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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Sins of Carlos Beltran

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Faith and Fear in Flushing exists because the Mets signed Carlos Beltran in January 2005.

But it wouldn’t be an enormous exaggeration.

In 2005 the Mets already had a reputation for Wilponian meddling and aiming the gun at their own feet, but they hadn’t yet been wrecked by their Madoff misadventure or Major League Baseball’s determination to keep their hamstrung ownership in place. Beltran was a homegrown star who’d outgrown the Royals and logged half a season as a 27-year-old mercenary with the Astros, ending the year by lighting up the 2004 playoffs: a .435 average, 14 RBIs, 21 runs scored, and homers in five straight games.

It was a performance destined to make him very rich, he was the best player on the free-agent market, and the Mets wanted him. Back then, that was enough. The Mets inked Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million deal — not eye-popping now, but a gargantuan sum and commitment then. An exciting new era of Mets baseball was under way, Beltran was going to be its centerpiece, and two lunatic Mets fans decided it was time to turn their daily email kvetching, flights of nostalgic fancy and occasional moments of happiness into something public.

We were a long way from finding our tone, rhythm or anything else — those early posts are just us talking to each other, as we’d been doing over email. But Beltran was on our minds from the start. And in the second-ever Faith and Fear post, Greg offered a prescient warning:

Nevertheless, we will tire of Carlos Beltran. Let me be the first to welcome him to Flushing and show him the door. Not for at least five years, I hope, but it’ll happen. He or his swing will slow down. The strange breezes and thunderous flight path to LaGuardia will get to him. He won’t lead us to the promised land nearly enough and his salary will become unmanageable. He will get booed. Not now, but eventually. It always happens.

What we didn’t imagine was how quickly it would happen. Beltran was hobbled by a quad injury, played through it or was pushed to play through it (you never know, given the Mets) when he probably shouldn’t have, and put up a first season that wasn’t bad — a 2.9 WAR — but wasn’t otherworldly. The fanbase, understandably, wanted otherworldly; a chunk of that fanbase, less understandably, felt entitled to it. Beltran was booed vociferously and complained about endlessly on the airwaves and in the comment sections of the ever-expanding constellation of blogs about the Mets.

Most of those complaints were typical of people who can only see baseball in terms of effort and grit and the will to win and other rah-rah bushwah accepted as intellectual currency by dolts. (Because the universe is malign, these people inevitably sit within two rows of me and are the loudest in their section.) Ironically, Beltran might have won these fans over if he hadn’t been so good in center field — he had an encyclopedic knowledge of positioning and excelled at reading balls off the bat and taking first steps, which let him glide into the gap or back to the fence and corral a lot of drives without lunging or diving, as lesser center fielders needed to do. Fewer showy plays; less balls falling in. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, even if it means you’re not on as many highlight reels.

One ball Beltran did dive for could have cost him his career — in August 2005, he collided head-to-head with right fielder Mike Cameron in San Diego, one of the most frightening outfield mishaps I’ve seen in more than four decades of watching baseball. Beltran suffered a fractured cheekbone, sustained a concussion that left him unable to remember the next few hours, and contended with bouts of vertigo. He returned to the field six days later and played every game remaining on the schedule. His naysayers would spend the next half-decade deriding him as fragile anyway.

There was also an ugly undertone to that first year. With Omar Minaya at the front-office helm, the Mets were championed (and eventually marketed) as Los Mets, a showcase for Latin superstars such as Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Delgado. That didn’t sit well with some fans, who saw “Los Mets” not as a way to invite in fans who’d felt little noticed or left out, but as a calculated affront aimed at shoving them aside.

In 2006 Beltran reported for duty healthy, but got off to a slow start, and heard the boos again. That all changed on April 6, one of the more interesting early-season games in franchise history. It was a chippy affair between the Mets and the Nationals, with lead changes and batters taking balls to the ribs. In the seventh, with the Mets up by one, Beltran hit a two-run homer and circled the bases to cheers from the Shea crowd. His face remained impassive, and he plunked himself down on the bench, stone-faced as the fans demanded a curtain call.

