The Mets take a hearty Beltran

2019-11-02 CarlosBeltran
From crossing home as a Mets player to coming home as their new manager.

Leave it to a few too many Met fans. The organisation hires one of the best respected former players in the game to manage the team, and all they can remember is that he was frozen solid to end the 2006 National League Championship Series.

So let’s get it out of the way once and for all. No, I wasn’t any more thrilled than you when the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright nailed Carlos Beltran with strike three to end that NLCS. Especially after Beltran to that point had thirty at-bats in that NCLS before that one, with three bombs, four steaks, and a .307 batting average.

But Wainwright had baseball’s nastiest curve ball that season. It would have frozen Willie Mays himself. The heartbreak when your team gets beaten isn’t always mitigated when your arguable best gets beaten by their arguable best. But unless you’d rather Beltran frozen by Braden Looper it’s long past time to forgive what needs no forgiveness.

Certainly it didn’t freeze Beltran for the rest of his baseball life. He didn’t look for the nearest mouse hole into which to spend it. He merely played 548 more games as a Met with ninety home runs, three All-Star teams, two Gold Gloves, and a few MVP votes, before he was traded to the Giants for a kid named Zack Wheeler.

And he even put up with the indignity when he defied the Mets’ powers that were at the time to undergo surgery on a bothersome knee, thanks to the past sane thought that just maybe his chosen doctors knew a little bit better than the Mets’ designated quacks what his knee needed. (Indeed, the day would come when the Mets would finally overhaul their medical brain trust.)

He knew enough to play seven more useful seasons including a farewell with the Astros’ 2017 World Series winner. It’s not that he put on a show in that Series (he batted three times, struck out once, and had nothing else to show for it), but there wasn’t an Astro to be found who didn’t benefit from his counsel, either.

As a Met Beltran was invaluable not just because he was a Hall of Fame-level player but because, in the middle of any maelstrom buffeting the team in the city that rarely forgives and rarely forgets, he was a stand-up man no matter the scandal or the struggle amidst the team.

He mentored and shepherded players, he faced the press no matter how hard the loss or how ridiculous the externals, he answered any and every question without evasion, and he was maybe the only baseball man in New York this side of Joe Girardi who couldn’t be T-boned by an unsuspected disaster running the figurative red light.

Now the Met who couldn’t be caught off guard even in testy New York gets to manage them. And they’re in slightly better shape than people think. Their rather stupefying second-half run in 2019 wasn’t enough to save the head of the hapless, often clueless Mickey Callaway, but it might be enough for Beltran to lead them to next year’s postseason after all. Might.

They have the National League’s likely Rookie of the Year. They have arguably the league’s best pitcher still, with arguably several more seasons of comparable performance yet to come. They have a youthful core who showed mettle, flair, and adaptability in 2019. If the Mets give Beltran the thing he needs most—a bullpen overhaul that leaves him more than just bull—he’ll have an advantage even before spring training begins.

Beltran also has a unique ability to connect with even the most disparate players and coaches, something he was known for as a player and a skill he refined even further in two years working in the Yankee front office. Show Beltran two players about whom fire and gasoline would be understatements, and Beltran will show you two players he kept from further combustion.

SNY’s Andy Martino has a classic example. Carlos Gomez and Brian McCann once clashed on the field after Gomez, the punk, had fun hitting one out against the Braves and McCann blocked him up the third base line from scoring to finish the homer over, you know, the Sacred Unwritten Rules. It was hard to know who looked more foolish, Gomez for having his fun or McCann for deciding he had no right to touch the plate.

Mirabile dictu, Gomez and McCann ended up teammates on the same 2017 Astros World Series winner. While they were there, both the Fun Boy and the Fun Fuzz accepted Beltran as a mentor. Beltran could and did counsel Gomez how to have fun without bruising egos; he could and did counsel McCann, we presume, that nobody likes a self-appointed gendarme putting on the cuffs before the not-so-bad guy finishes his job.

Beltran’s reputation, Martino observes, includes that he was the de facto hitting coach for every team who employed him as a player, and that he has a genius for picking up on the tiniest missteps by the other guys and exploiting them, from off-kilter field positioning to pitch tipping. It’s not impossible that Beltran was one of the Astros who caught Yu Darvish tipping pitches early in 2017 World Series Game Seven, enabling the Astros to run him off the mound while securing the Promised Land lease before his departure.

A baseball mind married to a people person gives a brand new manager a leg up already. Right away Beltran isn’t a candidate to blow up his clubhouse before he has a chance to secure it. He also has the advantage of distance on his side. He’s not being handed the Mets’ bridge immediately after his days of playing for them ended.

