No doubt they faced each other plenty in the American League, but I wasn’t paying attention. That’s the beauty and perhaps the drawback of the two leagues maintaining distinct identities. I don’t have to be conscious of one of them. I’m a Mets fan, thus I’m a National League fan. If there’s somebody in the American League worth knowing about, word will filter over. Better yet, the player will.
Carlos Beltran from the Royals arrived first, in 2004, with Houston, when Houston was part and parcel of the senior circuit. The star player lived up to his advance word, fortifying the perennial afterthought Astros into serious World Series timber. He was one of those missing pieces you yearn for if your team is close but cigarless. If only we had a Carlos Beltran type…
Unlike the Astros, the Mets weren’t close to a World Series in 2004, but by going for the ultimate Carlos Beltran type, they leapfrogged mediocrity and embraced legitimacy in 2005. Closing in on a World Series would come a bit later. The Mets’ conscious decision to compete as a major league team was a welcome decision after the self-destructive tendencies displayed in 2003 and 2004. You didn’t take competing, never mind contending, as a given.
When Beltran showed up in St. Lucie, the same week this blog showed up on the Internet , his merely being there was a victory for Mets fans. Anything he did up the road — in April; in 2005; through the length of the contract set to keep him a Met until 2011 — would be a bonus. A necessary bonus, but we’d take it when it came.
It took a while, actually. Beltran appeared in a Mets batting practice jersey and tried to live up to his enormous paycheck. I didn’t know much about him from his Kansas City days and, obsessed with the Red Sox vanquishing the Yankees the previous fall, I only caught the flavor of his demolition of Cardinal pitching in the NLCS. My impression, though, was he was trying too hard. He told reporters he was going to take the Mets’ promising youngsters David Wright and Jose Reyes under his wing and introduce them to his workout regimen. He strongly implied he was going to be the leader the Mets needed .
A few months in fan proximity to Carlos Beltran convinced me that wasn’t who he was, not in 2005, anyway. I found it telling that in the retirement article  posted this week under his name on the Players’ Tribune, Carlos shared a story about overcoming his reticence to pester Barry Bonds at the 2007 All-Star Game and asking for a hitting tutorial. Bonds, to his Beltran’s surprise, responded positively.
Not that Beltran needed much help by then. He was at the All-Star Game as a peer of Bonds’s, after all. Still, it fits with the Beltran we met, the guy I sensed was overcompensating for maybe not being the most natural of gladhanders. One of the quirks of 2005, when Beltran rarely hit like his Houston self, was when he did homer, it was usually in service to a Pedro Martinez start. Martinez, the other imported Met superstar, wasn’t reticent. Martinez was very comfortable in the spotlight. He generated spotlight. It was probably a coincidence, but it couldn’t have hurt that Pedro cast enough shadow to let Carlos be Carlos every five or so days.
In 2006, the Mets got Carlos another Carlos: His buddy Carlos Delgado. Delgado’s bat ramped the Mets up toward another level, and his relationship to Beltran seemed to both raise him up and calm him down. Superveteran Julio Franco helped, too. Beltran hit a big home run early in the ’06 season. The Shea crowd cheered, a response that differed from how a vocal minority greeted his outs the year before, a boo impulse that dripped into the new year’s Opening Day. With this homer, though, Mets fans requested a curtain call and offered a clean slate. Beltran wasn’t so forgiving. Franco had to practically push him out of the dugout. Beltran stood, waved and suitably acknowledged his new batch of supporters. Cheers became the rule for the rest of 2006.
Few Mets teams have ever been better than that one. No Met was better on that team than Carlos Beltran. The man who had been pressing too hard for leadership made excellence look easy and elegant: 41 home runs, 116 runs batted in, an OPS close to a thousand, indisputable Gold Glove defense in center. The Mets won 97 games for the first time in seven years and the National League East for the first time in eighteen. Beltran hit three more homers in the postseason. As he did with the Astros in 2004, he took his team to the doorstep of the World Series. His inability to give the door the swiftest, hardest ninth-inning kick imaginable rates as a footnote, hardly the full text.
An era of possibility peaked the night of NLCS Game Seven. Those Mets were never so close to going all the way again. They were very good for most of the next season, albeit horrible at the end. Not Beltran. He was amazing in September 2007. And September 2008. His teammates mostly ceased being so. There was no return to the playoffs for Beltran’s Mets. A few more Carlos Beltrans might have pushed them over the top, but you only get so many of those on your roster in a lifetime.
