Tag: Johnny Damon

Crols Gomez Brian McCann

Brian McCann’s free agency is everything wonderful/terrible about free agency


Free agents can sign anywhere as of midnight last night, and one of the biggest free agents on the market is Brian McCann. And for good reason: he’s a good catcher who can hit a ton. What’s not to like? Many teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers will be after him. He’s going to make bank.

Of course his free agency is also going to bring two free agency memes that I have grown to love in some twisted way. The first one is on display in this Daily News story:

McCann’s agent, B.B. Abbott, said Monday that the Bronx is “certainly a place that is on Brian’s radar. How could it not be? You’ve got an historic franchise and a great park, knowledgeable fans and a chance to win, which is what every guy plays the game for. From Brian’s standpoint, it would be an attractive place to listen to.”

That’s actually pretty strong as far as these sorts of endorsements go, likely because Abbott knows that the Yankees will be bidders. But it’s also a species of public comment about free agents we often see this time of year, and which often leads to fan and talk radio craziness.

In essence, it’s a player or his agent saying true, non-controversial things about a city because, really, what else does one say? Yet whenever someone says something fairly benign like this, it’s taken as some strong signal that the player is seriously, seriously interested. Indeed, anything short of “[city] is a cesspool” launches free agent chatter about this player being “linked” to that city. It’s right up there with “[Player X] will sign with [Team Y] because he grew up nearby.” Which rarely happens with top free agents.

By the way: Scott Boras can be annoying, but he’s also pretty brilliant. He was aware of this meme years ago, which is why he can usually be found saying things about his clients and certain cities. Remember when Johnny Damon liked calamari? That was to get Detroit people chattering and, hopefully, to make Detroit’s front office feel fan pressure.  If Abbott is wise, he’ll come out tomorrow talking about how much McCann likes chowder. The good kind, that is. Not that tomato-y crap.

The other thing I bet we’ll see at the end of McCann’s free agency is The Great Fan Turn. You know what I’m talking about: when a player who is loathed for some reason is suddenly seen in an entirely new light the moment he appears in his new team’s uniform. We’ll see it with McCann, I can bet you a million bucks. The same fans who made fun of McCann’s antics and yelling during the Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez home runs — the people who mocked him and forwarded Photoshops of McCann yelling during great moments in history — will suddenly come around to McCann’s “passion.” They’ll have some newfound perspective about it all, and will come to appreciate his fire.

And, of course, Braves fans who got all bent out of shape when people criticized McCann will begin to proclaim that they always really kinda hated that guy.

Which is fine. It’s sports and that’s how sports and sports fans roll. We’re irrational and we root for laundry and we can be talked into almost anything and anyone if they’re on our team. We may pretend we’re more objective about it — the folks who see McCann in a new light after he signs his contract will mostly claim that they’ve thought about it more rather than felt something visceral once he put on their teams cap at a press conference —  but after writing about sports and interacting with sports fans for seven years, the thing I am the most confident of is that the single most predictive piece of data for one’s position on any given issue in sports is what team one roots for.

So bring on the free agent rumors and signings. And bring on the fan reactions. All of it ads to the fun and chaos of the hot stove season.

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Red Sox redefine what it means to be dynasty


These Boston Red Sox are a new kind of dynasty. I suppose there’s a question if they really ARE a dynasty, if that word “Dynasty” even means anything in today’s game, with 30 teams and the game’s structure pushing toward parity. But Boston did win its third World Series in a 10-year-span. Only eight teams have done that since the Live Ball Era began in 1920.

— The 1923-32 Yankees — powered By Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, etc. — won four World Series.

— The 1926-34 Cardinals – first Rogers Hornsby and then the Gashouse Gang with Frankie Frisch and Ripper Collins and Pepper Martin — won three World Series.

— The 1936-43 Yankees — with some leftovers from the earlier dynasty plus Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Joe Gordon — won six World Series.

— The 1942-46 Cardinals — Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion — won three World Series.

— The 1947-62 Yankees won 10 World Series. In the early years of baseball’s greatest dynasty the Yankees were driven by DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and so on. The later years was driven by Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Elston Howard and so on. It’s hard to draw dynasty lines when it comes to the Yankees because one dominant team simply bumps into another.

— The 1955-65 Dodgers won four World Series. The first was the last stand for Brooklyn and the Boys of Summer — Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and that great bunch. The last three championships were in L.A., with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale at the heart.

