I wanted Carlos Beltran to insist that he was in one of the better shapes of his life, certainly the best of the past few years of his life. “Best shape of my life” would have been too clichéd and beyond credulity. We saw Carlos Beltran when his shape was indisputably spectacular. I would have settled for “I’m in the best shape of my life since 2009 began to go to hell.” That would have been plenty good.
Whatever he said, I wanted Carlos Beltran to find his legs and stand his ground. First he’d stand it, then he’d run it, then gallop it en route completing a circuit that would have him owning it as he did before the middle of 2009, before his right knee went all wrong. I wanted Carlos Beltran to defy time and anatomy and be as much the center fielder he could be, if not completely the center fielder he used to be.
As of Monday, that bit of spring romanticizing flew over the wall. Carlos did the chivalrous thing.  He turned his center field glove into a cloak worthy of Sir Walter Raleigh. Beltran spread it over a puddle of mud and allowed Angel Pagan to cross over safely from right field. Then, Carlos gathered up his cloak-glove, shook off the schmutz and trotted over to where Pagan was set to stand in order to learn his new position.
Or he will as soon as that darn knee is capable  of taking on his next personally unprecedented challenge.
Twilight closes in now on Carlos Beltran’s Met tenure, approaching irresistibly as it did within the past decade on Mike Piazza and Pedro Martinez, two other imported stars of Beltranian magnitude. I hated that it had to happen to them, but understanding inevitability was involved, I sort of relished the process. I anticipated the pushback from the veterans involved. I stood and cheered on those occasions when each told time to wait outside for another couple of innings, I’m not done here yet. I looked for every possible angle that would allow my illogic to sound just a little more rational. I wanted to believe that maybe Mike wasn’t getting too old to crouch, to catch and to hit six games a week. I wanted to believe, somehow, that two-and-a-half injury-riddled, tease-wracked season of Pedro were an aberration, that deep down he was still the Pedro Martinez and could turn it on again anytime I wanted.
Piazza’s decline was at first gradual, then undeniable. Everything he did in 2005, the last season of his seven-year Mets contract, looked harder than it had before — and Piazza never made anything look easy (save for coming through in the most dramatic of circumstances, which came second-nature to him). Martinez was trickier to track as he attempted to pitch like Pedro in 2008. After his umpteenth Disabled Listing, Pedro always seemed one inning away from being something proximate to his old self. Problem was most nights that inning was the first inning; he pitched 20 of them and gave up 23 earned runs within them. Get Pedro to the second, and he’d emerge unscathed. From a 10.35 ERA in the first inning, his effectiveness yielded a 1.80 in the second and a 0.90 in the third.
Then came the fourth inning and mortality’s ugly head reared via an ERA of 5.12. The earned-run numbers grew only more disturbing from there. Pedro Martinez rarely made it past six innings in his final Met year, yet I always clung to the hope that he would. Same for Mike at his Shea end. Why couldn’t Mike Piazza give us in 2005 what he gave us as a matter of course in 2000? Even in 2002? He could do it a couple of times a week. Why not a couple more?
Because time could not be kept waiting in the players’ parking lot forever. It had come to pick up Mike in 2005, just as it would Pedro in 2008, just as it promises to exit the Grand Central by the end of 2011 (if not sooner) to give Carlos Beltran his ride to somewhere else.
Beltran’s days in the majors may not necessarily be over when he’s through being a Met. They probably won’t be. There is life after Mets, as unpleasant as that is for us to recognize. Mike Piazza logged two seasons on the West Coast. Pedro Martinez filed a couple of very successful months in a Philadelphia uniform in 2009. Beltran’s younger than both were when they departed Flushing.
But Piazza, despite being yanked to a new and strange position for a spell in his penultimate Mets campaign, never exactly gave up being a catcher. And Pedro didn’t suddenly volunteer to attempt to stabilize the Mets’ manic middle relief corps. They squeezed every bit of light out of their starring roles in their last go-rounds. Willie Randolph’s misplaced sense of occasion is all that kept Mike from nine full innings in his final afternoon  in orange and blue. Martinez threw himself into the seventh inning on his last Shea night  for only the fourth time in his twenty ’08 starts. Each man took about a dozen deserved bows on the way out. We wouldn’t have let them go in any other fashion.