Injuries sapped Beltran’s athleticism as Shea Stadium gave way to Citi Field and contention disappeared from the Mets fan’s contemporary consciousness. Carlos persevered above the din of debate over how good and how passionate he was or wasn’t. His team was disconnected from pennant aspirations. His mobility compromised. The perseverance continued clear into 2011, his seventh year as a Met, his fifth as a Met All-Star. Once his knees were good again, he played great again. From late-period Beltran, I fondly remember the afternoon he went deep thrice in Denver, but particularly relish the takeout slide he put on Chase Utley  in September 2010, an answer to the similar if dirtier slide Utley put on Ruben Tejada the night before (foreshadowing!). Age would nudge Carlos from center to right field and diminish the damage he could do on the basepaths, but it no doubt enhanced his wisdom and bolstered his comfort level. He guided his center field successor Angel Pagan and his right field replacement Lucas Duda. The leader he wanted to be when he came to the Mets he surely was before he left.
Beltran had to leave, a little ahead of the end of his contract. The Mets were rebuilding. Our next pennant contender was years away. Maybe it would materialize sooner if his dangerous bat and sterling character could entice a team that deemed itself on the cusp of big things into giving the Mets a true blue-chipper. Thus, Carlos Beltran and his armful of accolades were off to distant precincts, destined to change uniforms five times in a six-year span. Sometimes he aligned with undesirable opponents. Always he burnished his reputation on the field and among his peers. He came close to wrecking the first no-hitter in New York Mets history. He visited the playoffs repeatedly. Finally, in Houston for a second turn, he went all the way. At forty, from the bench, he became a world champion. Everybody with the Astros praised him to the top of Tal’s Hill. The ridiculously steep incline is not there anymore, but the memory he made from running up it as a Met  lives on…as does the impact Beltran had on his championship team.
“[M]y purpose in this game,” he conveyed as he called it a career, “is not only to hit home runs or to win championships. It is to share what I know with the younger players, like so many other players have done for me.”
In that Players’ Tribune piece, Beltran mentioned warmly Reggie Jackson, someone Carlos “saw a lot of” when he was wearing his least appealing uniform. During Beltran’s seven postseasons, Jackson’s name tended to come up because each man excelled in October. Their respective bushels of home runs would come to mind because home runs are home runs, yet it was a ball that didn’t go out of a specific park that linked them for me in October of 2017. Game Four, ALDS, Houston at Boston, a Monday afternoon. The skies were drearier, the stakes a little differently calibrated — only the Red Sox had their backs firmly planted against the Green Monster — but 10/9/17 echoed 10/2/78, the date that has gone down in history as that of the Bucky Dent Game. Of course it was the Bucky Dent Game. Bucky Dent hit the three-run home run in that sudden-death American League East championship playoff that pushed the Yankees past of the Red Sox in the seventh inning. Dent had hit four home runs coming into Game 163. As long as the Yankees held on to that lead, you’re going to name the game for such an unlikely hero.
Dent, though, didn’t win the game for the Yankees. Not really. They led 3-2 when Dent went deep and 4-2 in the middle of the seventh. Jackson, twelve months removed from his indelible three-homer performance in Game Six of the 1977 World Series, led off the top of the eighth versus Bob Stanley and homered to make it 5-2. The Red Sox came back in the bottom of the eighth with two runs, yet Goose Gossage held them off from there. The final was 5-4. The Yankees won the division, the Red Sox went home, thereby capping and capsizing the one season I lived and ultimately died hard  with a team that wasn’t the Mets. (See what I got for watching the American League too closely?) Dent provided the legend, but Reggie was responsible for the margin of victory.
Almost exactly thirty-nine years later, it’s the Astros up two games to one on the Red Sox in a best-of-five situation. Houston could have swept the day before, but Mookie Betts made a fabulous catch to rob Josh Reddick of a home run and turned Game Three in Boston’s favor. Momentum was now on the loose and up for grabs. The Red Sox’ lives so depended on winning Game Four that John Farrell dispensed with the day after tomorrow and directed theoretical Game Five starter Chris Sale (17-8, 2.90) to take the mound in relief of Rick Porcello in the fourth inning. Porcello had given up two runs in three innings, but there was no time for niceties.
Not to be outdone, A.J. Hinch pulled an ace from his sleeve, sending his if-necessary Game Five starter Justin Verlander (5-0, 1.06 in five September starts following his trade from the Tigers) to relieve Charlie Morton during the fifth inning. The Astros were leading by a run. Didn’t matter to Hinch. Didn’t matter that they theoretically had a one-game cushion. If the other guy was gonna bring in his ace starter, he was gonna bring in his ace starter.