— The 1972-74 Oakland Athletics won three World Series in a row. The best players: Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Joe Rudi.

— The 1996-2009 Yankees dominated their time with five World Series championships — Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera were on the first and last of those teams.

More: Red Sox win World Series after routing Cards | What a difference a year makes

— I went through all eight of those dynasties for a reason: There is something connecting them all. When you think of those dynasty teams, you think of players. You might think of managers — Casey Stengel, Walter Alston, Joe McCarthy, Joe Torre. You might think of a certain style, a certain rhythm, a certain ethos. You might think of the nicknames and rebelliousness of the 1970s A’s, the high mounds of the 1960s Dodgers, the Murderers’ Row lineup of the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees.

This Red Sox team? No. They have none of that. Oh, they’ve had great players. They’re just not the SAME great players. You’ve probably seen the answer already, but do you know how many players on this year’s Red Sox championship team were also on the Red Sox team that broke the curse in 2004?*

*Speaking of curses: A lot of people, it seemed, were trying to make a big deal out of the fact that this year was the first time that the Red Sox had clinched a World Series AT HOME since 1918. Television made it seem like the overriding story of the Series. The “clinch at home” angle seemed to give everyone a chance to trot out all the old curse talk, rehash the Babe Ruth trade, chat up all the old Red Sox fans who have been coming to the park for decades and had never gotten the chance to see a World Series clincher.

Seriously – clinching a World Series at home is a thing now? It’s not enough to just win two World Series in the previous eight years, not you have to win it at home for it to really count? I mean, look, it’s great that a wonderful town like Boston got to win the World Series in a wonderful park like Fenway. Happy that it worked out that way. It was great to see Red Sox fans get to unleash their happiness.

But I believe, and my Red Sox friends seem agree — not winning a World Series AT HOME is not a thing. It’s not a curse. It’s not a drought. It’s not anything. If you win a World Series you win a World Series, it doesn’t matter where. The Chicago White Sox have not clinched a World Series at home since 1906. The Reds did not clinch either of the Big Red Machine World Series at home. Those poor Giants fans have never clinched a World Series in San Francisco. So what? The Red Sox don’t have a losing tradition anymore. It’s over, you can’t just keep bringing it up like it’s a storyline. The Red Sox have won three World Series in 10 years. It’s time for everyone to just deal with being Boston being Goliath.

Sorry, back to the question: How many players from 2004 — even in a minor role — were on the 2013 team?

Answer: One. That’s ONE. Uno. Une. Odin. Um. Ett. David Ortiz is the only one left. He was an awesome DH for the 2004 Red Sox. He was an awesome DH for the 2013 Red Sox. That’s all. One.

And this goes beyond players. The manager is gone. The general manager is gone. The pitcher and catcher on that 2004 team — Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek — are now special assistants to Ben Cherington, who was a player-development guy back for the Red Sox then. The highest ranked guy in the front office who seems to have the same job he had in 2004 is writer, historian and sabermetrician Bill James. More on him in a minute.

More: Ortiz wins World Series MVP | Is Papi headed to the Hall?

The point is not that this team has changed from 2004. All teams change. The 2009 Yankees were very different from the 2000 Yankees. No, the point is that this is a completely different team from 2004. And, even stranger, the 2007 team in the middle that won a World Series is kind of distinct from either team. Take a look at the Top 5 WAR from each team.

2004: Johnny Damon, Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Varitek, Mark Bellhorn.

2007: Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Coco Crisp.

2013: Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ortiz, Mike Napoli.

Other than Ortiz on all three teams and Pedroia the last two, there are no matches. And top five pitchers by WAR? It’s even more striking.

2004: Curt Schilling, Martinez, Keith Foulke, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Timlin.

2007: Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Schilling, Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima.

2013: Clay Buchholz, Koji Uehara, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Craig Breslow.

Other than Schilling, again, no overlap whatsoever. The Red Sox dynasty, if you are willing to call it that, represents three distinct and largely unconnected teams.

This is the time in which we live. Baseball is geared heavily against dynasties these days. There are the reasons everyone talks about how much it costs to try and keep a great team together. That cost can hit you two ways. One, the obvious way, it can cost too much to keep your best players. The Pittsburgh Pirates of the early 1990s won three consecutive division titles, then Barry Bonds and others left for more money, and the Pirates were dreadful. The 1990s Cleveland Indians went to two World Series, then Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon and others priced themselves out and they had to start over. The 2003 Marlins had a young Beckett and Miguel Cabrera and others, but, not long after, did not have any of them.

