Soon Carlos Beltran won't be able to cruise the produce section of his grocery store without being recognized. The days of uninterrupted trips to the mall and the movies with his wife, Jessica, will be over. He is due to be sprung from baseball's witness protection program, otherwise known as the Kansas City Royals. The team with which he has spent his seven-year career intends to trade the 27-year-old centerfielder. � Though Beltran has broken one of Mickey Mantle's switch-hitting records, joined a select company of Hall of Famers with his combination of power and speed, and established himself, according to Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, as "one of the top 15 players in baseball—at least," he's recognized on shopping runs only slightly more often than he's been selected to All-Star teams, which is never.
Such a cloak of anonymity fits Beltran just fine. He's a throwback player who loves to play defense, often begins sentences with "I pray to God..." (and means it), spends his downtime on the road working out with his personal trainer, signals his love to his wife before every at bat (he draws a J in the back of the batter's box with his bat) and carries himself with quiet humility. As teammate Brian Anderson says, with only slight exaggeration, "Once every two weeks he'll say something in the clubhouse, just to remind us he's here."
"I pray to God I can be a great player, but I want to keep my life," Beltran said last week. "I don't want to be hiding from people. It would be difficult to be recognized everywhere, so that I couldn't do things ordinary people can do. I love to go to the grocery store or the movies or go to the mall and be just an ordinary person. In Kansas City they don't know who I am. Same tiling when I'm home in Puerto Rico. I like that."
The beginning of the end of Beltran's ordinary life occurred on June 10, when Royals G.M. Allard Baird, watched his team drop a doubleheader to the woeful Montreal Expos to fall to 21-36. The next day he said he was ready to deal his centerfielder. The declaration had the effect around baseball of throwing a slab of sirloin toward a pack of junkyard Dobermans. The Yankees, Red Sox, Athletics, Angels, White Sox, Marlins, Padres and Dodgers have not stopped drooling since.
Part of Beltran's appeal is that he is the only impact player available on the trade market with the July 31 deadline on the horizon. The other players available, such as pitchers Freddy Garcia and Gil Meche of the Seattle Mariners and Kris Benson of the Pittsburgh Pirates, are uninspiring. With so many teams still harboring playoff aspirations—at week's end, 19 of the 30 major league clubs were within five games of a playoff spot—few are ready to part with pivotal players. "Maybe on July 25, once a few other teams begin to fall, other players will be available," says one G.M. monitoring the Beltran front. "But I think Beltran will be traded by the end of [this] month. He has impact on all three phases of the game. He's a terrific hitter from both sides of the plate, he's probably the best base runner in the game, and he plays great defense. Those guys are rare."
At week's end Beltran, a career .287 hitter, was batting .281 with 13 homers, 48 RBIs (sixth in the league) and a .522 slugging percentage, which would match the best of his career if it held. Beltran also had 14 steals. Naturally, he was running a distant seventh among AL outfielders in All-Star voting. "I pray to God one day I get to be in an All-Star Game," he says.
Says Ricciardi of the noncontending Jays, "The game looks like it comes easy to him. He does so many things well. The Royals won't get as much as they would have gotten in the off-season, but I think he'll be traded."
Baird has told interested teams he'd like to get a young third baseman and a promising catcher in return for Beltran, whose value is reduced by his desire to test the free-agent market in November. According to one AL source, Baird was in Sacramento last week to watch Mark Teahen, Oakland's Triple A third baseman, who would be the key to a deal with the A's. The Red Sox and the Yankees each have the third baseman-catcher fit the Royals are seeking: Boston can offer third baseman Kevin Youkilis and Triple A catcher Kelly Shoppach, while New York can dangle Double A prospects Robinson Cano, recently moved from second to third, and Dioner Navarro, a catcher.
Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, calls his client "a 60-day rental," and adds, very reasonably, that "given his age and the fact that he plays a premium position, he'll be the most coveted player to come on the [free-agent] market since Alex Rodriguez."
Asked what he'll look for from a new employer this winter, Beltran, who is making $9 million this season, mentioned two things: that the team be a contender—the Royals had a winning record and finished within 15 games of first place only once in his six previous seasons—and that he remain in his beloved centerfield.