It was a peace offering, but Beltran showed zero interest in accepting it. The moment went on, increasingly uncomfortably, until Julio Franco got up from his seat and spoke quietly but pointedly to his teammate. Beltran listened and popped out of the dugout to wave. It was a perfunctory gesture, but the war was over and a magical season (which Beltran represents in A Met for All Seasons) had begun. Beltran tied a club mark with 41 homers, drove in 116, won his first Gold Glove, and put up 8.2 of WAR — an MVP-caliber season. Along the way there were a pair of celebrated walkoffs — a May drive off Philadelphia’s Ryan Madson at 12:33 a.m. in the 16th inning (Gary Cohen exulted that “we’re going home!”) and an August bottom-of-the-ninth homer off St. Louis’s Jason Isringhausen. (Cohen: “HE RIPS IT TO DEEP RIGHT! THAT BALL IS OUTTA HERE! OUTTA HERE! THE METS WIN THE BALLGAME!”)

In the NLCS, Beltran won Game 1 for the Mets with a 430-foot drive off Jeff Weaver and went deep twice in Game 4. He hit .296 for the series … but all anyone remembers is his final at-bat in Game 7. That came with rookie Adam Wainwright on the mound — ironically, he’d stepped in as closer for an injured Isringhausen — and Yadier Molina (then somehow just 24 years old) behind the plate.

It was Cardinals 3, Mets 1, but Wainwright started the bottom of the ninth by giving up back-to-back singles to Jose Valentin and hero-in-waiting Endy Chavez, got Cliff Floyd looking on a curve, then threw Jose Reyes a 1-2 curve — one Reyes lined to center but saw hang up for Jim Edmonds. He then walked Paul Lo Duca, with Anderson Hernandez taking Lo Duca’s place as a pinch-runner. It would come down to Wainwright and Beltran.

As Beltran gathered himself, Molina went to the mound — his third visit of the inning — and told Wainwright to start with a sinker. He then changed his mind and called for a change-up. Wainwright hit the inside corner for strike one, a perfect pitch. Molina called for the curveball inside, another tough pitch that Wainwright executed. Beltran fouled it off for an 0-2 count. Molina decided to double up on the curve, and this time he set up on the outside edge. Wainwright threw what he later said was the best pitch he’d ever thrown for a called strike three, the game and the pennant.

Beltran after that K

And then this happened.

Wainwright would ride that curve to a very successful career, but he’d had trouble harnessing it that inning, throwing two high curves to Valentin and hanging one to Reyes, which unfortunately wound up hit right at Edmonds. He’d gotten the pitch over to strike out Floyd, but the sequence he dropped on Beltran came after an inning in which he’d scuffled and battled. But at the critical moment, with a lot of help from a precocious young catcher showing you why he’d be a Hall of Famer, Wainwright made the pitches he needed to make.

John Smoltz called the called strike “the perfect pitch at the perfect time to the perfect place,” which was true. But it wasn’t like Wainwright had engineered a never-before-seen, unhittable pitch in a lab and waited until then to break it out. Watch baseball and actually pay attention to it and you’ll see pitches like that one all the time: a hitter gets to two strikes, looks fastball and gets a 12-to-6 curve instead. His knees lock up, the hands freeze, the back goes rigid in dismay, and that little moment tells the pitcher and the catcher that the out is secured even before it hits the glove. What follows can look like a magic trick, with pitcher and catcher headed to the dugout even before the pitch breaks and the hitter left standing with the ump as he records the punch-out for posterity.

Cue the outraged calls to the FAN: “Yeah, but you can’t get caught looking in a big moment like that!” Oh please. Baseball doesn’t work that way — players don’t save a higher gear for big moments, and anyone who says otherwise has succumbed to magical thinking. If anything, players succeed by putting aside the stakes of a moment, along with every other distraction; as Ray Knight put it, “concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary.” It’s not like Beltran stands alone, either — in 2010, both League Championship Series ended on called third strikes, with Alex Rodriguez caught looking for the Yankees and Ryan Howard for the Phillies.