But there the less obvious and perhaps deadlier way cost can destroy a great team. This happens when teams spend a ton of money to keep their best players (or to import new ones). This can often cripple the team in utterly unexpected ways. Look at the Yankees now. Look at the Angels. This, of course, happened to the Red Sox. They spent a fortune on Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and Lackey and a fortune to retain Beckett, Youkilis and Papelbon. And what they found was that when things weren’t going well, they were powerless to do much about it. The team got stale. The older players faded but were huge investments and so played too big a role. There was no freedom to make changes. The Red Sox floundered away a playoff berth in 2011. They were the worst Red Sox team in a couple of generations in 2012.

That’s why the Red Sox get so much credit for the enormous trade they made with the Dodgers last year. They should. The Red Sox didn’t really GET anybody in that deal. And they traded away good players — Gonzalez had a good year for the Dodgers, Crawford wasn’t bad when he was healthy — but it was still a win for the Red Sox. They were able to take the team back. They were able to reorder and refocus the direction. And some good things followed, some expected, some not. Lackey rebounded, which was huge. Uehara decided to become unhittable, which was huge. Victorino, at 32, took to Fenway Park (he hit .322/.365/.485 there and was fantastic defensively) and had perhaps his best season. That, too, was huge.

And the rest came together. The starting pitching was good enough. The bullpen was terrific despite injuries. The lineup blended familiar Red Sox faces like Pedroia, Ortiz and Ellsbury with some shrewd choices like Victorino, Napoli, and 30-year-old minor-league lifer Daniel Nava. They led all of baseball in runs scored.

So, they were smart about the way they built this team. But it isn’t just cost that crushed dynasties. It isn’t just the crazy distractions that come after winning. No, there’s something more direct: You need postseason luck to win a World Series now. Take a look at the dynasties above. Six of the eight came before the 1969 expansion. That meant the teams who won their league went right to the World Series. They did not have to pass Go. They did not have to collect $200. There were no five-game Division Series. There was no seven-game Championship Series. Win the league, win the Series. Two steps.

The Oakland A’s of the early 1970s had three steps. They had to win five-game championship series each of their three seasons. They beat Detroit in 1972, Baltimore in ’73 and ’74. Two of those series went five games.

Then you look at the amazing Yankees run where they won four World Series in five years. It was an incredible run because suddenly there were FOUR steps. Win the division (or Wild Card). Win the Division Series. Win the Championship Series. Win the World Series. Even great teams need luck. The Yankees did. The Jeter flip (or the Jeremy Giambi non-slide). The Jeffrey Maier game. In 2000, the Yankees won only 87 games — they had the fifth-best record in the American League — but they made it into the playoffs, and they won the World Series.

Then, for the next eight years, the Yankees did not win the World Series. They were almost annually the best team. The Yankees had the best record in the American League in 2002, ‘03, ‘04, ’06 and ’07 (tie) and did not win the World Series any of those years (You can throw in ‘11 and ’12, too). This is the essence of the playoff system. It brings a lot more luck into the game. It basically invalidates the season. It gives the surviving teams a fresh start in a much more volatile kind of tournament. Not one time from 2000-12 did the best record in the American League play the best record in the National League.

So, to win three World Series in a decade the way the Red Sox have, they have needed to win nine postseason series. And in many ways, winning the actual World Series has been the easy part. In 2004, the Red Sox had to come from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS. In 2007, the Red Sox trailed the Cleveland Indians 3-1 in the ALCS. They roared back and stomped Cleveland three in a row. This year, the real challenge was probably Game 2 against Detroit in the ALCS. The Red Sox had lost Game 1 at home, they trailed Game 2 by four runs in the eighth inning when Jim Leyland went to his calamitous bullpen and Papi hit the grand slam. No slam, it’s hard to see the Red Sox winning that series.

More: Cardinals will be back, and often | Ellsbury, Drew take star turns in possible Fenway finales

But they did. Three times in the last decade they got into the postseason and then navigated through. It’s a different kind of success from Stengel’s Yankees or Koufax’s Dodgers. This is what a 21st Century dynasty looks like.

