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The Star-Ledger

Beltran Is The Face Of The 'Other' Franchise


May 15, 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK -- It was the strangest of times for the Yankees to practice fiscal restraint, for perennial sugar daddy George Steinbrenner to steer clear of this free-agent auction in particular.

At 36, a fading Bernie Williams was headed into the final year of his contract last winter, and it was evident that, for all he had done for the Yankees, Williams would not be their center fielder in 2006.

Yet the Yankees passed on Carlos Beltran.

The Mets had been the aggressors in the Beltran sweepstakes from the start. Assistant general manager Tony Bernazard, legend has it, made phone calls on 30 consecutive days to Beltran's agent, Scott Boras. Having been in it to win it, the Mets were ready when the Boss blinked, citing an already out-of-control payroll.

And it was the Mets who made sure their negotiations with Boras continued all night once the Houston Astros dropped out of the bidding at midnight on Jan. 8. The Mets' brass -- the Wilpons, along with general manager Omar Minaya -- knew if they didn't sign the winter's marquee free agent before the sun came up Steinbrenner would wake up, realize how much his team needed Beltran and pursue him with his typical fervor.

He never got the chance.

In a three-game series that begins Friday night at a sold-out Shea Stadium, the Yankees will get their first opportunity to see what they missed out on while they were sleeping that January night as Beltran leads the improved Mets into the season's first meeting between the teams. The Mets and Yankees will also play June 24-26 in the Bronx.

"I don't really consider myself the face of the franchise," said Beltran, whose smiling mug seems to be everywhere. "For us to win, we depend on 25 guys here. I have never met a team where there's only one guy who can carry the team by himself.

"I do have to do my part, but everyone else has to do their part. I'm having fun. We're playing better baseball and I'm healthy. That's the main thing."

Beltran's numbers this season -- six homers, 23 RBI and a .295 batting average -- are not eye-popping. Not yet. But the career .284 hitter has averaged 29 homers and 101 RBI over the past four seasons.

"I know that playing in New York is a different scenario than playing everywhere else," he said. "But, sometimes, that has something to do with how you think, how you go about your business. I try to do things right on the field. Off the field and I work hard to prepare myself.

"I'm comfortable. I'll be fine. I believe God put me here because he has a plan for me in this city and with this organization."

If the Pedro Martinez signing was something of a fluke -- aging, big-name pitchers change teams for a bigger payday or a bigger market all the time -- than it was the Beltran signing that gave credibility to the Mets, last-place finishers in two of the previous three seasons.

It was Beltran's contract, at seven years and a robust $119 million, that showed the Mets were serious about changing their losing ways rather than just putting more fannies in the seats once every five days when Martinez was on the mound.

Still, there was a risk the quiet 28-year-old from the small town of Manati, Puerto Rico, could handle the big city. Beltran had spent most of his career in itty-bitty Kansas City before moving to small-market Houston last June.

"It's always a gamble," said Jim Duquette, the Mets' senior vice president of baseball operations. "You never know for sure how a player will perform in New York. But we had a pretty good sense from people that knew him that he could handle it -- if he wanted to come here."

Beltran said he wanted to come the minute Martinez signed.

"The Mets were the ones who really showed a lot of interest," Beltran said. "I thought Pedro was going to stay in Boston and when I saw Pedro sign with the Mets I said, 'Man, that team is trying to build a good team.'"

Beltran already believed he could play in New York -- he was on record as saying he had an interest in playing for the Yankees -- despite the limited media exposure he'd had before leading the Astros to within a game of last year's World Series.

Two of his Houston teammates had assured him he was ready for prime time. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte should know.

"They said the best place to play baseball was in New York -- if you dedicate yourself to working hard everyday," Beltran said. "Roger said, 'I don't see a problem for you there because you play the game right.'"

The center fielder's new teammates believe the former Yankees were right in their assessment.

"I don't know why anyone would even question whether he could play here," said Mets first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. "He was made for this city and this team. He's been a leader from Day One. He's got a quiet confidence that has spread throughout the whole team."

That, Duquette said, was a bonus.

"He's added a dimension in the clubhouse," he said. "Carlos will put his arms around some of the younger players and help them. He's shown a quiet leadership quality which we weren't sure he was going to add or not. It's been a nice benefit.

"He seems to have a balanced approach to each game. He's consistent day in and day out. You can get caught up in the pace thing in New York if you're not careful."

Beltran and his wife, Jessica, are nothing if not careful. They have chosen to live on Long Island, far removed from the frenetic pace of Manhattan.

"I'm a very quiet guy," he said. "I'm just with my wife and we're very boring people. We don't do much. We go from home to the ballpark to home.

"I haven't even been into the city. I haven't had time. Maybe soon."

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