What makes Adrian Beltre a Baseball Hall of Famer

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Adrián Beltré became a first-ballot Hall of Famer on Tuesday night, when the Baseball Writers' Association of America revealed its ballots. His credentials -- 3,166 hits, 477 home runs, a .286/.339/.480 career slash line and the third-highest WAR ever among third basemen -- made it a no-brainer. Over a career that spanned three decades with four different teams, Beltré was a four-time Silver Slugger and a five-time Gold Glover, as formidable on offense as he was dynamic on defense.

But it isn't the accomplishments that define him. It's how he reached them, how much fun he seemed to have along the way and how he made us feel when we watched him. It's how he homered off a knee and made plays from the ground and glared at those who dared to rub his head. His skills were remarkable, but his vibe was unmatched.

What follows is a look through Beltré's splendid, Hall of Fame career through the eyes of four of his closest observers.

Albert Pujols: On Beltré's impact as a Dominican star

Albert Pujols crossed home plate, bypassed the St. Louis Cardinals teammates who waited to embrace him and darted straight to the Dodger Stadium backstop. Pujols had just become the first Dominican-born member of the 700-home-run club, an exceedingly short list without qualifiers, and all he wanted to do was share the moment with Adrián Beltré, the first Dominican-born player to reach 3,000 hits.

He found him in his first-row seat and high-fived him through the netting.

"I wanted to celebrate that with my countryman, Adrián Beltré -- somebody I respect, somebody special to me," Pujols said, thinking back to that night on Sept. 23, 2022. "There was nothing really planned or anything; it was just something that came out of me. That, for me -- and this is how I look at it now -- was like sharing with 10 million people that were watching in the Dominican Republic. That little moment with him, it reminded me of how much it meant to our country."

Pujols had spent most of his career admiring Beltré from afar. He felt a kinship through Beltré's willingness to play hurt and admired his ability to maintain a competitive edge while also not taking himself too seriously, a dichotomy that to Pujols felt impossible. To this day, Pujols marvels at the game-tying home run Beltré hit off Chris Carpenter in Game 5 of the 2011 World Series, buckling to a knee while turning on a breaking ball and sending it over the left-field fence. As the years went on, Pujols often wondered aloud about what it might be like to share an infield with Beltré.

But they weren't necessarily friends. Not close ones, at least. They competed in the same league -- sometimes, like in 2004, for the same MVP trophy -- then later in the same division. Their ambition created a wedge that only softened when their respective careers began to wind down. Retirement brought them closer.

"The best thing that I love about Adrián is the relationship that him and I now have," Pujols said. "I was just with him playing golf a couple of weeks ago in the Dominican Republic. I was with him in Dubai. I feel like we have built the relationship over the last two or three years, towards the end of his career, towards the end of my career, and that's something that I love about us."

Pujols is one of only two players, along with Hank Aaron, to reach 700 homers, 2,000 RBIs and 3,000 hits. But Beltré occupies an exclusive club of his own, among just four players to reach 400 homers and 3,000 hits while also accumulating at least five Gold Gloves, a testament to his all-around greatness.

The two stand as mythical figures on the baseball-loving island that produced them, both because of the stardom they attained and how often they gave back. Lately, Pujols and Beltre have collaborated on charitable work in the Dominican Republic, the latest of which was Beltré's charity golf tournament to develop a baseball facility in the Dominican town of Verón.

"He does it from his heart; he doesn't do it just to put his name in the paper," Pujols said. "That, to me, is what makes Adrián Beltré really special."

Both Beltré and Pujols are certain Hall of Famers, but their trajectories were drastically different.

Pujols, who won't be eligible until 2028, surged from the onset, immediately putting together arguably the best 10-year stretch in baseball history, then faded rather aggressively in his 30s. Beltré took a while to get going, not making his first All-Star team until his age-31 season, but he was at his best throughout the second half of his career. In some ways, he aged backward.

