If I go down
I’m gonna go down swingin’
If I grow old
It won’t be gracefully
“I’ll show you something today,” Ty Cobb told reporters, or so the story goes. “I’m going for home runs for the first time in my career.” It was May 5, 1925, the year of Babe Ruth’s bellyache, as it was called, though what actually ached the Bambino remains an urban myth. Ruth may not have been atop his game in ’25, but he was still on top of The Game, as in baseball. Slugging had overtaken hitting in the public’s estimation. Ruth had overtaken Cobb, and Cobb — aging, cranky and the possessor of eleven batting titles from when home runs were rarities — didn’t care for it. Ty Cobb didn’t care for a lot, but this was one of his deeper snits.
So Cobb, per legend, went out that day at Sportsman’s Park 86 years ago and popped not one, not two but three home runs against St. Louis Browns pitching. The 38-year-old player-manager of the Detroit Tigers had made his point.
Carlos Beltran has never reminded me of Ty Cobb. Really, more DiMaggio — Joe, not Dom or Vince. What brought them together in my mind was one word: grace. Both made it look so easy, though no one ever thought DiMag was taking off innings or easing up even a notch. That was a centerfielder who gave it all he had all the time no matter the stakes because, he figured, somebody was seeing him play for the first time. The key for Joe D. was he made it look like he wasn’t trying all that hard.
Grace. It probably worked better when the media was mostly radio and newspapers.
Carlos Beltran’s grace came off better when he had two good knees and a few fewer years than the 34 he carries around now. Grace’s value has diminished since Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away, since SportsCenter came on the air, since a critical mass of opinion formed that it wasn’t so much what you did but how interested you looked while you were doing it. If you did it the hard way and succeeded, you were that much more impressive. If you made it look — because that’s just how you rolled — easy, and you made the mistake of not succeeding every time out…well, why isn’t that guy giving it his all?
We can only guess how difficult it’s been for Carlos Beltran to give it his all since his legs began to betray him a couple of years ago. It didn’t look that easy for him trying to come back from too much injury in 2009 and 2010. The obvious effort didn’t necessarily translate to the desired results. Yet he didn’t much let us see him sweat. Carlos Beltran isn’t given to the grimace. He has maybe two expressions: the one that’s practically blank and the one where he smiles. He wears the former about 95% of the time.
He wore the smile after Thursday’s game in Denver. It wasn’t a gloat, but there was definitely a twinkle to it, just a touch of “I could tell ya so, but I think my bat just did.” I saw that look back in December, at the Mets’ holiday party when all the questions were of the “will you be well enough to play?” nature. Beltran was unremarkably upbeat with his words, but just enough “watch me” with his eyes.
There was plenty to watch at cold, damp Coors Field. There were three home runs, to be specific: from the left, then the right, then the left, all with Willie Harris on base, each accounting for one-third of what the Mets needed to beat the Rockies. They won 9-5. Beltran drove in six of the nine runs. He didn’t have to grimace. He just had to trot.
After the third home run — a total produced in one game by only seven Mets before him — I caught a glimpse of the happy Beltran in the Mets dugout. One of his teammates sitting near him was Fernando Martinez, just called up to take disabled Ike Davis’s place. Martinez has been a hot prospect since debuting professionally as a 17-year-old in 2006, since Beltran was putting up MVP numbers when pain-free and worth every penny the Mets were paying him. Fernando Martinez, I thought, is the oldest 22 I’ve ever seen. He’s never been healthy or consistent for long. But he’s only 22.
Carlos Beltran is 34. He’s in the seventh year of a seven-year Met contract that no one thinks will be succeeded by another Met contract. His successes were what we paid for, so they weren’t automatically celebrated for the accomplishments they encompassed. His everything else? Like his demeanor? Or his non-MVP intervals? They weren’t universally popular, and he still isn’t. While well-meaning Twitterers tend to overcompensate with their increasingly tiresome #blamebeltran irony shtick, there really is a strain of Mets fan who isn’t easily satisfied by Carlos Beltran, who wishes for more expressive grimacing, more obvious sweating, more swinging at hellacious breaking pitches that landed in a catcher’s mitt five years ago and aren’t subject to do-over.
Plenty of swinging today, though. Plenty of reason to want to see Carlos Beltran play some more.