Whereas Sale retired the first six Astros he saw, Verlander, who entered with one on and out, immediately surrendered a two-run homer to Andrew Beinintendi. Suddenly the Red Sox led, 3-2. Suddenly the momentum was Boston’s. Sale remained unscored upon through the sixth and the seventh. Verlander settled in and posted zeroes, too. Sale was still on in the eighth when Alex Bregman came up to lead off. He homered to tie it at three. Sale got two more outs before being removed with a runner on first. Craig Kimbrel replaced him and eventually allowed the go-ahead run. Astros 4 Red Sox 3.
We throw the phrase “greatest game ever played” around quite a bit, especially in October. The first time I remember thinking it to myself while a game was in progress was the Yankees-Red Sox playoff. I thought of that game while I watched the Astros and Red Sox play this game, especially when it got to the top of the ninth and, with two out and two on, Carlos Beltran, pinch-hitting in the DH slot, doubled off Kimbrel to drive in one more Houston run to make it 5-3. The two-run lead allowed Astros closer Ken Giles, who had come on for Verlander in the eighth, a touch more breathing room, which was helpful, because Rafael Devers led off the bottom of the ninth with an inside-the-park home run. Giles was fine after that. Much as Gossage teased one last out from former MVP Carl Yastrzemski in 1978, Giles got his by besting former MVP Dustin Pedroia in 2017.
The final, from Fenway Park, was 5-4. Verlander in middle relief beat Sale in middle relief. This provisional candidate for greatest game ever played, at least until the next several came along, would be remembered, if it was to be remembered, for the starters who came out of the bullpen. Yet the literal difference in the end turned out to be the extra-base hit delivered late by Carlos Beltran. His team moved forward. The home team went home. It was very much like what Reggie Jackson wrought upon the Red Sox thirty-nine years earlier, except on this occasion I was rooting for the visitors.
The double was Beltran’s final RBI in the major leagues. He didn’t hit much in the ensuing ALCS or World Series. He didn’t have to. The players he mentored in Houston were plenty capable of hitting. They didn’t need his bat as much as they needed him. “After we lost Game Five of the ALCS to the Yankees,” he recounted in his retirement article, “I sensed that the guys were a little bit tense. So I called a team meeting, and I just talked to them in a very casual way. I wanted to loosen them up. And I guess it helped, because we went on to win Game Seven and advance to the World Series.” The leader he set out to be in 2005 quietly led his team all the way a dozen years later. Different team from when we started watching him closely, but time will do that.
Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays arrived second, in 2010, with Philadelphia, when Philadelphia didn’t need much help. They’d won three consecutive division titles, a pair of pennants and a World Series. The Phillies were going beyond the lesson imparted by “Hey Jude”. They were taking a glad song and making it better. For their NL East rivals who had distanced themselves in the wrong direction, Halladay to the Phillies was a hole in the Mets’ head.
Halladay had unfurled a magnificent career in Toronto without my dedicated attention. The Mets faced him only a few Interleague times and he never appeared in the postseason. I knew he won a Cy Young once, but otherwise had to sort him out from Pat Hentgen, another Blue Jay who had done the same several years before. Like I said, I don’t see much of the American League.
There’d be no mistaking who Roy Halladay was once he landed in Philly (in exchange for a package of prospects that included minor league catcher Travis d’Arnaud). The Mets saw him on a regular basis. The first time the Mets took him on, they didn’t get very far. Roy went nine, the Mets scored none. Mike Pelfrey and Raul Valdes gave up ten. How generous of them, considering the Phillies needed only one.
A few months later, the Mets saw Halladay on back-to-back weekends. It was my pleasure to be in the crowd both times, once at Citizens Bank Park, once at Citi Field. Though I recall having fun with friends at each game, “pleasure” should not be taken as an all-encompassing term here. The one in Philly presented the Mets an excellent chance to stick it to an ace. They kind of did, scoring two runs in the first, one in the sixth, two in the seventh.
