The last time Carlos Beltran played baseball in Kansas City he hit a home run. It was sunny that afternoon. A Thursday.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Beltran swung hard against Nate Robertson and hit it over the Kauffman Stadium fence, a home run with nobody on base in what would turn out to be a lopsided loss to a bad team a pretty good metaphor of Beltrans time here, if you think about it.
That night, he went to teammate Mike Sweeneys house for a barbecue. He excused himself to take a phone call and came back with a tear in his eye. Hed been traded.
Today, Beltran is among the National Leagues top MVP candidates and returns to The K for the first time almost exactly eight years after a disastrous trade left the Royals with Mark Teahen, John Buck, Mike Wood and a lot of frustration.
He is back in town for three games with the Cardinals in the place he made so many memories: becoming the first rookie since Joe DiMaggio to score 100 runs and drive in 100, his brilliant 2001 season (and 2003, for that matter), the impossible and virtually no-look catch over the center-field wall, and so many others.
And that means he is back in town for one weekend as the unwitting symbol of an embarrassingly inept old way of business. This is the superstar willing to go behind his superagents back to negotiate an incredibly below-market deal, only to hesitate when the team would agree to only $23 million over three years, instead of $24 million.
You know what happened after that. The Royals traded him for wooden nickels, and now Beltran might end up as the only Hall of Famer drafted by Kansas City since George Brett.
Hes closer than you might think.
We saw most of Beltrans best. That doesnt make his departure any less bitter, but by advanced metrics Beltran played five of his best nine seasons in Kansas City.
We saw him drive in 108 as a rookie, steal 31 bases while being caught just once in 2001, hit 44 doubles in 2002, steal 41 bases in 2003, and play much of his 38-homer, 36-double, 42-stolen base season of 2004.
We saw a star come of age, is what we saw.
We saw a young man grow, from painfully quiet to quietly confident, from aloof to superstar, from hesitant with shaky English to cool behind the microphone. He was the Royals best young player since Bo Jackson, but without the folk-hero quality. Bo made the NFLs Pro Bowl; Beltran played with a remote-controlled car in the Royals clubhouse.
Eventually, we saw him go from a well-kept secret to one of the all-time great, one-man postseason shows in Houston.
This is a player who hit 12 triples one year and 41 homers another, who scored 127 times and drove in 116 in the same season, who once played the kind of brilliant center field that makes even the crustiest old baseball writers weep, who is the most efficient base stealer of the last 50 years of anyone with 150 or more steals.
This is the eighth player in baseball history with 300 homers and 300 steals, the kind of career thats cheapened when we throw around the five-tool label too easily.
He is a different player now, of course. He signed a $119 million contract with the Mets, at the time only the 10th in baseball history worth nine figures. He called it the new Mets back then, and there were some bright spots but also the time he watched strike three for the final out of the 2006 NLCS. Hes had surgery on both knees.
He will almost certainly be selected as an All-Star for the seventh time this summer, one more twist for a wild career thats already seen him go from phenom to bust to superstar to injured has-been and now back to superstar again.
When we see Beltran tonight, in Kauffman Stadium for the first time in two presidential terms, it will serve as a reminder of the urgency of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas developing into All-Stars and the Royals getting something done as a team before they hit free-agency.
Because there is no greater symbol of an established star that the Royals cant afford than Beltran.
He is what the Royals leadership team is obsessed with finding: high-ceiling talent that can be drafted and developed internally, even if the Hall of Fame push is done in a different uniform.
About that Hall of Fame push: Its closer than you might think.
This week, I asked a dozen or so people inside and around baseball what they thought of Beltrans Hall of Fame chances. The most optimistic said, Yes, if he finishes this season like hes started. The most pessimistic said, Not at all. Ive never thought of him in that light.
The representative thought: Not quite yet.
Through various advanced metrics, Beltran already fares favorably to Hall of Famers like Andre Dawson, Billy Williams and even Dave Winfield. He has more home runs than George Brett, more stolen bases than Robin Yount and probably will end up with more runs scored than Tony Gwynn and RBIs than Roberto Clemente.
You can play games with numbers to make any point you want, of course, but you dont have to twist very hard for Beltran to rank among the games all-time greats.
The wonderful Baseball-Reference has a Hall of Fame Monitor that is exactly what it sounds like, with 100 points making for a good possibility and 130 being a near lock. Beltran is at 96 right now (tied with Bobby Doerr and Joe Torre) but could pick up 20 or more this season (which would put him near Dawson and Barry Larkin, among others).
Beltran is on pace for the best hitting season of his career, and one of the best all-time for a 35-year-old, so its not realistic to expect this to continue long into the future. But it is realistic to expect a few more productive seasons, enough to elbow himself some room on stage in Cooperstown. If that happens, it will be a most bittersweet moment for Royals fans.
Sort of like seeing him at Kauffman Stadium this weekend for the first time in eight years.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to email@example.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com