Finally, Bill James. As mentioned, he seems to be the highest-ranking front-office guy — not counting the executive guys like president Larry Lucchino and owner John Henry — to have been around for all three championships. It’s hard to say exactly what Bill does for the Red Sox. He’s very discreet about it, and he would never take any credit whatsoever for Boston’s success. It was funny to see Jonny Gomes, in the glow of winning a World Series, choose to rip sabermetrics — a word Bill James coined — since I’m guessing it was probably some sabermetric thinking that got Gomes to Boston in the first place.

But here’s something to think about. A little more than a year ago, when the Red Sox were in the middle of their disastrous season, Henry went public with his complaint that the Red Sox had not listened enough to James in recent years. James is one of the great baseball minds in the history of the game. He has changed the way countless people look at baseball – and other things too. He is constantly questioning what we know, what we think we know, what we should know, what we can’t know. In his role with the Red Sox, he does not decide who to trade, who to draft, who to acquire, who to start or how to play. He is just there to ask questions and to be a different voice.

The Red Sox had stopped listening to him for a while, and they fell off considerably. I’m not saying ignoring Bill James was the reason why they went in the tank. But I do think it was a symptom of why. They stopped asking questions because, I think, they believed that they had all the answers.

John Henry announced last year that Bill James would report directly to him, and his voice would again be heard in the organization. Did that make a difference? I suspect people in Boston are too busy celebrating another World Championship to worry too much about it.

Four years later, 2009 free-agent pair comes up big in LCSs

ALCS - Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers - Game Three

Headlined by three players, the post-2009 season MLB free agent class was undoubtedly the weakest seen in at least a decade. The prizes: Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday (acquired from the A’s earlier that summer), Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay and Angels right-hander John Lackey.

The field was so bad that the fourth biggest contract went to Chone Figgins (four years, $36 million from Seattle). Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman (six years, $30.25 million from the Reds) and left-hander Randy Wolf (three years, $29.75 million) were the only other players to get contracts worth a guaranteed $20 million.

The big question at the time was whether the Red Sox would re-sign Bay or try to upgrade to Holliday in left field. Instead, they shocked pretty much everyone with their play for Lackey, signing him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in mid-December. They added Mike Cameron on a two-year deal at the same time to officially take themselves out of the mix for the top two outfielders.

Bay went on to sign with the Mets two weeks later, getting a guaranteed $66 million over four years. About 10 days after that, Holliday reupped with the Cardinals for $120 million over seven years. The Orioles were also reported to be in the running for Holliday, but that might have been mostly posturing. Before signing Lackey, the Red Sox reportedly offered Holliday the same five-year, $82.5 million deal that the right-hander received, then moved on when it was declined.

Obviously, of the long-term contracts, only those given to Holliday and Chapman worked out as hoped. Lackey, though, has earned his money this year. He and Holliday both came up very big on Wednesday, with Lackey pitching 6 2/3 scoreless innings in Boston’s 1-0 win over Detroit and Holliday hitting a two-run homer in the Cardinals’ 4-2 defeat of the Dodgers.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how much different things would look right now if the Red Sox had stepped up and signed Holliday, as many thought they would. Lackey had a solid first season in Boston before posting a 6.41 ERA in 2011 and missing all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery. Cameron was injured and rather ineffective in his Boston stint. Obviously, Holliday would have been great to have around in the middle of the order from day one. However, if the Red Sox had signed him, they probably wouldn’t have landed Adrian Beltre on a bargain one-year deal later that winter. Those two went on to produce very similar numbers in 2010.

One thing is for sure: if the Red Sox had signed Holliday, they wouldn’t have given Carl Crawford a seven-year, $142 million contract to play left field the following winter. And if they hadn’t done that, there’s no megatrade with the Dodgers a year ago (perhaps they also don’t trade for Adrian Gonzalez in the first place).

And if the Cardinals had missed out on Holliday? Well, it doesn’t seem like they had any interest in Bay, so they probably would have dodged that bullet. It also isn’t very likely that they would have ended up with Lackey. Perhaps they would have signed Beltre instead, though that would have meant bypassing David Freese at third base. They also could went after Johnny Damon as a left fielder and leadoff man.

For the long term, without Holliday, one imagines there would have been no 2011 World Series championship. There likely would have been more pressure to re-sign Albert Pujols, and if the Cardinals could have gotten that done, not only would they probably be stuck with maybe the game’s worst contracts, but they could have missed out on Michael Wacha, who was selected with the Angels’ pick in the 2012 draft (also, the Angels very well could have ended up with Crawford in this scenario, making it even more likely that Pujols stays in St. Louis).