I suspect Beltran’s entire Mets career would be regarded differently if he’d swung and missed that final pitch instead of taking it, even though it would have changed nothing. Should he have swung too late to show he really cared? Smashed himself in the face with the bat to express his grief? Does Beltran remain unappreciated because he didn’t grimace enough? If that’s the case, who does it indict: Beltran, or columnists and fans who judge a player’s value by modern-day phrenology?

Still, that moment has been useful to me as a fan. If your takeaway from that pitch is anything like the stuff above, I’ll smile and chit-chat with you, and we’ll even high-five if the Mets score, but I’m not going to take you or anything you say about baseball seriously, because you’ve shown me that would be a waste of my time.

Beltran followed his amazing 2006 season with All-Star campaigns in 2007 and 2008, and was solid down the stretch in both seasons as the Mets collapsed around him. And he kept supplying highlights — a game-saving, 14th-inning catch nearly all the way up Tal’s Hill in Houston in 2007, a two-out, ninth-inning, come-from-behind grand slam off the Marlins the next year.

71-style Beltran manager card

A card that got away for a job that did the same.

Beltran’s 2009 was wrecked by injuries; in January 2010 he opted for knee surgery against the wishes of the Mets, and didn’t return until the All-Star break. That was probably too soon, as he’d pretty clearly lost a step in center and was rusty at the plate. The dispute kicked off a war with his employers, one that would last for the rest of his Mets tenure. Given the Mets’ approach to handling injuries at the time, best described as a combination of negligence, incompetence and bullying, I knew whose side I was on. But the anti-Beltran brigade blamed him, calling him selfish and fragile. Just like they blamed him later in 2010, when the Mets publicly called him out, along with Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, for skipping a trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C.

It was a shameful display of bullying regardless of the circumstances: The Mets were unhappy with all three players and decided to sic the press and fans on them for a public shaming. It turned out Beltran had missed the visit because he had a lunch meeting about a school his foundation was building in Puerto Rico, which is a lot better excuse than I’ve ever brought to the table. A couple of days after that, agent Scott Boras nailed the real problem: “The team has a duty to run the organization professionally. Giving the players [short] notice, knowing they have plans or obligations in their personal lives, and then to admonish the players without checking, it’s totally unprofessional on all fronts.” I’m not particularly a fan of Boras, but if you’d like to contest the accuracy of that judgment, look back at the Mets of the early Citi Field era and get back to me.

The next season, the knives were out again amid speculation that Beltran wouldn’t cede center field to Angel Pagan. But he did, saying that he felt he could still play there but “this is not about Carlos — this is about the team.” Healthy again, he put up excellent numbers, good enough for the Mets to trade the stub of his contract to the Giants for Zack Wheeler in a steal of a deal. After six and a half tumultuous years, his time in New York was over. Beltran would play six more seasons as a baseball nomad, suiting up for the Cardinals, Yankees and Rangers before ending his career with a return to the Astros and a 2017 World Series ring. He exited as a sure-fire Hall of Famer, praised not just for his accomplishments on the field but also for his value as a mentor in the dugout and the clubhouse. (Though hold that thought.) And his place in the Mets record books was impressive then and now: Beltran is third in career WAR and Win Probability Added, trailing only David Wright and Darryl Strawberry.

The passage of time healed the wounds between Beltran and his former team, and in November 2019 the Mets hired him as manager, replacing the hapless Mickey Callaway. But the timing was terrible: Not long after his introductory press conference, Beltran was swept up in the scandal around the Astros, who’d had employees steal catchers’ signs via video, then pass them to hitters by signals, most famously by thumping on a trash can. Beltran at first denied that the Astros had stolen signs, but investigations revealed that they had, and he and bench coach Alex Cora had been the ringleaders. That cost Cora his job as manager of the Red Sox, A.J. Hinch his job as the Astros’ skipper, and Beltran his return engagement with the Mets, before it ever began. For once, the Mets made the right decision: The hectoring would have never stopped, causing ample distractions in a year fated to have no shortage of them.