That was the mistake the Yankees made with Yogi Berra when handing him their bridge for 1964. Berra was too freshly removed as a player to establish a clubhouse rhythm or to avoid a few too many of his veterans from using manager-turned-general manager Ralph Houk as a behind-Yogi’s-back sounding board. Especially when it took Berra awhile to stop lifting his starters too soon and stop looking for bullpen saviours he didn’t yet have.

The ’64 Yankees had other problems, of course, most notably the subterfuges involved in the team’s sale to CBS and the lack of a viable bullpen between April and September. They rehorsed in time to win the pennant and lose a thriller of a seven-game World Series.

Yogi never saw it coming when he was beheaded the following day in favour of the man who’d just beaten him in the Series, Johnny Keane. And Keane himself dodged more than a few similar backstairs betrayals on the season and was actually offered the Yankee job-to-come behind the channels, well before both teams came back to win their pennants after all.

The Mets these days aren’t exactly a model baseball administration, either. Beltran could find himself only too soon wondering what on earth he got himself into when he finds his front office hands him or can’t diffuse a logjam or a bomb.

But it isn’t as though first-timers on the bridge can only fail—-see Alex Cora (a World Series ring his first time out), Aaron Boone (only the second Yankee manager ever to pilot back-to-back 100+ win seasons his first time out), and Rocco Baldelli. (He managed the thumping Twins to this year’s American League Central title.)

And, so far as we can predict, Beltran won’t be managing (yet) the way Boone had to manage the Yankees in 2019—unable to determine whether he was trying to win a division and a pennant or the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Beltran also becomes the ninth Mets manager who ever played for the team in an earlier life. The roll includes, in ascending order, Gil Hodges (an Original Met before his knees betrayed him for keeps), Yogi Berra (a few pinch-hit appearances for the 1965 Mets before returning to the coaching line for keeps), Joe Torre, Bud Harrelson, Dallas Green (briefly a pitcher on the 1966 Mets), Willie Randolph (he ended his distinguished playing career on the sorry 1992 Mets), and Bobby Valentine (he split 1977 between the Mets and the Padres).

You may care to note that three of those men—Hodges, Berra, and Valentine—won pennants managing the Mets; Hodges, of course, won a World Series managing the 1969 Miracle Mets, and Berra got to within a game of winning the 1973 World Series. Hodges apprenticed as a manager with the second Washington Senators; Yogi spent seven years on the Mets’ first base coaching line; and, Valentine spent eight prior seasons commanding the Rangers before he took the Mets’ bridge.

Beltran’s going to have to show he can develop in-game tactical and strategic smarts fast enough to match his skills at picking up field nuances and missteps and at fostering relationships. But you won’t expect him to be caught flatfoot if questioned over as questionable a move as the now-deposed Callaway was in Chicago in June.

When Callaway left a gassed Seth Lugo in for a second inning only to get him and the Mets clobbered despite a fresh option or two for whom to reach. And, when Callaway accepted the inevitable post-game questions by demanding his questioner be removed from the room and doing nothing when one of his other pitchers threatened to knock the questioner the [fornicate] out.

But when you decide Beltran is the man you want over such candidates as Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar (whose playing career began as a Met), Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy, or Eduardo Perez (former Astros and Marlins coach whose tenures were short lived but who ended up a finalist with Beltran for the Mets job), you’d better know something we don’t know yet.

Which is what Mets observers said when Callaway was handed the Mets’ bridge for 2018, after several years as the respected Indians pitching coach. Callaway proved to be in so far over his head managing the Mets that he needed a periscope just to see a mile below the surface. He’s since moved on to the Angels in the gig for which he’s suited best, pitching coach for their new manager Joe Maddon.

If Beltran proves a capable manager, never mind the kind who can lead the Mets to consistent excellence, he could also accomplish something only Yogi Berra has ever done as a Met—stand at the 2023 podium in Cooperstown, as Yogi did in 1972, accepting his Hall of Fame plaque for his playing achievements while he’s managing the Mets. Never underrate the power of that kind of symbolism.

Beltran goes in with one very key endorsement, from a man with whom he grew up friends in their native Puerto Rico and to whom he reached out after his playing days, as a Yankee advisor, and as he went through the Mets’ hiring process. A man who thinks there’s more than just a marquee name involved in Beltran’s hiring.

“This is something he earned. He has made adjustments throughout from a guy who was quiet to all of a sudden is eager to share information and to talk to players, coaches and front office people,” said Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach during the 2017 World Series run he shared with Beltran and who went from there to nail a World Series managing the Red Sox in 2018.

Cora told the New York Post that Beltran did his homework and prepared himself fully after showing he could stay on top of the game by evolving.

“I had him as a player in 2017 and we had long conversations,” Cora continued. “We had some radical ideas of how to do things to kind of prepare myself for what was coming. He would tell me things and I would share stuff with him on how to run a big league team. He helped me out a lot.”

Never underrate the power of a World Series-winning manager’s endorsement, either.

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