In the end, it seems that everything worked out for the best. Well, not for the Mets, obviously. And the Mariners.  And the Angels. And, lets face it, 2011-12 weren’t too peachy for the Red Sox. But it definitely worked out best for the Cardinals, and I’m sure at least half of you will tell me that’s really all that matters.

Carlos Beltran, from Royals project to Paul Newman

carlos beltran royals

We were in Florida in a place we still stubbornly called Baseball City. This was 1999 — it had been a long time since you could say the name without smirking. A decade earlier there had been an amusement park here called “Boardwalk and Baseball;” it was a strange blend of carnival, petting zoo, circus and baseball. ESPN hosted a game show here for a short while. The Kansas City Royals moved in when they were still one of America’s great baseball teams.

By 1999, though, the only thing left from the old “Boardwalk and Baseball” dream were sections of rail of the roller coaster. These tracks apparently were too difficult to take down, so they stayed up and wound through the spring training grounds, tracks going nowhere, a too-obvious-symbol for the Kansas City Royals. In 1999, the Royals had no owner, no money, no real idea what to do next. That was the year they brought in a Canadian softball pitcher for a tryout. The Royals’ brass — of whatever you call the people trying to make some sense of this mess — gathered around the pitcher and argued whether or not he was balking on every pitch.

We still called the place Baseball City. Maybe it was irony. Maybe it was just guileless hope.

The Royals had not been the same since their owner and patriarch, Ewing Kauffman, had died in in 1993. Kauffman was not much of a baseball fan when he stepped forward and brought the Royals to town. But he was the shrewdest of businessmen, and he hired smart people like Cedric Tallis and John Schuerholz to run baseball operations, and he was ingenious in how he ran the business side of the team. He gave community leaders blue jackets, called them “Royals Lancers” and had them sell season tickets. He had his scouts find raw athletes with little baseball experience and put them in a baseball academy — that was how the Royals developed Frank White.

And, before he died, Kauffman developed a complicated succession plan that would keep the Royals in Kansas City. That was the good part. The bad part was that it was exceedingly hard to execute. Six years after he died, 1999, the Royals were still without an owner; they were being run by a trust and the money of a few local businesses. The Royals had a $32 million payroll the year before, one of the lowest in baseball. They had to cut it in half for 1999.

So, they looked at softball pitchers, and they drafted players who didn’t want too much money, and they traded away moderately high-priced players like Jeff Conine and Kevin Appier, and more than anything they dipped into their minor league system and brought up people who were absolutely not ready for the big leagues. A second baseman named Carlos Febles was rushed up from Class AA. They go very excited about a young pitcher named Orber Moreno who, suddenly and unexpectedly, was throwing 100 mph (not for long, he would blow out his arm just as the season started).

One of those people was a talented but enigmatic young man from Puerto Rico named Carlos Beltran.

Beltran had been the classic underachiever — everybody knew he had first-round talent but he was taken in the second round because nobody seemed sure if he cared enough about baseball to try. As a 19-year-old in Class A, he flashed a touch of power, a hint of speed, but he hit .249 and drove coaches and managers mad. Where was the fire? Where was the hunger? The next year, at 20, they started him in high A ball and he hit .229. They sent him down to low A and he was entirely useless.

Nobody seemed sure what to do with him. The talent was enormous. Beltran was a switch-hitter. He had this astonishing speed that was masked by his grace — he hardly seemed to be running. He had natural power. When he decided to unleash throws, his arm was fantastic. But something was always holding him back. He was painfully shy, easily embarrassed, the language barrier overwhelmed him.

The Royals decided to try him back in high Class A as a 21-year-old, and he played somewhat better. He showed a little more aggression. He really did not play well enough to earn a promotion, but the Royals gave him one anyway just to see what would happen. And, well, wow. He went to Class AA Wichita and all of a sudden he was electrifying. He hit .352/.427/.687 with 14 homers and seven stolen bases in just 47 games.

What happened? Nobody in Kansas City seemed entirely sure. They called him up to Kansas City in September to get a close-up look. And it was striking: Beltran seemed at home in the big leagues. He hit three triples in 14 games, stole the first three bases he attempted, looked at home in Kansas City’s vast center field. What happened?

