Tony Gwynn & Jeff Passan:
NEW YORK – No pink or yellow. Carlos Beltran understood that was the rule in the New York Mets’ clubhouse, enforced by backup catcher Ramon Castro, who, while less of a fashionista than Beltran, owned the louder voice, and in such sartorial arguments thus won out. With that in mind, Beltran, out shopping a few days back, considered the shirt that caught his eye, the one with palm-tree patterns.
“I thought about it and didn’t buy it,” Beltran said, a sigh escaping his lips. “Castro, he doesn’t respect anybody.”
This is true. No one avoids Castro’s acid tongue, least of all his fellow Puerto Ricans, Beltran being one of them, Carlos Delgado another. On Tuesday afternoon, one day before the Mets took on St. Louis in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, round two of the quest for their first World Series title in 20 years, Castro was trying to conjure the name of who Delgado resembles when he wears a certain pair of boots.
“Ahhh,” Castro said. “John Wayne.”
Beltran broke into laughter, something seen with exponentially greater frequency this season. With the trade to acquire Delgado this offseason and the rebirth of Jose Valentin as a productive everyday player at second base, Beltran suddenly found himself surrounded with friends from home, people who could empathize with all of his struggles last season. Freed from handling the brunt of media inquiries – Delgado is a natural politician – and protected in the lineup by the first baseman, too, Beltran responded with 41 home runs, finished second in the NL with 127 runs and reminded doubters why the Mets rewarded him with a seven-year, $119 million contract.
“I’m a better person now,” Beltran said. “Doesn’t matter what you do, how much you make. I’m proud of what I am. I’m proud of who I am. Of where I come from.”
That is Manati, a town of around 40,000 on the Northern coast of Puerto Rico. Valentin grew up there seven years ahead of Beltran, 29, and the two of them outnumber, if not outtalk, Delgado during their frequent dinners on the road.
In search of rice and beans – and generally settling for steaks, because good, home-cooked Puerto Rican food is rare – the three discuss everything from baseball (in minimal doses) to politics (a favorite of Delgado’s). They dream about their offseasons, mine money for charities and engage in squabbles about Manati’s supremity over Aguadilla, the beach town on the Northwest corner of the island in which Delgado grew up.
“For me, my city is the best,” Beltran said. “For him, his city is the best. But our country. It’s the same.”
Following last season, Beltran wanted to be anywhere but New York. An outfield collision with Mike Cameron that made some NASCAR wrecks look serene left Beltran with headaches, and leg injuries kept him from stealing bases. Worst of all, he ended the season with a battered psyche, the boos from frustrated Mets fans having taken their toll.
Not that he necessarily yearned for his days in Kansas City, where Beltran spent the first 5½ seasons of his career in enough anonymity that he strolled through the suburbs without interruption and wore whatever color shirts he pleased. It was just in Kansas City, he could hit No. 2, because he wanted to, even though the third slot suited him better, and in Kansas City, he could hit a slump and know the hissing would be directed elsewhere.
Comfort, Beltran was learning, mattered more than he realized, and the stress of apartment hopping – Beltran and his wife, Jessica, lived in four different places last year before finally moving into their home – only compounded his baseball issues.
“He’s too talented to have had the off year he had last year, or the year that I’m sure he didn’t expect he was going to have,” Mets manager Willie Randolph said. “So really this is just having good people around him, like Carlos and Jose Reyes and guys like that do well in front of him.
“It’s all part of a trickle-down effect. When you have good people and improve your ballclub, it takes a little pressure off you, and he can go out and perform like he’s supposed to.”
If anything, it resembles the 2004 postseason. Kansas City, knowing it would not re-sign Beltran, shipped him to Houston for the stretch run and saw him set a postseason record with eight home runs in 12 games. Balls trampolined off Beltran’s bat. It was his star turn, and in addition to banking him perhaps $30 million extra, it exposed him to a nation that knew him as that guy from the crappy Royals.
“How can you not watch it?” Delgado said. “The guy hit eight home runs in, what, 10 or 12 games? It was on ESPN every single night. It’s exciting. Good players can do that. They get hot. They carry a team.”
In their last dinner before the playoffs, the postseason came up. Baseball is an infrequent topic of conversation around the table – shop talk is frowned upon even when it’s about a game – but here it was welcome. Because for as grand a career as Delgado has led – two All-Star appearances, three Silver Sluggers and more than 400 career home runs – he had not made the playoffs before this season.
Fourteen seasons, he waited, 1,711 games, 6,053 at-bats and countless hours spent thinking about whether he would even make the postseason. Dinner was like Freaky Friday: Beltran, generally the shy one, chock full of advice for Delgado, the gregarious one who just listened.
“(Delgado) always has got his eyes on everything – in a good way,” Valentin said. “He won’t let you down – and he won’t let you fall asleep, either. He’s never been in the postseason in his career. Now that he’s in it, he’s not going to let it go away, because who knows when it will be back?”
Accordingly, Delgado got hits in all three games of the Mets’ sweep in the division series, going 4 for 5 with a home run in the opener. All of those years spent watching October games in Aguadilla seemed so far away.
He was here with the Mets – the New Mets, as Beltran coined them when he and Pedro Martinez signed, and who really came into existence with the trades for Delgado and catcher Paul LoDuca and the signing of closer Billy Wagner.
Just in case Delgado needs some help, he knows Beltran’s locker is two over, and Beltran would be happy to reciprocate for everything Delgado gave him.
Maybe they’ll go to dinner. Right now, the Mets could get a reservation anywhere in the city. And so long as Beltran and Delgado are there, a pink or yellow shirt – or even one with palm trees – sounds quite all right.