"It should be more impressive because of the way that he has done it -- late in his career, it clicked for him, and he took advantage," Pujols said. "He recognized it, and he turned things around."

Manny Mota: On Beltré's 'desire to be great'

It began with two folding chairs near a batting cage tucked within the bowels of Dodger Stadium, and similar settings in other major league ballparks across the country. This is where Manny Mota and Adrián Beltré spent most of their early afternoons in the late 1990s and early 2000s, talking about the work ahead of them before most of the other Los Angeles Dodgers had arrived.

"We talked like two friends," said Mota, the Dodgers' pinch-hitting legend who later spent four decades assisting their coaching staff. "Not like instructor and player, but like two friends sharing in what we were going to try to do -- with the same idea, with the same purpose."

Mota learned about Beltré shortly after the Dodgers signed him as a 15-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 1994 (when they had famously, and illegally, falsified his birth date). He watched Beltré star at the organization's Dominican academy in summer 1995 and was blown away by his strength and quickness. When Beltré and other prominent Dodgers minor leaguers were invited to train with the major league players in spring training the following year, late manager Tommy Lasorda put Mota in charge of him. And when Beltré reached the majors as a 19-year-old in 1998, he became Mota's most important project.

They became almost inseparable, their relationship resembling that of a father and son, and it was those afternoon conversations, Mota said, that set the tone.

They typically centered on positivity.

"That was my responsibility as a coach -- to not let him fall," Mota, now 85, said in Spanish. "It was to lift him up. Because we're here to instill confidence, not to destroy it."

Beltré breezed through the lower levels of the Dodgers' minor league system at 17 and 18 years old and became easily the sport's youngest player when he was called up near the end of June in 1998. He had skipped Triple-A entirely, accumulating fewer than 300 plate appearances above the Class A level, and his inexperience was notable. Beltré batted .215 as a rookie, then was basically a league-average hitter in the four full seasons that followed. His defense was elite, his offensive tools were obvious, but consistency eluded him.

Mota remained his strongest advocate. He had long become convinced that Latin American players needed more seasoning than those who entered baseball's pipeline domestically because of the disparity in resources, and so he continually preached patience to those above him. In Beltré, he noticed unrelenting positivity amid struggle.

"He handled it admirably," Mota said. "He handled it in a great way because he recognized that he was at a level he belonged and just needed to make the necessary adjustments in order to succeed. That's what he ultimately realized. He knew it was a process. It wasn't easy. He was going to have his good days and his bad, but he was going to keep learning."

Everything suddenly came together in 2004, in the run-up to free agency. Beltré hit a major league-leading 48 home runs, compiled 121 RBIs, slashed .334/.388/.629 and accumulated 9.7 fWAR, still the most by a Dodgers position player. His OPS, 1.017, was 269 points higher than his career average heading in. If not for Barry Bonds, he would've won the National League MVP Award.

That year, nearly two-thirds of Beltré's home runs were hit to center and right field, the byproduct of a patient, opposite-field approach refined by new hitting coach Tim Wallach -- but one he and Mota had begun honing years earlier in the backfields of the Dodgers' Vero Beach, Florida, complex.

"His desire to be great -- that, more than anything else, is what impressed me the most," Mota said. "He was always ready to work and to receive instruction and to apply it. He was very positive. And he always gave you the best he had."

Elvis Andrus: On Beltré's infectious joy

In Seattle, it was Félix Hernández. In Boston, it was Marco Scutaro and Victor Martinez. And so in the spring of 2011, a 22-year-old Elvis Andrus turned to a soon-to-be-32-year-old Adrián Beltré and relayed some tough news: It has to be another Venezuelan who touches your head in Texas, he told him, and that person is going to be me.

"He didn't like it very much because he hates it when people touch his head," Andrus said in Spanish. "But like I told him, 'The only way I like to get hit by somebody is when you hit a home run, so I'm going to keep doing it and keep being annoying so you keep hitting home runs.'"