People argued what to do next. Some wanted to send Beltran to Class AAA and get him some more minor league experience — it was obvious he wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Others though understood that Kansas City faced a different kind of reality — the Royals had no money, no real hope, nothing to excite the fans and nobody to play center field.

“We could use a break,” Royals general manager Herk Robinson said when announcing that the team was going with Beltran. It was a telling quote. He was grasping. He had no idea if this Beltran burst were real or just a three month optical illusion. But he was not in position to question the Royals’ good fortune.

Carlos Beltran would start in center field on Opening Day. The Royals manager at the time, Tony Muser, was not crazy about it — he was sure that Beltran needed more minor league time — but understood the deal. “He’s not a star,” Muser warned everybody. He told Beltran that his only job was to play hard and play good center field. “I don’t care if you hit .200,” he told Beltran. “If you do what I’m saying, I’ll have your back.”

And Beltran? We talked underneath the old roller coaster at what we still called Baseball City, and he was uneasy and uncomfortable, and I wished (as I have often wished) that I could speak fluent Spanish because it was unfair of me to ask him to express his bewildering emotions in an unfamiliar language.

But one time he did speak with some clarity. He said: “It’s exciting to be here.” And then he paused and tried to form the next sentence in his mind before speaking.

And he said: “I think the excitement makes me play better.”

* * *

Carlos Beltran won Rookie of the Year that first season. He was raw, made a lot of mistakes, but the numbers amazed. He was the first rookie to ever hit 20 homers, steal 20 bases, drive in 100 runs and score 100 runs. He’s still the only rookie ever to do that. The Royals were predictably awful, the worst Royals team in history up to that point, but they had four young guys — Beltran, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney — who seemed on the brink of superstardom.

The other three went on to immediate stardom. The next year, Sweeney hit .333 with 29 homers and 144 RBIs. Dye hit .321 with 33 homers, won a Gold Glove and and started in the All-Star Game. Damon hit .327 and led the league in runs scored (136) and stolen bases (46). “I could run in those days, remember?” Damon said to me many years later.

And Beltran? It was all too much for him. The excitement had turned into pressure. The novelty had become tiresome. His 2000 season was a nightmare. He couldn’t hit. He looked uninterested in the field. He got hurt. When the Royals tried to send him to Florida for rehab, he refused to go. Nobody was entirely sure why — it seemed like a language clash — but it seemed that Beltran was worried that once he went to Florida the Royals wouldn’t bring him back. His confidence was crushed. The language barrier still overwhelmed him. Teammates would talk about how miserable he seemed.

“He wasn’t ready,” one Royals decision maker told me. “He was ready from a baseball perspective. But he wasn’t ready emotionally.”

A lingering image: Somebody once brought one of those toy remote control cars to the clubhouse — Beltran played with it for what seemed like hours. He just moved that car all over the clubhouse, running over discarded clothes, bumping it into teammates and sportswriters, he never took his eye off of it. He really was a kid in so many ways; you probably know that not long after that he got a pet monkey because he had dreamed that he got a pet monkey. You know that apartment Tom Hanks got in “Big,” the one with the trampoline in the living room and the Coca-Cola machine that spit out cans of Coke without money? Beltran in those early days would have loved a place like that. He was a young man who, in many ways, seemed resentful of his own great talent. That talent led people to expect things from him. He didn’t like expectations. He would rather be playing.

That, I think, is when people started to wonder if Beltran even liked baseball.

All of that passed pretty quickly though. Beltran was a quietly great baseball player for Kansas City the next three years. From 2001-2004, Beltran hit 295/.365/.512 with 79 homers, 107 stolen bases, 12 caught stealing, he scored 100 runs and drove in 100 all three years. He made amazing plays in the outfield. Nobody outside of Kansas City seemed to notice — he didn’t make a single All-Star Team, did not get a Gold Glove Award.

And few people inside Kansas City seemed to appreciate it. Not too long ago, I heard a freestyle skier explain his sport. He said that the job is to do ridiculously hard things and make them look incredibly easy. That’s what Beltran did. But in baseball, unlike the half-pipe, you don’t get credit for making things look easy. You get skepticism. You get mistrust. Beltran was so graceful, so smooth, so natural that people always thought he wasn’t trying hard enough. When he hit 29 home runs, people felt sure he should have hit 40. When he stole 41 bases in 45 attempts, people thought he easily could steal 60 if he were willing to take more chances. When he made absurd, preposterous, amazing catches look easy, people thought those catches WERE easy.

