Adrian Beltre, the toughest ballplayer alive, has a bump or bruise for all 3,000 hits
So the head thing. It’s real, Adrian Beltre swears, real in the same way the word moist sends a shiver down the spine of some people and clowns terrify others. He doesn’t want it to be this way. One of these offseasons, Beltre said, he’s going to let his family members touch the top of his head, his Kryptonite, maybe once a day, then twice, then more, so when he gets to spring training and his teammates sneak attack him with a head pat, he can stand there and act like nothing is happening.
“It’s my fault,” Beltre said, with some faux regret, because the head thing, like the back-knee swing, like the on-field playfulness, like the death stares that could bore holes through tungsten, is part of his oeuvre, which now is packed with two decades of excellence. Reaching 3,000 hits, as Beltre did when he uncorked his million-moving-pieces swing Sunday and ripped a double down the left-field line, always prompts a celebration of a player’s legacy, and his is as rich with idiosyncrasy and inimitability as any baseball player in recent memory. And part of it stems from a moment of weakness during a chat with his friend and old Seattle Mariners teammate Felix Hernandez about his head.
“He thought because I have waves in my hair I didn’t want it to be touched,” Beltre said. “I didn’t tell him why. Then one day I told him, ‘I don’t like it.’ And after that, he tried to do it all the time. It was stupid of me.”
When Beltre left Seattle for Boston, Hernandez told fellow Venezuelans Victor Martinez and Marco Scutaro about the cranial Achilles. “It doesn’t hurt,” Beltre said. “It’s just discomfort.” Their dugout antics turned Beltre’s crown viral, and over the past seven years, as he has burnished his Hall of Fame credentials with the Texas Rangers, whose cap he’ll wear into Cooperstown one day, all of Beltre’s foibles have been laid bare by Elvis Andrus and other teammates.
To them, he is a father figure, a fun uncle and a mischievous brother, a priest from whom they seek counsel and a fellow parishioner in the church of baseball. He is the best teammate in the game and the toughest son of a bitch they know, and that’s the deepest truth about him: for all the attention paid to his head, the story of what truly drives Adrian Beltre is best told by another body part.
Adrian Beltre hiked up the left leg of his shorts. A grisly bruise colored his thigh. And that wasn’t even the most grievous damage done by that particular foul ball.
“Right off the left one,” he said, pointing to his nether regions. “I was trying to play cool because I knew it was on TV.”
After 20 seasons patrolling third base, the position called the hot corner for a reason, Beltre still does not wear a cup. He prides himself on this and the manifold other bumps, bruises and ailments that afflict him on a daily basis. At 38 years old, he is not as spry as he once was, and he doesn’t heal like he once did, but that does not deter him. One pitch after he put the ball in foul ball, Beltre hammered the 453rd home run of his career.
“They pissed the old bull off just enough,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said, “and he punished ‘em.”
Banister marvels at Beltre. He’ll never forget Game 1 of the 2015 American League Division Series against Toronto. In the first inning, Beltre wrenched his back sliding into second base. When he came off the field, Banister said, “He couldn’t move.” Banister figured he needed to replace Beltre.
“I am not coming out of this game,” Beltre said.
“You can’t walk,” Banister said.
“I am not coming out of this game,” Beltre said.
Between innings, he got an anti-inflammatory shot to dull the pain. It didn’t work. “Literally,” Banister said, “he can’t move.” He kept Beltre in at third base anyway, awaiting his at-bat in the fourth inning.
“What do we got?” Banister said.
“One swing,” Beltre said.
“Well, make the best of it,” Banister said.
On the second pitch, he lined a single to center field to drive in Delino DeShields Jr. Had Kevin Pillar not tried to throw DeShields out at home, he may have nabbed Beltre, who struggled down the line like a piano had affixed itself to him. He came out of the game immediately, doubled over.
Three days later, he was back in the lineup.
“When I think of the toughness – he wills himself to play this game at such a high level,” Banister said. “There is no one like him.”
Baseball is generally not a game that inspires hosannas of toughness, of players gutting through pain and injuries, of playing with broken bones, like so many hockey players do to great fanfare. Beltre spent half the season in 2015 playing with a torn thumb ligament, every swing a jolt of lightning into his hand. His stubbornness is legendary in baseball circles, his obstinacy enough to make a mule jealous. It stems not from inadequacy as much as an acute understanding of the sporting food chain. Every team has nine positions. The men who play there are merely placeholders, and his fight is a fight to hold his place.
“I know somebody is going to come take my job,” Beltre said. “Anytime soon. I still think that. It’s a business. If you don’t stay healthy enough, if you don’t stay on the field enough, if you don’t produce and be consistent, anybody can take your job. Just like I took somebody’s job when I came up, someone is going to take mine. I don’t take that for granted. And I always have the mindset if I feel good enough to play, I’m going to try to play.
