In baseball history, only five men have recorded more than 2,600 hits, 400 homers, 500 doubles and 300 stolen bases. Two of those players — Willie Mays and Andre Dawson — are in the Hall of Fame. Two others — Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez — are all-time greats who plied their trade during the Steroid Era, both with strong links to performance-enhancing drugs.
The other is Carlos Beltran, the ageless, understated former Royals star who arrived back at Kauffman Stadium on Monday as a member of the Houston Astros.
The numbers and statistics suggest that Beltran someday could join Mays and Dawson in Cooperstown, a Hall of Fame career built on subtle brilliance and sustained excellence, not an eye-popping peak. One of the best defensive center fielders of his era, Beltran has played nine All-Star Games and won three Gold Gloves. Before time robbed him of his speed, he was one of the game’s best base runners.
The case for Beltran has grown more glaring by the year, and if he does get elected, it’s possible he could be become the second player after George Brett to don a Royals cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. Even if, for now, Beltran remains noncommittal about retirement and modest about his Hall of Fame candidacy.
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“Honestly, speaking,” Beltran said Monday afternoon, “that’s out of my control — if I’m in the Hall of Fame or not. At this point, these days, I don’t even know what is a Hall of Famer. I’ve seen so many good players that have played this game, and in my case, I believe they are candidates to be in the Hall of Fame, and they don’t even make it through the first round (of voting).”
The answer will come later. But Beltran’s case for inclusion as a Royal is a simple one. He has played for seven franchises across 20 major-league seasons. But he is synonymous, perhaps, with none of them. He opened his career by playing parts of seven seasons in Kansas City, growing into stardom inside the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium. After a midseason trade to the Astros in 2004, he broke out with a sensational postseason and signed a seven-year, $119 million contract with the New York Mets.
His seven years and 795 games with the Royals rank only behind his 839 games with the Mets. His seasons in Kansas City were among his most productive. He won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1999 and established himself as one of the game’s preeminent center fielders. He was a smooth and sublime all-around talent, impacting the game with five tools.
In some ways, the Hall of Fame cap decision is not entirely his own. The Hall has the final choice, opting to choose the hat logo from the franchise in which “that player makes his most indelible mark.” Still, the player has some sway in the decision. Recently, pitcher Greg Maddux opted to go into the Hall of Fame with no logo on his cap.
“If I get to that point in my career, hopefully I do (get into of the Hall of Fame),” Beltran said. “I’ll have to sit down and make a decision. Right now, my main focus is to try to help this ball club.”
For now, Beltran is doing just that, offering a veteran presence to a youthful Astros club, a team that entered Monday with the best record in the major leagues. Nearly two months after turning 40 years old, Beltran is batting .255 with a .305 on-base percentage and seven homers. Nearly 19 years after debuting with the Royals on Sept. 14, 1998, he remains a productive player.
Beltran is a designated hitter now. His elite speed is long gone. On Monday, he noted that nearly every one of his former teammates with the Royals is now retired. But he is still here, still playing and adding to his career resume.
“I love the game,” Beltran said. “I study the game. I’m passionate about it. I love the competition. The fact that God has allowed me to play the game this long, I’m very fortunate.”
Around the game, Beltran has staked a reputation as one of the sport’s gentlemen, a dignified presence and consummate pro. Inside the Astros’ clubhouse, his age is a constant source of amazement. When Beltran debuted for the Royals in the late 1990s, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, a fellow Puerto Rican, was just 4 years old. When Beltran roamed center field at Kauffman Stadium in the early 2000s, he was teammates with a reserve catcher named A.J. Hinch, who is now the Astros manager.
So the topic came up again on Monday. Beltran told a story about his time playing alongside Hinch. It was more than 15 years ago, a reminder of how much time had passed and how much had changed here in Kansas City.
Someday, Beltran will be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that a Cooperstown induction will come, too. But for now, Beltran is content to focus on today, content to still be playing.
“I always believed in my ability to play the game,” Beltran said. “You just can’t say you’re going to play this long. It happens with the years you play in the big leagues and the experience that you gain. Like I said, for the most part, I’ve been healthy.”