Once Garret Anderson crushed a drive into the right-field gap, and it was a double for sure, and the Royals pitcher that day, Brian Anderson, slapped his glove into his thigh in frustration. Beltran, impossibly, ran the ball down, caught it, then wheeled and fired to first base and and doubled off Chone Figgins, who was so sure the ball was uncatchable that he was ROUNDING THIRD BASE at the time.

“You know what blew me away,” Anderson would say. “There was no way he could catch that ball. No way. And then, he not only catches it, he catches it by his side. He doesn’t have to dive. He doesn’t have to stretch. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

To Anderson, it would be something unforgettable. But to so many people that day it was just a nice catch because that’s how Beltran made it look. He did stuff like that all the time. Once he raced back on a Mike Cameron fly ball, jumped in perfect sync as he got to the wall and stole a top-of-the-wall double or a home run, it was hard to tell which because it happened so fast. Again, it looked like a great play to the untrained eye. But to people used to watching baseball, people whose eyes grasp the geometry of baseball, the play was impossible. Utterly impossible. There was no way, based on the height of the ball, the speed of the hit and the amount of ground to be covered, that Beltran could have possibly caught that ball.

“I’ve been to two hog killings and a county fair,” pitcher Curt Leskanic said. “And I haven’t seen anything like what Beltran did tonight.”

But it was Beltran’s destiny to be appreciated more after he left Kansas City. His extraordinary feats were better seen in memory. Maybe that was natural. The Royals teams were mostly dreadful — they did have a surprising run in 2003 — and the best players kept getting traded to save money and everybody knew that Beltran, sooner rather than later, would be shipped off too. There was no point in getting too attached. When Beltran was in Kansas City, he was a bit like the young Springsteen — raw, exciting, moody, a genius but unrefined, and there was a cult of people who were mesmerized by him and a bunch of others who wondered what was the big deal.

At some point toward the end of his Kansas City time, I went to see Beltran in Puerto Rico. He was taking batting practice at a local high school a walk from his home. There were local kids in the outfield to shag fly balls. His mom and dad were in the stands to watch. This was a very different conversation from the one in Baseball City. Now Beltran was a star, and he was confident, and he comfortable speaking English, and he told me that his time in Kansas City was running out. The team was just not going in the right direction. He needed to move on and play in big games. “I don’t want to be a good player,” he said. “I want to be the best.”

It was the first time I had ever heard him talk like that. I asked him that question that had long haunted him: “Is baseball fun for you?” He was no longer that unsure kid. He looked out in the field where 16-year-old kids waited for him to hit. He explained that this was the GAME of baseball, this, hitting on a field in his hometown with his parents in the stands and the happy chatter of kids echoing through the park.

“Major League Baseball,” he said. “That is business.”

* * *

He was traded to Houston in late June 2004 and that October he had a postseason for the ages. In five games against Atlanta, he hit .455 with four homers and two stolen bases. In seven games against St. Louis, he hit .417 with four homers and four stolen bases. It is the greatest sustained run of postseason play in baseball history, I believe.

The Astros were desperate to keep him after that, but Beltran had business on his mind. He signed with the New York Mets for $119 million over seven years. The first year was a struggle (though he made his first All-Star Team) but the second was one of the best ever for any Mets player. He hit .275/.388/.594 with 41 homers, 18 stolen bases, a Gold Glove and 8.2 wins above replacement. Ryan Howard won the MVP award — Beltran, as a complete player, was certainly better.

He wasn’t as magical in the postseason, but he had his moments. In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against St. Louis, his two-run homer scored the only runs of the game. In Game 4, with the Mets trailing in the series, Beltran reached base all five times he came to the plate, hit two home runs, scored four runs, did everything. In Game 6, with the Mets facing elimination, he scored a key run.

And in Game 7, he doubled in the first and scored on a single. He drew a leadoff walk to start off the eighth with the score tied 1-1 but could not score. Then, in the ninth, two outs, with the Mets down by two and the bases loaded, he came up to face a young Adam Wainwright. The place was going bonkers. Wainwright threw three pitches, the last a gorgeous curveball that mesmerized Beltran. He watched it go by for strike three.

