Farewell, Fun-Loving, Excellent Adrian Beltre

Quick: name the only Hall of Famer-to-be who ever got thrown out of a game for moving the on-deck circle. Hint: he's retiring as the fourth greatest third baseman ever to play the game, the guy you almost never saw coming as being that great until there he was, and you saw it just soon enough before the end came nigh, almost.

When he wasn't loosening up teammates and even opposing players, Adrian Beltre had a career-long habit of loosening up aside, not on the on-deck circle. No umpire ever saw fit to challenge the habit until Gerry Davis, during a July 2017 game in which Beltre already had 3 extra base hits, including a home run, but the Rangers were being blown-out regardless by the Marlins, of all people.

Beltre also happened to be 4 base hits away from the magic number, 3000, at the time.

In the bottom of the eighth, Beltre again took his station outside the on-deck circle. It was a habit he developed after getting conked by one foul ball too many early in his career. When Davis order Beltre to stand in the on-deck circle, Beltre's response was to pull the large round mat with the Rangers' official logo toward him.

The crowd went slightly wild with glee, but Beltre insisted he wasn't going for a laugh. "He told me to stand on the mat," Beltre said after the game, "so I pulled the mat where I was and stand on it. I actually did what he told me. I was listening."

He even told Davis why he normally stood outside the circle. "I didn't want to get hit," he said. "I've been hit standing over there. He said I don't care and you need to be on top of the mat. So okay, I pulled the mat where I was and he threw me out."

Davis also tossed then-Rangers manager Jeff Banister when the skipper came out to protest the Beltre ejection. ""Don't know why it needed to be engaged, don't understand it," Banister said after the game. "This is a man that's chasing history, opportunity to get another at-bat in front of out fans."

The Marlins finished what they started, beating the Rangers 22-10. Four days later, Beltre got the big knock when he rifled a double off the left field wall against Baltimore's Wade Miley. This April his eighth-inning double against the Mariners made Beltre the all-time leader in extra base hits among third basemen. Two months later, he became the Show's all-time hit king among foreign-born players when he passed Ichiro Suzuki for number 3090.

And on the morning of November 20, he announced his retirement. Which was a done deal by season's end, probably, except for Beltre actually making up his mind and saying it.

"I have thought about it a lot," he said in the statement he released 20 November, "and although I appreciate all the opportunities and everything baseball has given me, it's time to call it a career."

Everything baseball's given him?

Baseball gave Beltre $219,140,000 in 21 years worth of career salary. He only gave baseball in return a fun-loving third baseman out-performed, according to wins above replacement-level player, by only three men. In ascending order, they're Wade Boggs, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Schmidt.

A third baseman who outperformed, in descending order, George Brett, Chipper Jones, Ron Santo, Brooks Robinson, and Scott Rolen, taking men who played third full time, played the position well or better, and didn't become designated hitters for half or better of their careers. (We mean you, Paul Molitor.)

Beltre sent 477 balls over the fence in his career, 9 more than Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. Only Schmidt (548) and Mathews (512) are ahead of him among third basemen. His home runs were ground-launched cruise missiles that brought down the house even in enemy ballparks. If you thought Mel Ott's pitcher-like leg kick as he swung for the fences was unorthodox, Beltre's knee-drop power swing — even more pronounced a drop than Roy Campanella's — was about equally so.

And Beltre was a study on the bases, far faster than he looked (he tried rarely, but he does have a .742 lifetime stolen base percentage), often able to turn doubles into triples when he wasn't hitting the balls far enough to take a triple standing up.

He was enough a slugger who could break games open between the balls of his thumb and index fingers that you almost forgot how good he really was at third base. He was neither elegant nor orthodox, whether an initially shy and skinny kid in Dodger silks or the horsy filled-out old man of the Rangers.

But he's the number two all-time third baseman at turning double plays, third all-time among third basemen in assists, seventh in putouts, and only three times did he finish in his league's top ten in errors, almost always trying to throw runners out on tough enough plays with an arm he had to harness the hard way.

He got to a few more balls per nine innings than the average third baseman. In an era in which Gold Glove awards are too often given to players whose reputations out-speak their actual play, Beltre won 10 Gold Gloves and probably earned nine of the ten. And if you still doubt him at third base, be advised that since defensive runs saved was introduced as a statistic in 2003, Beltre is the runaway leader with 222. No player at any position is close; Andrelton Simmons, the Angels shortstop, is in second place — with 184.