Since then, Hinch and Cora have returned to the managerial ranks; so far, Beltran remains out in the cold, with the Mets signaling that Luis Rojas will most likely return as skipper in 2021. I don’t disagree with that, but I do hope that if Beltran is properly penitent — as he needs to be — he gets another chance to manage.

I want that for reasons both praiseworthy and petty. It would give Beltran a chance to showcase his deep understanding of and love for the game, in a role where I think he’d excel. But I’d also love to shove that success into the faces of his detractors, the ones who still dislike one of this franchise’s greatest players for his supposed sins. For not showboating when he could glide, for not throwing tantrums when he failed, for not trusting his health to the Mets’ idiot doctors and cheapskate owners, for not managing to hit an impossible 12-to-6 curve when geared up for a fastball, for being injured, for being rich, for being Carlos Beltran.

1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1968: Cleon Jones
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1976: Mike Phillips
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1980: Lee Mazzilli
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1984: Wally Backman
1985: Dwight Gooden
1986: Keith Hernandez
1987: Lenny Dykstra
1988: Gary Carter
1989: Ron Darling
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
1999: John Olerud
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Michael Conforto
2016: Matt Harvey
2017: Paul Sewald
2018: Noah Syndergaard
2019: Dom Smith
2020: Pete Alonso
2021: Steve Cohen

12 comments to The Sins of Carlos Beltran

  • open the gates

    I attended a game where Carlos Beltran raced to the wall, leaped way above the fence, and stole a home run from the opposing batter. It’s still the best fielding play I ever saw in person from any Met not named Rey Ordonez. The man could play every aspect of the game, superlatively.

    As for Carlos’s “sins” – Strike Three hurt, for sure. But what people forget is that the Mets are not one strike away from the World Series without Carlos Beltran in the first place. I still think he should have won the MVP that year. The only sin I hold him responsible for is the sign stealing. If you’re a major leaguer and you’re caught cheating, you take your medicine like a man. I got on Beltran’s case as much as anyone else over that, but I wouldn’t be dismayed were he to receive a second chance somewhere.

    On a side note – I wonder which New York Met holds the record for the most Gary Cohen double-“Outahere!” calls. I’m thinking either Cespedes or Alonso, but I could be wrong.

  • dgw

    I never understood the animosity towards Beltran. He is probably the best centerfielder in Mets history, and the best player we have had for years. To me, I’ll always think of him making that amazing catch while running up Tal’s hill in Houston

  • I honestly think that may have been the best column I’ve ever read on FAFIF. Three notes.

    “Concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary.” I’ve never heard that quote from Ray Knight before – excellent.

    I was at that game in 2006 and it was indeed amazing.

    I’d like to see Beltran offered a position as a spring training coach/roving minor league instructor this year, particularly as the entire minor league system will be in NY or one easy JetBlue flight away.

  • Seth

    I saw the title of the article and just assumed it would be very short…

  • Steve D

    I think Carlos Beltran took too much blame for that called third strike. However, it has become chic to consider him a great Met. The guy signed a massive 7 year deal and had 3 great seasons, and 4 mediocre and/or injury plagued seasons. Just because the Mets have had a ridiculously low number of elite hitters in their history we should not elevate 3 great seasons out of 7 to something more than it was.

  • Lenny65

    So, it’s down to 1979. No way it isn’t Gil Flores.

  • BlackCountryMet

    A very balanced and well thought out article.. I enjoyed it

  • eric1973

    Regarding 1979, with the expanding number of teams now in the race for the playoffs, I think we would have still been in it going into the final day of the season!

  • Dave

    For 1979, I nominate the ushers at Shea who would let you sit wherever you wanted in the field level box seats if you slipped them a dollar or two.