Beltré's Hall of Fame résumé was built on his prowess, but his essence was marked by the spontaneity and hilarity of his antics -- by the unique ways in which he emanated joy. Like when he dodged a liquid bath with a push broom. Or ran toward the pitcher's mound during a rundown. Or stopped his stride like a Looney Tunes character. Or pushed José Altuve off third base. Or mockingly danced at Andrelton Simmons. Or screamed at Hernández on his way to first. Or dragged the on-deck circle before an at-bat, triggering one of the most ridiculous ejections in recent memory.

Beltré's ability to exude levity and tenacity simultaneously made him unlike any others before him. It was his gift to the sport -- and Andrus, his shortstop partner throughout his eight-year stint with the Texas Rangers, often triggered it with those unrelenting attempts to rub the top of his head.

Beltré would playfully take swings when Andrus touched his crown as he high-fived teammates in the dugout, but he'd get legitimately mad -- at times enraged -- when it happened within the sanctity of a clubhouse. But Andrus' pestering knew no limits. Once, Andrus found an opening in the middle of a meeting near the pitcher's mound and Beltré reacted by flinging his glove like a Little Leaguer.

"We were in Seattle," Andrus recalled. "We were playing, and I was messing with him because that day we had a pop-up and we did what we always did, messing around, calling each other off. I caught the ball and he told me, 'Don't f--- around. Leave my fly balls alone. Those are mine.' And I told him, 'Hey, I'm the shortstop. I'm in charge here.' Then when they're changing the pitcher and he told me, 'We'll see the next one,' I touched his head with my glove and I started running. I figured he wouldn't do anything because we're in the middle of the field. The last thing I imagined was that he would throw his glove. Then I saw the replay and I died laughing."

Beltré's tenure as Andrus' infield partner came after five sluggish years offensively in Seattle. Some of those who know him well believe the pressure to live up to a $64 million contract -- signed after his spectacular 2004 season -- in a new place got to him, at least initially. Many others pointed to the difficulty of being a right-handed hitter inside T-Mobile Park at that time, before the fences moved in. Beltré went on to sign a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox in January 2010 -- a development that introduced "pillow contract" into our lexicon -- and finished within the top 10 in MVP voting, parlaying a dominant season into a six-year, $96 million agreement with the Rangers.

The Rangers made the deal expecting the typical regression of a power hitter in his 30s. What they got instead was a renaissance. Over a six-year stretch from 2011 to 2016, Beltré slashed .308/.358/.516 while accumulating 167 home runs, 563 RBIs and 32.4 fWAR, seventh most in the majors. He earned three All-Star selections, won two Silver Sluggers and accumulated three Gold Gloves for Rangers teams that consistently competed for championships, establishing himself as one of the greatest third basemen in baseball history.

The environment, many believe, helped him flourish. And Andrus was a driving force. The two had neighboring lockers in their first spring training together and hit it off immediately. Beltré took on the role of an older brother, and Andrus credits Beltré more than anyone else for helping him grow. Some of Beltré's close friends point to a telling aspect of their dynamic: Andrus, a kid when they first met, had the confidence to mess with an accomplished veteran like Beltré as often as he did. To them, it speaks to the type of teammate Beltre was.

"A lot of people were scared of Adrián," Andrus said, "but I never understood that because he was the type of person who, if you did things correctly and played hard and played to win, he was never going to have a problem with you. I never saw him have a problem with anyone who did things right and got to the field to give their heart every day to win. That's the only thing he asked from us as teammates. And it wasn't just that he asked for it -- it's what he gave us."

Jon Daniels: On Beltré's legendary pain tolerance

It was the middle of June 2015, three weeks into Adrián Beltré's latest stint on the injured list. He was nursing a torn ligament in his left thumb, which he jammed while sliding into second base on the final night of May. A hand specialist met with Beltré; his agent, Scott Boras; and the Rangers' medical staff in Anaheim, California, to inform him that surgery was the only path to improvement. Everybody but Beltré agreed.