“Just because I’m not 100 percent doesn’t mean I can’t produce. You find a way to get through things. Because I know that even when I’m 100 percent and feel really good, see the ball really good at the plate, I still go 0 for 4. So if I’m not 100 percent, why can’t I find a way to play good defense and still get a hit or two and help my ballclub win a ballgame? What’s the worst that can happen? You go 0 for 4 like you can do when you’re 100 percent?”
Beltre dispenses this wisdom with an earnestness, as though everybody should own a constitution so resolute. He is not special, he contends. He grew up in the Dominican Republic but not destitute like so many of his country mates. His father worked as an industrial mechanic in a factory, and Beltre lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Santo Domingo. He wasn’t farmed out to a buscon at a young age. He went to high school. Beltre never saw himself as a doctor or lawyer, though. He was a ballplayer.
In 1994, Beltre signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $23,000. For nearly five years he played without anyone knowing the Dodgers’ dirty secret: The organization had whited out his birth year on his original contract to say 1978 instead of 1979. Beltre was 15 when he signed the deal. The minimum age to sign is 16. Only after his rookie season in 1998, when agent Scott Boras was complimenting Beltre on all his accomplishments as a 20-year-old, did Beltre furrow his eyebrows and tell Boras he was actually 19.
Hints of stardom occasionally revealed themselves. So did long stretches of failure. Nearly every year, Beltre would slump in the first half, only to redeem himself after the All-Star break. “It made me stronger and made me understand you have to go through times like that to improve, Beltre said. “And not only that, but to know that if it happens again, you’re equipped to deal with it.”
The greatest test came in Seattle, where he went as a free agent after a 48-homer, MVP-runner-up season with the Dodgers. Beltre arrived as a savior: 25 years old, ready to spend the prime of his career alongside Ichiro as the Mariners moved past the Ken Griffey Jr.-Randy Johnson era. His struggles in Los Angeles paled compared to his initial season with the Mariners, whose Safeco Field swallowed whole balls that would’ve flown out of other stadiums.
“First time in the American League, first time with a big contract, I put the pressure on myself that I want to justify the contract instead of just going in there and playing ball,” Beltre said. “Once the season started and I hit balls that I thought were home runs but got caught, the pressure got to me. I tried to hit the ball harder. I changed my swing because of it. That just put me in the tank. It was going down and down. To tell you the truth, I did not enjoy that first year in Seattle. Not just because I was doing bad. The team was doing terrible. And I blamed myself.”
Of all the reasons Beltre’s teammates love him – “He’s the best I’ll ever have,” Andrus said – this is the most important to him. The idea of being a teammate – a person who exists to support 24 others, to act as glue among cultures, to lift the distraught and humble the arrogant, to be the elemental heart of a group’s chemistry – is sacrosanct to him. Beltre is always thoughtful, but the mere mention of being a teammate brings out a different side of him, one who could stand onstage at a TED Talk and teach leaders about leading and followers about what a leader ought look like.
“I want to be accountable for anything I do,” he said. “Not because I have 15 or 20 years in the big leagues but because if I’ve done something wrong, I want you to call me out on it. I try to lead by example. I don’t want to do anything that if a rookie does it I can call him out on it. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, even though in our business, I could do something a rookie couldn’t and it would be fine.
“Play the game hard. Be prepared every day. Learn the difference between playing the game and playing to win. Don’t be satisfied losing. That’s something horrible for me. Sometimes I get mad when we’re losing. But I don’t want to show them, because I don’t want them to think I’m frustrated. Because I know during the season there are going to be highs and lows. Sometimes you have to understand the team on the other side was better than us. That’s fine. It’s fine accepting the fact that they beat you. But you don’t accept the fact that losing is OK.
“I’m proud of who I am. Because I don’t like to cut corners. I understand that to be a big leaguer, you have to work hard. You have to have your mind in the right spot. Understand you’re going to have some failures. Understand that if I am in a slump for three days, not doing well, that I believe it’s going to change. I cannot be mad at my teammates or not having fun or be in a corner not talking to anybody. Once I get out of that slump, I’m a different guy, I’m happy? I can’t do that. I try to be the same guy if I’m 0 for 100 or 100 out of 200. I try to be the same guy every day. You’re not going to have the same attitude every day because no human can. But I try to be as stable as I can, in that sense. I need to be there for my teammates.”
This is not a soliloquy so much as a mission statement. Over 20 years, you learn what is important, and for all the hits and home runs and Gold Gloves and hundreds of millions of dollars, Beltre takes away the moments where he reminds those other 24 that he is still them and won’t ever be anything else.
Earlier this season, when an injured calf muscle sent him to the disabled list, Beltre one day slipped into a pair of shorts and a polo shirt – the standard uniform of clubhouse attendants. And in the middle of the game, Banister said, there he was, getting teammates water, shining their shoes, reminding them that he could laugh at himself even as it pained him to miss day after day.
“He’s got a servant’s heart,” Banister said.