Oh, the seventh. Halladay was still in there, still pitching, still getting by on an afternoon during which he allowed nine hits, the last three to the not so murderous row of Fernando Martinez, Josh Thole and Chris Carter. Halladay was the generous party here, making like a human versus some very human hitters. All that scoring, though, was to no avail. R.A. Dickey, in his revelation season, lacked his usual mystique. The Phillies plated six off him in three. And when Halladay might have been had, he got out of the seventh, first by flying out Pagan, then by striking out Beltran. Beltran may have never looked worse in a Mets uniform. He fanned three times, went hitless in four at-bats and, in pursuit of a catchable Jayson Werth fly ball, fought the wall. The wall won. Beltran banged into it. The ball cleared it. Philly’s bullpen handled the rest of the Mets to preserve a 6-5 win for Halladay. As if to prove the close call was a fluke, six nights later, in Flushing, Roy put his humanity on hold and robotically mowed down the Mets for eight innings and a 4-0 victory that was business as typical between the two opponents.
Halladay was a 15-8 pitcher once he was done with his home-and-home conquests of the Mets, 21-10 when the regular season was complete. He started the postseason, his first, by firing a no-hitter past the Reds. It went nicely with the perfect game he tossed at Florida in May. The American League Cy Young winner from 2003 proved a worthy unanimous choice for the National League version in 2010. I’d gotten a pretty good education in who Halladay was that year. When the Phillies formed their incomparable Legion of Arms  the next year — returning Cliff Lee to a rotation that already boasted Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels — there was no mistaking who was first among equals. Halladay started Opening Day in 2011 and faced the Mets in his second start, an 11-0 squashing that required less than two-and-a-half hours. Roy didn’t waste pitches and the Phillies were highly efficient scorers. They would go on to win 102 games, twenty-five more than the Mets. Halladay won nineteen of them.
From a Met perspective, the only solace to be had as the Phillies drew their fourth and fifth consecutive division titles was they slid backwards in October. From a world championship in 2008 and the NL flag in 2009, they lost the NLCS in 2010 and NLDS in 2011. Sweet Sheadenfreude, spiteful times never seemed so good (so good , so good ). We didn’t recognize that when they bowed out against St. Louis in the latter series, that was it. Halladay was beaten by his old Jays teammate Chris Carpenter in Game Five, 1-0. There’d be no more Phillies as we knew and loathed them. Ryan Howard lay on the ground, his Achilles tendon torn on the final swing of their mini-dynasty. Talk about symbolism.
The Phillies grew old and achy seemingly all at once in 2012. Halladay wasn’t immune. A strained shoulder put him on the DL for seven weeks. His ERA soared from the lower twos to the middle fours. He won only eleven games. The Phillies shrank to a .500 record — a mark they haven’t neared from below since.
Twenty Thirteen represented the end of the line for Halladay. A bad back got to him as hitters never did. The outings were few, the results unrecognizable. His second start of the year was again against the Mets. The old master was dueling a rising phenom, Matt Harvey. Narrative City was on high alert. But only one pitcher pitched to his notices. It was the kid. Young Harvey dominated the Phillies like Halladay had dominated the Mets and everybody else for the better part of the previous dozen seasons. Roy couldn’t do that anymore. He lasted four innings of a 7-2 loss. I was thrilled that Harvey (7 IP, 3 H, 9 SO) looked so sharp, yet I found myself distressed that Halladay struggled so mightily. This wasn’t how I wanted my narrative to flow. This wasn’t how I wished Cy Young winners to fade.
These things occur of their own volition, certainly without our consultation. Halladay retired after the 2013 season, the year the Mets finished ahead of the Phillies for the first time since 2006 (aided some by another highly touted kid pitcher, Zack Wheeler, the blue-chipper we got from the Giants for Beltran). We won 74 games, they won 73. It didn’t quite make up for the collapse of 2007, the September that put Philadelphia on the map, nor the echo thud that let them catch and pass us in 2008. We haven’t finished behind them since 2012, but that’s not really a prizeworthy accomplishment.
I really disliked those Phillies Halladay joined, some Phillies more than others. Halladay I never had it in for. It never occurred to me to do anything but respect him. I wished his prime had still been in effect in 2013 when he faced Harvey. That was the Halladay I wanted the Mets to beat. (I also wish Harvey was still in his prime right this very minute, but that’s another story.) I still dislike Werth, who made it easy for us to extend our animus toward him when he joined the ascendant Nationals in 2011. Our collective disdain for Utley was already off the charts when he was a Phillie; with the Dodgers, you couldn’t dream of fitting it inside a PowerPoint. I rooted for Hamels to nail down his 2015 no-hitter, because I almost always root for no-hitters, yet I continue to resent his willingly being goaded into calling the Mets “choke artists ” in 2008 (I mean, yeah, sure, they deserved it…but you the guy on the Phillies don’t get to say it). Shane Victorino was vile, though if he’d played for my team, I’d probably endlessly endorse his valor. Howard I never hated with the fury of a thousand Shanes, except when he batted.