And he became known in New York as “Swing the bat, Carlos.”

Well, this is what it is like to play in the spotlight. You play the game; you take your chances. The rest of his time in New York was star-crossed and injury plagued. He made three more All-Star Teams, won two more Gold Gloves, stole bases at an astonishingly high rate and banged 92 home runs. But the Mets were doomed in those years, twice collapsing down the stretch to lose division titles to Philadelphia. He was shipped to San Francisco before his contract ran out. Beltran never really won over New York. The contract was too big. The injuries happened too often. The inconsistency was too much. The moment he didn’t swing the bat was too difficult to forget.

* * *

Two years ago, Beltran signed a two-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, and everyone understood the deal. Beltran was no longer young, no longer indestructible, no longer a viable center fielder, no longer a base-stealing threat, no longer the emotional five-tool player who could do impossible things and make them look as easy as the sample question. No, they were signing him to be a presence, to hit home runs, to drive in runs, to matter in the middle of the lineup.

And that’s what he did. Last year, he banged 32 home runs, as a 35-year old. This year, he hit .296 with 24 home runs. He stole a few bases (though not with the same success rate) and his fielding in right field is OK but certainly not brilliant. He doesn’t get on base like he once did. There are no illusions that Beltran is still a great baseball player. He’s a good player. He’s a useful player.

But now he is getting the accolades. Now he is getting the admiration. He has made the All-Star Team the last two years. He has been talked, more and more, as a Hall of Fame candidate. And now, during the postseason, every time he gets a big hit, people throw confetti and marvel at his October magnificence.

In truth, Beltran has been good, but not legendary, in his postseasons since 2004. That year in Houston was one-of-a-kind. Since then, Beltran has hit .290/.395/.598 in October, which is certainly outstanding, but it’s not the insane .333/.443/.725 career numbers that everyone talks about again and again.

And this offseason, when he’s being constantly compared with Ruth and Gehrig, he entered Tuesday hitting .182. He had the big home run in Game 3 against Pittsburgh, and he had a fantastic Game 1 against Los Angeles which included a two-run double, a strong throw to the plate to throw out Mark Ellis and the walk-off single in the 13th. These sparked people to reflect on Beltran as one of the greatest postseason players ever.

It seems to me a “Color of Money” overcompensation. For years and years, Paul Newman was one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. And, for bizarre reasons, he could not win an Oscar. He got beat out for “The Hustler,” for “Hud,” for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” for “Cool Hand Luke,” for “The Verdict,” for “Absence of Malice.” That doesn’t even include “Butch Cassidy” or “The Sting” or, of course, “Slap Shot.”

At some point, everyone realized this was kind of ridiculous and so they gave Newman the Oscar for “The Color of Money” even though it was a pretty bad movie and Newman’s performance in it was generally uninspiring. The idea, I suppose, was to retroactively acknowledge the man’s greatness. I get that same feeling with Beltran. He will get some big hits in the postseason because he’s still a good hitter, and people will overstate the moment and call him a clutch conquerer. That’s OK, I think. He spent a lot of amazing years getting overlooked.

Beltran is 36 now, a veteran, a warhorse, and if he has a couple more good years he will make a real Hall of Fame case for himself. If he doesn’t, he will probably fall short. This is the dirty little secret of the Hall — it’s often what a player does AFTER his greatness diminished that define his career.

When watching Beltran, I often think back to my favorite Carlos moment, a rescheduled afternoon game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in September 2003. The Royals were on the cusp of an actual pennant race — not quite in it and not quite out — and they trailed the Diamondbacks by one in a game they really needed to win. Arizona’s closer, Matt Mantei, was in the game. He could throw 100 mph then. With the shadows flickering in the late afternoon, it probably looked like 200 mph.

Beltran came up with one out in the ninth. It was clear — he had no chance of getting an actual hit against Mantei. Instead, he battled through a seven-pitch at-bat. He drew a walk. Then he stole second base. He stole third base. Ken Harvey — Royals fans remember him well — hit a very short fly ball that the right fielder and second baseman both could catch. It would have been been ridiculous to try and score on it. But Beltran went anyway. He figured it was the Royals only shot. He cleanly beat the throw. It was astounding.*

Of course, Beltran is not that player now. But he’s got just enough of that player in him to make you remember. And maybe that’s the point.

* * *

*The Royals eventually lost that game, of course.