There is no greater honor for a baseball player than to be asked to spend a weekend in upstate New York, five or more years after retirement. If invited, the player is being enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame, located in Cooperstown – a sleepy hamlet in the middle of nowhere with no appeal – except for the museum where baseball’s history, and greatest, are honored. While some future Hall of Famers are obvious – Albert Pujols might as well make his reservations at the Cooper Inn for five years hence on the day he announces his retirement – others will wait by the phone anxiously as the years tick by. And while young superstars like Mike Trout seem like sure things now, he still needs five more seasons in the majors before he is eligible. In this series, Dave McCullough looks at the Hall of Fame resumes of active players like Adrian Beltre eligible for enshrinement, and whether they should consider booking a room at the Cooper Inn.
It’s been a rough year for future Hall of Famers. Pujols has finally heated up as the Angels have gone completely into the tank (losers of 11 straight as I write this), but the legendary first baseman has struggled through one of the worst seasons (.240/.316/.426) of his distinguished career (.309/.393/.573). The Ancient Mariner, Alex Rodriguez, played himself off the New York Yankees roster, unable to hit water from a boat most of the season. Meanwhile, A-Rod’s former teammates CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira have seen their chances at the Hall largely fall apart as injuries have made their future enshrinement long shots, at best. Yet, not every potential future Hall of Famer has had a poor season. Adrian Beltre might not be a household name the way Pujols, Rodriguez, and Sabathia have been over the past two decades – but the Texas Rangers third baseman is on track to Cooperstown. And at 36 years old, he’s having another very fine season (.287/.342/.469 overall, .354/.396/.616 over the last month, and .500/.560/.818 over the last 7 days) for the division-leading Rangers.
Beltre broke into the majors at the tender age of 19, playing 77 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers before the turn of the century (1998). He is one of 5 players (Rodriguez, Bartolo Colon, David Ortiz, and A.J. Pierzynski) to have debuted before 2000 to still toil in the big leagues uniform, and one of three still producing at a high level. Beltre’s early years in LA revealed him to be a tremendous defender at third base, and a hitter with good, but not great skills. It took until his sixth season in the majors for him to flash the power that has carried him through the second half of his career, blasting 48 homers at the age of 25. This is all the more impressive as his home park, the Dodgers Chavez Ravine stadium, is a notorious pitcher’s park, depressing both power and average.
Beltre’s breakout season came at the right time, as his contract expired after that 2004 season, and he hit the market as a 26-year-old with a good defensive reputation and a second-place MVP finish on his resume. The Seattle Mariners – who played their home games in cavernous Safeco Field – outbid his other suitors and awarded the free agent third baseman a five-year, 64 million dollar contract.
To say it was a disaster is an insult to disasters. It was far worse than that. Beltre struggled mightily in Seattle. He topped 25 homers in three of his five seasons with Seattle, but just barely. His OBP hovered between .303 and .328, and while he did win two Gold Gloves, he was a massive disappointment at the plate to the Mariners faithful. To add injury to insult, Beltre missed more than 50 games of his final season in Seattle (2009) after being struck by a batted ball in the testicles, causing one to swell to “grapefruit size”. The third baseman was not wearing a cup and while he suffered both tearing and internal bleeding, he did not require the dangling appendage to be removed (unlike former Mariner pitcher Josias Manzanillo who lost one to a line drive in 2000 while with the Pirates).
Beltre recovered and moved across the country to Boston in 2010, signing a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox. Up until this point, he had spent his entire career toiling in pitcher’s parks – Safeco and Dodger Stadium are notoriously difficult places to hit (especially before Seattle moved the fences in prior to the 2013 season). In Boston, Beltre’s gamble on himself paid off, big time. He led the league in doubles (49), added 28 homers, and posted his best OBP (.365) since his breakout season in 2004. Back on the free agent market in the fall of 2010, Beltre secured a six-year $96 million deal with the Rangers – and their hitter-friendly ballpark.
As a Ranger, Beltre began to add both hardware (two more Gold Gloves for his work at third base) as well as stats (three consecutive years of more than 30 homers and 100 runs batted in), in addition to piling up the hits. While he has cooled off in recent years – dropping back into the teens in homers – he has continued to play outstanding defense and rack up the hits. Now standing at 2,893 it is almost a foregone conclusion that Beltre will join the 3,000 hit club in the near future. With a milestone like that, and his other credentials, Adrian Beltre is bound for Cooperstown – something no one would have guessed when he limped out of Seattle after his disastrous 2009 campaign.
However, the story of Adrian Beltre is incomplete if all we talk about is the numbers and/or the gruesome injury he suffered. Because Adrian Beltre has been one of, if not the, most entertaining characters in baseball for most of his career. For example, do not touch his head:
Being “touchy” about his personal space has become a running gag for Beltre and his teammates. That said, the future Hall of Famer has turned his foibles into leadership: Texas players laud him for his day-in, day-out effort, as well as his ability to keep the team focused on, and off, the field. Beltre’s message is consistent: have fun, but play the game the right way.
Casual fans might not see the name “Adrian Beltre” and immediately think “Hall of Famer” – but diehards do. Beltre’s toughness is legendary; he once fouled the ball off himself three times in the same game – and stayed out there. His temper tantrums when teammates touch his head are legendary. His defensive prowess is… the stuff instructional videos are made of. When he strokes number 3,000 next season, it will ensure his future enshrinement. But he doesn’t need the numbers; he’s already “in” based on a 19-year (and counting) career of excellence, and perseverance. In this year of so many legends struggling to the finish line, Beltre has continued to lead the Rangers, on and off the field.
Verdict: Beltre is nearly a lock for a weekend in Cooperstown – maybe not in his first year of eligibility, but soon after. 3,000 hits is a magical milestone, and combined with his stellar defense, it is easy to make the case that Beltre is the best pure third baseman of his era.