Thursday, December 6, 2012

50 Years in Cards: 2006

Part 45 of our 50-year Big Ticket Free Agent...
What is it: 2006 Topps #520, Carlos Beltran

What makes it interesting: After a few years of designs that were bad, boring or both, Topps came back with one of their better efforts in '06. If it wasn't already obvious, I like a nice, clean, clear design, and this set does it all, and it's a good thing they did because after the stink bombs of '04 and '05, they appeared headed into short-attention span hell.

I've often used these "50 Years in Cards" pieces to run down the Mets career of the player depicted on the card. That's not going to change, but I feel there's more that can be said about Carlos Beltran than simply reciting his numbers and the moments he had with the Mets.

Carlos Beltran is easily the best Center Fielder the Mets ever had, and without a doubt one of the best players in team history. He was in the top 10 of the "50 Greatest Mets" program and the starting CF of the 50th Anniversary team. Yet many Mets fans appear, unfairly, to remember him for watching an essentially unhittable curveball that just nicked the strike zone to end the 2006 season. The Mets have never fully recovered from this loss, but the reason for that was never Carlos Beltran.

From the moment he arrived with the Mets in 2005, Beltran drew criticism for being a mostly soft-spoken person who played the game with such grace and ease and stoicism, one might have had the impression that he was a little complacent. Not so. Though he had a poor year in 2005, he played through a leg injury and also got banged up pretty good in an ugly outfield collision with Mike Cameron in San Diego. Perhaps his somewhat stormy relationship with the fans started here, because he was a frequent target of boos that season, but come 2006, he turned into the player that the Mets hoped they had brought in with that big contract. On a team that had plenty of star power, Beltran might not have been the matinee idol that David Wright was, or the sparkplug that Jose Reyes was, or hit the monster home runs like Carlos Delgado, but what he did do was bring them all together and carry the team all season long. In addition to hitting 2 Walk off Home Runs, Beltran hit 3 Grand slams in a month and set a team record for runs scored that year. In the playoffs, Beltran proved once again that he was at his best when the lights were brightest. He almost singlehandedly won Game 1 of the Cardinals series, cutting off a Cardinals rally with a key assist and driving in the only 2 runs of the game with a majestic Home Run. His two Home Runs in Game 4 aided the Mets to a blowout victory. He hit, and he hit consistently, and without him in the lineup, there would never have been a Game 7 for him to end.

The subsequent seasons ended rather poorly for the Mets, we all know that, but if there was a constant, it was that Carlos Beltran would shut up, hit the ball, and get dumped on for that damn strikeout. Beltran followed up his elite 2006 seasons with performances in 2007 and 2008 that were every bit as good, and produced hits that were often of the clutch variety. Down the Stretch in '07, with the Mets fading fast, Beltran injured both his legs making a game-saving catch in a game in Florida. True to form, Beltran shut up and got himself out there the next day. In 2008, Beltran started slow, but got hot in midseason and didn't slow down, even when many other Mets continued to crumble around him. As usual, his big hits were often of the variety that more often than not saved the Mets asses. He produced the final Walk-off hit at Shea Stadium, a screaming single against the Cubs that nearly tore the 1st Baseman's glove off. And on that miserable Sunday, Beltran was the only Met who bothered to show up offensively, hitting the final Mets Home Run at Shea Stadium, driving in the only runs they would score.

By this point, I'd already begun to grow tired of how under-appreciated Beltran was, and 2009 seemed to underscore my point of just how valuable he was to the Mets. Beltran got off to a roaring start that year, and  appeared to be a serious MVP contender. But he went down with a knee injury that was probably mishandled by the brilliant Mets training staff. The Mets had already lost several players, but losing Beltran was too much to overcome. The Mets ultimately went in the tank. But although he didn't have to, Beltran came back in September and played out the remainder of the season. Beltran's knee ultimately needed surgery, which resulted in a somewhat nasty feud between the Mets and Beltran, but after 2009, who could have blamed Beltran for not wanting to listen to the team doctors? In 2010, the Mets overachieved somewhat without Beltran, and then fell apart when he returned. Of course, Beltran took some heat for the Mets slump, but looking at it realistically (and combined with the performance of the Mets in 2011 and 2012), the Mets just weren't that good to begin with. Beltran would ultimately be traded in July, 2011, and few seemed to care. One of the best players in team history was gone, and nobody seemed to be too broken up about it. Not two months later, Beltran's old number 15 was slapped on the back of hideous journeyman Valentino Pascucci.

In his 6 and a half years with the Mets, Beltran hit .280, with 149 Home Runs and 559 RBIs. He walked 449 times and scored 551 runs. These are great numbers! The Mets had probably the Best Center Fielder of the time in his prime, and he was great for several years. But he could never live down that stupid strikeout, and that was a damn shame. Beltran returned to Citi Field in 2012 with the St. Louis Cardinals and received a lukewarm response. But he made one more meaningful contributuon to the Mets that night, hitting a ground ball that was just foul, keeping a hit off the board on the night Johan Santana threw the First No Hitter in Mets History.

Card back:

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