On a Thursday in July, the Houston Astros gathered in center field at Minute Maid Park to pay their respects. They wore black shirts and knelt in the grass. They listened to catcher Brian McCann deliver a brief eulogy, his palms lifted toward the sky.
They came together to say goodbye, to conduct a proper funeral for an object whose time had passed: They came to bury the glove of outfielder Carlos Beltran.
“I love it,” Beltran said then, according to the Houston Chronicle, recording the funeral on his phone. “I have fun with them. They have fun with me.”
The stunt was born amidst the loose confines of the Houston clubhouse, where frivolity rules the day. Yet the mock burial would highlight a detail that has become increasingly obvious: Beltran, 40, is not the same player he once was. He is not the graceful outfielder from his days in Kansas City. He is not the potent mix of power and speed, flying around the bases at Kauffman Stadium. He is not really even an outfielder, spending most of the 2017 season at designated hitter, which spurred the idea for the glove funeral. Yes, father time is undefeated.
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But as the World Series shifts to Houston on Friday, the best-of-seven series tied at one after an epic Astros victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday, this version of Beltran has a chance to do something he’s never done before. With three more wins, he can claim his first World Series ring, placing a capstone on a Hall of Fame resume that began being formed in Kansas City.
“There’s not a person in our clubhouse — coach, player, executive —that’s not rooting for him in particular to finish strong and get a ring,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who was teammates with Beltran on the Royals in 2001 and 2002. “His career, when you look back at it, he’s as remarkable as anyone I’ve ever been around.”
These days, Hinch, a former catcher, calls Beltran “the best player that I ever played with,” and the numbers offer a statistical case for Cooperstown. In 20 seasons, Beltran has logged more than 2,700 hits and clubbed 435 homers and 565 doubles. Among active players, he is third in Wins Above Replacement, behind only Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre. Beltran is one of just four major-leaguers with more than 400 homers, 500 doubles, 1,500 runs scored and 300 stolen bases. The others: Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds. Decent company.
And yet, a World Series championship has eluded Beltran’s grasp. In six previous trips to the postseason with five different teams, he has never finished out a season with a victory. He clubbed eight homers for the Astros in the 2004 playoffs — the October after being traded from the Royals — but the season ended against the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. Two years later, he helped the New York Mets back to the NLCS, only to have their season end with him at the plate, frozen by a curveball from Adam Wainwright in Game 7.
More than a decade later, his career reaching its twilight, Beltran searched for a new home last offseason. He wasn’t ready to retire, even as his waistline expanded and his hair continued to thin.
He settled on a one-year, $16 million contract with the Astros. The marriage seemed obvious: Beltran was looking for the opportunity to play and win; the Astros coveted his experience and veteran presence, hoping he would help guide and mold a young core that included center fielder George Springer, third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Carlos Correa, who, like Beltran, hails from Puerto Rico.
On the field, Beltran delivered one of the least productive seasons of his career, batting .231 with a .283 on-base percentage and 14 homers in 129 games. Yet Hinch believes the Astros benefited from Beltran’s arrival. He befriended Correa and helped the young star think through his at-bats. Beltran has helped steady the ship during the turbulence of October. Some things, of course, are simply intangible.
“The room-temperature gauge is very important in the clubhouse during the most exciting times,” Hinch said. “And a guy like Beltran will keep things very even keeled; (he) will keep things in perspective.”
For now, Beltran has not indicated whether he will return for another season in 2018 or retire. The decision will come later. Some day, he likely will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, maybe with a “KC” on his cap. But for the moment, he is focused on the playoffs and monitoring the news in Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Maria.
For the first two games of the series, he served as a pinch hitter in Los Angeles. On Friday, he could have an opportunity to DH as the series shifts back to American League rules. One thing is for certain: Beltran is not playing in the outfield. That time has passed. But it could finally be time for a ring
“It will mean everything,” Beltran told reporters earlier this week in Los Angeles. “This is what you dream of as a ballplayer. The first dream is to get to the big leagues. The second dream is to win the World Series.”