Beltre overcomes and his star shines brighter
Rangers third baseman, heading to third Midsummer Classic, at his best at age 33
You don't have to be a fan of the Texas Rangers to appreciate Adrian Beltre, although it probably helps. Watching him play baseball is a pure joy, no matter your team affiliation.
In Beltre, you know you're looking at a guy who'd be playing in a park or sandlot somewhere for nothing if he hadn't been gifted enough to earn millions -- and draw the fans' vote as the American League's starting third baseman in the 2012 All-Star Game.
He makes the exceedingly difficult play at third appear routine with his style, gunning perfect throws from all angles and conceivable body positions. When he drops to his knee after unleashing a swing, it's not for show. He's trying to hit one out of the stadium.
He's no kid at 33, but he plays like one, clearly savoring every moment. There's a very good reason why he takes every day, every inning as a gift.
"I escaped death -- twice," Beltre said recently with the matter-of-fact tone he'd use to describe a slider he'd planted in the upper deck. "It changed me. I'm still here, doing what I love."
He takes none of it for granted.
This goes back to the winter following the 2000 season. Beltre was 21, having just finished his third season with the Dodgers, when he began experiencing excruciating stomach pain at home in the Dominican Republic.
The staff at the local hospital in San Pedro de Macoris initially couldn't locate the source of the problem and sent him home.
Rushed back to the hospital two days later, on Jan. 12, 2001, Beltre and the doctors discovered what was going on. His appendix had burst.
"They told me in the ER that if I had waited five more minutes," Beltre said, "I would have been gone."
The ordeal was far from over.
"I got a severe infection 10 hours after surgery," he said. "I thought I was going to [die]."
He endured, spending the next 18 days in the hospital, but the surgical wound in his lower right abdomen didn't heal properly. He was unable to hold solid foods. He clearly needed recovery time, but Spring Training was only weeks away.
"I wasn't feeling good," he said, "but I had to go to Florida."
In Vero Beach, Fla., a colostomy bag was attached to Beltre's hip to catch fluids draining from the abdominal incision. Beltre's nutrition came from an IV as he slept, uncomfortably, at Dodgertown.
The whole scene seems absurd in reflection, a player trying to get in shape under such circumstances. Manny Mota -- the popular coach and former star known as "Papa" to generations of young Dodgers -- witnessed it and knew something had to be done.
"When I saw that bag in Spring Training," Mota recalled, "I said, `Wait a minute, this isn't right. How can this boy work out with that bag? He shouldn't be working out in that condition.'
"That's when I let the medical people know how I felt. They decided to send him to Los Angeles for surgery. I was really concerned about Adrian. It was very bad."
A second surgery was performed on March 12 by Dr. Robert Shorr at the Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, Calif. During the procedure, Beltre's small intestine was stripped by 15 inches.
|"Adrian is a wonderful young man. You want to see guys like that have success. He has been through so much, and I'm very happy to see what he's doing now. But I'm not surprised. He was always a very special player."|
-- Dodgers coach|
A free agent, he took an offer from Seattle and moved to the Pacific Northwest. Playing in a pitcher's park, dealing with heavy marine layer conditions that continue to frustrate Mariners hitters, Beltre did not approach his 2004 season in his five years in Seattle. He was labeled a bust by critics while hitting 25, 26 and 25 homers in successive seasons.
Moving to Boston in 2010 with a one-year free-agent deal, Beltre thrived in a friendlier hitting environment with an American League-best 49 doubles and 28 homers, batting .321 and driving in 102 runs.
Next stop via free agency: Texas, and a season and postseason to remember in 2011, featuring a three-homer performance in the decisive Game 4 of the AL Division Series against the Rays.
One more out in a classic Game 6 in St. Louis, and Beltre and his buddies would have been World Series champions. Texas was devastated. Yet, after what he's been through, this is a guy who sees only silver linings.
Having found love and appreciation deep in the hearts of Texans, Beltre is at the peak of his game, those dark days in the Dominican in the winter of 2001 far behind him.
"This is the right place for me," he said. "Everything I wanted is here with this team and organization. I'm just happy I'm here."
He means that literally. Mota, his early mentor, is thrilled for Beltre.
"Adrian is a wonderful young man," Mota said. "You want to see guys like that have success. He has been through so much, and I'm very happy to see what he's doing now. But I'm not surprised. He was always a very special player."
Mike Scioscia, manager of the Rangers' AL West rivals in Anaheim, goes way back with Beltre, to his Dodgers roots. Scioscia was the Dodgers' bench coach in 1997-98 and had been a Minor League instructor when Adrian, who turned 16 a week into the 1995 season, arrived at Dodgertown that spring.
"You saw the raw talent, the great poise," Scioscia said. "He had all the things that would compare to [Mike] Trout, but he wasn't as polished as Mike is. Adrian had to work into his game, which is normal.
"As a kid, at 16, Adrian had a reddish tint to his hair. He looked different from every kid on the field. He just stood out. You could see how he was going to develop physically. You could see the power coming, the way he swung the bat. Defensively, he had a plus Major League arm at 16 and sure hands. You also saw a quiet confidence with him.
"You look at that talent with a guy like that and just pray he doesn't get hurt."
Prayers for Beltre were answered in 2001.
While his heart tells him he's happy for the guy who finally has found the respect his talents warrant, Scioscia's head wishes Beltre wouldn't create so many problems for his Angels.
"Adrian is a great player -- one of the best," Scioscia said.
Nobody arriving in Kansas City for the Midsummer Classic will be more grateful or appreciative than the American League's starting third baseman.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.