Carlos Beltran now steps aside early. Maybe he’s a permanent right fielder for as long as he’s part of the Flushing scenery. Maybe the bizarre configuration of corporately sponsored geometric tics that give us Porches and Zones and a prospective nightmare for a neophyte right fielder on the cusp of turning 34 will — combined with a theoretical rediscovery of his legs — reverse eventually what seems permanent and reasonable at present. Maybe Pagan, by necessity, shifts back to patrolling Citi Field’s most perilous corner (which he, unlike Beltran, has done before). Maybe right field proves plenty conquerable for Carlos, someone who has spent so long as one of the premier center fielders of his generation, and center becomes just one of those positions an aging superstar used to play. Maybe, because these are the Mets we’re talking about, Beltran goes back on the DL and whatever future he has remaining is as a lavishly (lavishly) compensated pinch-hitter…assuming everybody in a Mets uniform continues to receive his compensation  as contracted.
The good of the team and however unready Carlos’s right knee is for center dictated what happened when Beltran went to Terry Collins and Collins called on Pagan and the three of them agreed on the new outfield alignment. Beltran in right is the right thing to try. It’s not the wrong thing, anyway. Carlos Beltran knows his knee better than Mets management and medicine men claimed to know it in January 2010. He knows it a helluva lot better than I do. There’s a lot of real estate in Citi Field’s center field, and two good legs are preferable for anyone planning to occupy it. And if converting himself into a right fielder helps Beltran extend his baseball playing and earning potential  in the years after 2011, more power to him. A person’s gotta do what a person’s gotta do.
But I still wish he was standing his ground. I still wish he was stubborn and defiant and a self-proclaimed center fielder. I wanted to see Carlos Beltran incrementally return to form as he seemed to be doing late last summer. It was clear he knew how to play center, that he hadn’t forgotten, that his instincts would never fail him…but that his legs were having none of it. Then they began to cooperate a little. Then a little more. Then I began to stare hard and see the Carlos Beltran who arrived during Mike Piazza’s final Met season and who excelled while Pedro Martinez alternately healed and rehabilitated.
Then Beltran couldn’t finish 2010 in one piece and has yet to begin 2011. That’s not a center fielder. Not now it isn’t.
There are men who play center field (“oy, the way Keith Miller played…”), and then there are Center Fielders, the kind who make great catches and land among lyrics. Beltran was in the Upper Case group, a CF who took responsibility for every fly ball and every line drive — the kind who took command of the outfield. Beltran was so much a Center Fielder that his presence compelled another authentic Center Fielder, Mike Cameron, to rush to learn right field in another St. Lucie spring not so long ago. Cameron was a dynamite defender for the Mets in 2004, his first year at Shea. Once he established himself as a big leaguer, his managers wouldn’t have placed him anywhere but center. He replaced Ken Griffey in Seattle, and defensively nobody could complain. Even Art Howe wouldn’t have thought to move Mike Cameron out of the middle of things in 2004, and Art Howe thought Mike Piazza would make a splendid first baseman.
Then came Carlos Beltran, every bit the Center Fielder Mike Cameron was, plus a more accomplished offensive threat, plus a way better-paid employee of Sterling Mets. The 2005 Mets possessed two CFs, but the scorecard accommodated only one 8 at a time.
Carlos Beltran was signed to be The Man. Mike Cameron played right field. He didn’t want to. He didn’t particularly hide his displeasure about it and he couldn’t disguise his instinctive intentions when the territories blurred. The ultimate manifestation of what might happen when you put a real Center Fielder in center and a real Center Fielder in right occurred on August 11, 2005, when David Ross’s sinking line drive, falling fast in mid right-center at Petco Park in San Diego, attracted the attention of two Center Fielders. Beltran came at it from our left. Cameron came it at from our right.
Their faces met in the middle . It was gruesome . Cameron’s Mets career was over. Beltran’s was shaken. Both survived and have since gone on to collect four Gold Gloves between them for their work as Center Fielders. Neither has played as much as a pitch at any other defensive position in the seasons following their collision.
We speak of Beltran’s center field term in the past tense, that he was a Center Fielder, but that’s probably a mistake. It’s not so much that he’s likely to snatch the job from the mitts of his faithful and skilled protégé Pagan. It’s that if you’re a Center Fielder, it doesn’t appear you stop thinking like one. Beltran has been all over center field. He played it deep (far deeper than Cameron) and made his plays. Carlos’s grace may have obscured his hustle, but without making a big Jim Edmonds deal about it, he dove where the terrain grew shallow and he challenged fences when pasture turned into track. He was an every-damn-ball Center Fielder. It’s impossible to think that because we write his name next to a 9 instead of an 8 that he will take on a new self-identity.
He’s Carlos Beltran, best Center Fielder in the history of the New York Mets. I long to see him be that and do that for one more season. It appears I’ll have to settle for remembering that he was that and that he did that…and accept that that might very well be that.