"Can I make it worse?" Beltré asked.

Beltré had already received a cortisone injection that did not take. The pain was excruciating. He was told once again that an invasive surgery was the only option left. Beltré kept pressing.

"But I can't make it any worse, right?"

Jon Daniels, the Rangers' head of baseball operations at the time, was baffled but unsurprised. Daniels had spent four years alongside Beltré by that point and was often stunned by his willingness to play hurt. He knew where this was going. Beltré was told that, no, he could not make his thumb any worse than it already was.

"All right," Beltré said, "I'll play through it."

"The rest of us in the room were like, 'Are you serious?'" Daniels recalled. "I mean, I think he was having trouble doing basic, day-to-day functions."

One of the two most vivid examples of Beltré's legendary pain tolerance occurred in 2001, when a ruptured and infected appendix caused him to lose 34 pounds and forced him to arrive at spring training with an IV port stuck in his arm and a colostomy bag tucked into his pants. He played anyway. The other took place in 2009, when one of his testicles swelled to the size of a grapefruit because of a ninth-inning grounder that took a bad hop. Beltré singled and scored the winning run five innings later, missed the next 18 games, came back and still refused to wear an athletic cup.

But Daniels, now a senior advisor with the Tampa Bay Rays, can rattle off a handful of other, similarly impressive instances from personal experience. Like when Beltré spent a night in the hospital with abdominal blockage in 2012, then batted cleanup the following day. Or when he returned from a hamstring strain twice as fast as even the most optimistic projections in 2017. Or when he OPS'd .836 while playing with a battered thumb over the final three-plus months of the aforementioned 2015 season, pushing the Rangers into the playoffs.

The ensuing postseason began with a phone call from Rangers athletic trainer Kevin Harmon. Beltré, Harmon told Daniels, had thrown out his back and could hardly move. He was angling to play in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, but Harmon didn't think it was possible.

Beltré was inserted into the No. 3 spot of the lineup, but he could barely rotate his hips or swing his bat while attempting to loosen his muscles in the on-deck circle. He drew a four-pitch walk in the top of the first, then attempted to play defense for two half-innings. When he came to bat again in the third, he drove an 0-1 sinker from David Price up the middle for a two-out RBI single. Had Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar noticed how slowly Beltré made his way up the line, Daniels said, he might have thrown him out at first base. Beltré was subbed out for the next half-inning and missed the next two games, but he returned for Game 4.

"There was a little healthy fear of Adrián throughout the organization," Daniels said. "I remember the couple times this guy was hurt and he had to go on the IL you were like, 'All right, who's going to tell him?' It was kind of funny. If he agreed to go on the IL, you knew it was bad. Because typically he was like, 'No, f--- that, I'll be fine.' I mean, he'd literally just walk out of my office like, 'No, I'm not going on. See you later.' And you're like, 'I thought I was the guy in charge here.'"

Beltré made such a habit of toughing out injuries he became a master at playing through them. In some ways, injuries actually might have made him better. Beltré spent the last five months of his breakout 2004 season playing through two bone spurs in one of his ankles, a development some believe might have forced him to be more patient and make better use of his hands in the batter's box. His elite arm strength allowed him to make difficult throws without doing too much work with his lower half, a blessing given the assortment of leg issues that plagued him. Early on, when throwing errors were a problem, having less mobility in his legs actually helped his accuracy.

Beltré played in 2,933 regular-season games in a career that spanned 21 years, more than all but 14 people in major league history.

He willed his way through an inordinate amount of them.

"I think it was this mix of competitiveness, pride and responsibility," Daniels said. "It was just like, 'If I can go, I'm going to do it. I want to be there for my teammates. I want to win.' All the right reasons. He never vocalized that, so I don't want to put words in his mouth. But that was always my sense."

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