact, he’s only ever led his league in any of the counting stats three times: he led the National League in home runs (48) in his final season with the Dodgers who reared him; he led the American League in doubles in his only season with the Red Sox; he led the league in hits in his third Rangers season, when he came up one short of 200.

“The trouble with baseball,” said Frank Howard, a behemoth who hit his share of balls into interplanetary orbit, “is that by the time you learn how to play, you can’t play anymore.” Beltre’s made a liar out of him.

Always a human tank at third base, it took a long enough while for Beltre the hitter to catch up to Beltre the defender. When it did, pitchers began to rue that particular period with hitters having already figured out that the only way to get past him was hit them where he wasn’t, usually in the air.

At the rate he’s going, and he looks like he has miles to go before he sleeps in baseball terms, Beltre could become only the second third baseman ever to reach 100+ wins above a replacement-level player. That would put him in Mike Schmidt’s territory. He’s only twelve behind Schmidt’s 106.5.

Except that if he gets there he’ll leave Schmidt behind in one way: Schmidt was a solid defender but only 17.6 of his WAR comes from defense. Of Beltre’s 92.4 WAR, 27.7 comes from defense—and he’s the career leader among active players. All-time, that 27.7 puts him eleventh at any field position.

Baseball has enough problems marketing its more obvious superstars. Trying to market one as quiet as Beltre has been the impossible dream, even if he’s a fun lover in the clubhouse and with his family. But he’s liable to have the last laugh. The guy who rapped his 3,000th hit on Hall of Fame day will stand at the Cooperstown podium with his own Hall of Fame plaque.

It’s not certain someone else will slap his own 3,000th hit on that day, but it is certain that Beltre will have as much of a good time as he still does playing the game. Just keep Ken Griffey, Jr. away from the P.A. system. And don’t invite Jerry Lee Lewis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>