In his young years in Los Angeles, Beltre's raw talent was as apparent as his seeming inability to harness it properly. (Beltre thanked Tommy Lasorda, by then a Dodger executive, for faith in urging him to the Show so young.) Then, in 2004, it exploded. He led the National League with 48 home runs, he drove in 121, he had his only 200-hit season, and he finished second to Barry Bonds as the league's Most Valuable Player. And the Dodgers let him walk as a free agent.

The Dodgers were embarrassed early when Beltre rose to the majors swiftly and very young. They thought they had a 20-year-old on their hands but Beltre was actually 19. When his agent Scott Boras suggested they should compensate Beltre for signing him younger than baseball's permissible age (he was 15 when the Dodgers snapped him out of the Dominican Republic), the Dodgers denied the claim and Boras and Beltre went public. After an official investigation the Dodgers were barred from Dominican scouting for a year and then-commissioner Bud Selig awarded Beltre $48,500 in damages.

In his first free agency, Beltre signed with the Mariners and struggled trying to live up to his new deal, enough so that even those who admired him feared he might become one of the club's all-time busts. He showed periodic glimpses of the full talent but not enough even allowing for an occasional injury struggle.

No wonder he signed for only one year with the Red Sox, for 2010. He spent the year tying David Ortiz for the club RBI leadership (102) and led the team with his .321 batting average while leading the Show with 49 doubles. And he inadvertently contributed to the Red Sox's injury bug that season, Built like a semi, collisions between Beltre and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Jeremy Hermida left him unscathed but them with cracked ribs.

After that season he signed with the Rangers. Giving them pretty much more than what they knew he was capable of giving them when he wasn't missing time on the disabled list. He had a superb 2011 World Series for them that just wasn't enough to help them ward off the impossibly relentless Cardinals. And he often waged war with barking hamstrings to keep playing and hitting.

He's one of those players who proved to be like the proverbial fine wine — improving with age. He made four all-star teams and probably should have made a few more. After he left Seattle, he never again struck out 100 times or more in a season.

Which is pretty damn great for a third baseman whose style of planting his feet before throwing gave managers and coaches nightmares until they realized he made it work. He had soft hands and a cannon for a throwing arm, and he developed the plant technique after making too many throwing errors early in his career, believing accurately enough that planting would cut the errors back drastically enough.

"There's a lot of guys that did things unique to them that weren't out of the Spalding Guide," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who faced Beltre often enough when he managed the Rays or was the Angels' bench coach. "They did things you wouldn't teach, and if somebody else tried to do it, they would not be very good."

He could have been talking about things like Ott, whom John McGraw so feared would be ruined by some minor league coach "correcting" that unorthodox swing that he wouldn't let the minors get anywhere near the kid.

And, about things like Ty Cobb's split-handed batting grip, Satchel Paige's windmill, Stan Musial peeking around the corner like a burglar, Yogi Berra's and Vladimir Guerrero's bad-ball reaches, Hank Aaron's early reverse grip, Juan Marichal's multiple windups (he had about 20 of them), Jim Bunning's double windup, Mike Schmidt's swiveling hips planting at the plate, Mark Fidrych's mound manicurings and pep talks to the balls he was about to throw, or Clayton Kershaw's hesitation-step forward, too.

Maybe only Marichal and Fidrych among those men were as much fun to watch as Beltre was. Beltre was one of the most genuinely enthusiastic and playful of players on the field even if his dislike for having his head touched became a running gag among teammates doing everything in their power to violate it. (Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor once tried to douse him with a post-game Gatorade shower, but Beltre dodged it and it nailed a different victim.)

He didn't have to make like Ernie Banks and preach daily, "It's a beautiful day, let's play two." The way he did everything else on the field and at the plate — he's famous for his knee drop while hitting balls to the rear of the bleachers, as if he was dropping to the floor to play with his three children — said it for him.

The Rangers' on deck circle mouse pads in the wake of that corker might prove nothing compared to whom, among the Hall of Famers he'll join in five years, will win the bet over who gets to rub Beltre's pate and get away with it.

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