Jimmy Rollins, last seen doing shtick alongside ex-Mets Pedro Martinez and Gary Sheffield on TBS’s postseason studio show, I was compelled to hate at his peak by his team-to-beat bluster, but I grudgingly admired the way he backed it up. Hated that he backed it up, of course. I read about Rollins during Spring Training this year. The decade between 2007 and 2017 might as well have been a century. That spring, he was preparing to knock off the Mets. This spring, he was trying to hang on with the Giants, making his own version of the Steve Carlton Don’t Give Up Until You’re Good and Ready Tour. Carlton was the great Phillie who stopped being adequate before he wanted to stop pitching. He bounced from the Phillies to the Giants, White Sox, Indians and Twins, growing inevitably older, pitching inevitably worse. He didn’t give up until he was 43. I never liked Steve Carlton. But I liked that he kept going.
Rollins in Spring Training 2017 was the bookend to what Beltran became after the 2017 World Series. The ex-Phillie, ex-Dodger and ex–White Sock was the veteran aiming for one more shot, preferably one that would find a happy ending. Beltran got his. It didn’t happen for Jimmy. He failed to make a team in spring that didn’t go anywhere in summer, but Bob Nightengale’s USA Today profile in February  alone made his attempt worthwhile. In it, Rollins expressed full awareness of where he was in baseball and cherished the last chance he had at a last chance. Retirement would mean the end of what he’d been doing all his life. Spring meant more. More grounders. More running. More chatting it up among baseball men in baseball uniforms, him being one of them.
“This is heaven right here,” Rollins told Nightengale. “There’s so much history here. I get the Willie treatment…” That’s Willie as in Willie Mays, a Giant presence every spring in Scottsdale. Willie got a kick out of razzing and coaching Jimmy. Jimmy got a kick out of being razzed and coached by Willie. Why wouldn’t you to try to stay in the game if they’re gonna let you get the Willie treatment?
The old shortstop knew the odds weren’t in his favor in an endeavor where experience wasn’t what it used to be. Not that 38 wasn’t always fairly ancient in baseball, but the industry Rollins encountered in spring was skewing as young as it reasonably could. “The game’s completely changed,” the player who came up in 2000 lamented seventeen years later. “When I came up, there were veterans everywhere. Teams wanted them in their clubhouse. But now, with sabermetrics and numbers part of the game, it’s about computers. You plug in numbers, and it spits out a player. It’s like you’re not wanted.”
Rollins wasn’t wanted by the Giants (he batted .125 in Spring Training), but Beltran didn’t have that problem in Houston — though had he shown up there a little sooner, he might have run smack into the perceptions Rollins described. Instead, Beltran’s role on the Astros, like that of veterans Brian McCann and Josh Reddick, according to an insightful post-Series analysis  by Jared Diamond in the Wall Street Journal, countered the burgeoning conventional wisdom of spring. Seeing as how the Astros constructed their championship by dismissing accepted practices, it’s instructive to realize their GM Jeff Luhnow leaned a little on the old-school component of clubhouse chemistry. Luhnow labeled it “the human element of baseball”. Prior to 2017, the numbers took precedence in Houston to such an extent that even the younger players admitted to being turned off. This year, it was an appropriate “blend” of people and data that carried the day for Luhnow’s team. By Diamond’s account, the youngsters and oldsters blended beautifully.
They must have. There was a trophy, a parade and everything else to prove it.
The Phillies certainly wanted Halladay around, and Halladay was amenable. He’d signed on as the organization’s mental skills coach, working with their minor leaguers at the club’s Clearwater training complex, convenient to his home and family. He was on the job two Mondays ago, the day before his solo airplane flight went awry and Sadness permeates baseball  because he’s gone. It’s a far deeper sadness than the twinge we might have felt when we learned Beltran, a hitter from 1998 through 2017, wouldn’t be playing anymore.
We’re lucky because we saw both Halladay and Beltran at their best, whatever league we watched them in, in whatever cap the Hall of Fame eventually chooses to portray them. We are particularly lucky that for a couple of years we got to see them in the same division, sixty feet six inches apart. For the record, in 2010 and 2011, Beltran of the Mets faced Halladay of the Phillies fifteen times. Carlos collected two singles and a two-run homer off Roy. Roy notched five strikeouts of Carlos.
OK, maybe we weren’t that lucky in context, but we definitely saw a couple of greats.