The last decade of his career has led Beltre there, to a place of comfort and happiness. At times, he would try to please others, almost to a fault. As his throws from third base sailed again and again, coaches would give him tips, and he would try every one, only to make the same mistakes again. He realized his best throws came after he dove for balls – when his legs weren’t moving. So he adopted that unorthodox method on all throws and now has five Gold Gloves.
Beltre realized pitchers always threw him one of two pitches with two strikes: a high fastball or low-and-away slider. “I don’t have the discipline of the strike zone,” he admitted. “I don’t have it. I tried. But I don’t have it.” So he resolved to lay off the slider, learn to drive the high fastball and, over the last decade, has been a .301/.352/.503 hitter, one of the most productive in the game.
He even embraced the back-knee swing. It’s still a marvel, the way Beltre seemingly loses all the leverage generated in the lower half of his body, drops to one knee and still manages to punish a baseball from a position where he’d be likelier to propose to it. Someday there is going to be a statue of Adrian Beltre in Texas, and it’s going to be of him back-kneeing a home run, partially because of how amazing it is, partially because so many of the other things that make him special can’t be captured in bronze.
So the bathroom thing. People don’t know about this one. It’s like the head thing, only funnier.
“When I go to the bathroom, I don’t want people to talk to me,” Beltre said. “When I’m in the stall, it’s not a conversation station. If I’m in the stall of the bathroom, I don’t want to talk to anybody. I’m here to do my business and relax. And every time Felix would find out I’m in the bathroom, he would sit in the stall next to me and start talking.”
Part of it is Beltre’s fault. He understands this. The angry glares, the narrowed eyes, the pulsing veins of discontent – they only serve to encourage the perpetrators, Felix Hernandez or Elvis Andrus, to keep perpetrating.
“He’s a good human being,” Andrus said. “He respects everybody. He respects the game. And he’s the person you can look up to. His work ethic, dedication, integrity. I hope it’s good. He’s been in the game for 100 years.”
It doesn’t end. It won’t ever. It shouldn’t. One of the many charms of Beltre is his ability to play all of his characters: giving a lesson one day, pulling a prank the next, being the target another. Each of these worlds is difficult to traverse. Few have the emotional ability to navigate all three. The rarest can do that and still leverage the remaining mental fortitude into what it takes to reach 3,000 hits and 450-plus home runs.
“Sometimes I don’t believe where I’m at – that I could get there,” Beltre said. “When I used to hear about the guys with 3,000 hits – Rod Carew, Pete Rose – 3,000 hits was crazy. When I came to the big leagues, I never had goals – like, ‘I want to reach this.’ My goal was to be an everyday player in the big leagues and play until I felt like it was good enough for me to go home. I’m at the stage right now where I have to be clear what I want to do, how long I want to play. I don’t know if I want to play next year or the year after that. I’m going to go year by year. Once I think I don’t have the talent to be competing with these guys, or I don’t enjoy the game, or my body can’t hold up anymore, I’m going to go home. I don’t want to be bouncing around.”
You don’t collect 3,000 hits without using all fields. #Beltre3K pic.twitter.com/6LanlRkxPi
— #Statcast (@statcast) July 30, 2017
He still believes he can compete. He continues to enjoy the game. And occasional misplaced foul ball aside, his body is holding up rather well. So for now, he can postpone his career as a real-estate magnate – Boras calls him the King of Arcadia for Beltre’s propensity to buy and flip real estate in Southern California with his wife, Sandra – and play the role of godfather of Dominican ballplayers instead.
Now that David Ortiz has retired, the mantle shifted to Beltre, a role he doesn’t necessarily believe is his, which is more humility than anything. The esteem is universal, the deference obvious. Beltre has made more money than any Dominican player in history. On Sunday, he became the first player from the D.R. to reach 3,000 hits. On an island that is a veritable baseball player factory, he is among its finest exports. It will bring him back for the final season of his contract, climbing the hit ladder, trundling toward 500 home runs, building up a resume that’s almost out of lines.
“The fact that I’ve played so long and been able to stay on the field, you accumulate stuff,” Beltre said. “And looking back, I’ll never, ever in my life think I’d have a chance to get 3,000. I never, in my life, thought I’d get to 400 home runs, 450. I don’t care about the numbers.”
Numbers, to Beltre, don’t lie. They just don’t speak to him. He understands, fundamentally, the recklessness in swinging at 0-2 pitches. He swings at them anyway. There are things you know, and there are things you don’t know, and it’s more important for Beltre to exaggerate what he does than harp on what he doesn’t.
“Even if I’m struggling, I don’t want the pitcher to know,” Beltre said. “Because when I’m at home plate, I’m the best hitter there is. I don’t show it. I don’t say it. But I believe it.”
It guided him to 3:34 p.m. CT on Sunday, to the fourth inning, to a 3-0 count, to a 91-mph fastball from Wade Miley, to placing his name alongside 30 others with 3,000 hits, to his teammates pouring out onto the field, to his family unveiling a tribute on the outfield wall with a silhouette of him on one knee, to him standing there, in front of a home crowd, his helmet off, his crown exposed, Adrian Beltre looking every bit the king he is.