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Beltre reflexively deflects praise to his teammates, but when pressed, he says, "There have been a couple moments this year where I've just stopped and said, 'Wow.' I am enjoying every minute of this. With all the expectations that have been around here through the years, it's an amazing feeling to have accomplished so much."
The expectations came with Beltre's precocious talent. The Dodgers signed the Dominican Republic native at 15 in 1994, violating major league baseball's minimum-age rule of 16, a transgression that did not come to light until five years later when the team was disciplined by the commissioner's office for having falsified documents relating to Beltre's age. He had reached the big leagues in '98 at 19, and in 2000 he hit .290 with 20 home runs and 85 RBIs in 138 games while playing superb defense at third. Beltre's ascension solidified a position that had seen seven different Opening Day starters during the '90s.
But Beltre's progress stalled in January 2001 when he suffered a ruptured appendix while at home in the Dominican Republic. He underwent a botched surgical procedure in Santo Domingo, and those around Dodgertown will not soon forget the sight of Beltre wearing a colostomy bag in spring training. Shortly before Opening Day he needed another surgery to close a wound from the first procedure, and it would be more than a year before he felt he had returned to full strength. He averaged 22 homers and 78 RBIs over the past two seasons while hitting a disappointing .257 in 2002 and .240 in '03. After signing Beltre to a one-year, $5 million contract for this year, the Dodgers' brass made it clear that they were out of patience waiting for his star to rise.
"He had to learn this game while playing at the major league level, and that's damn hard to do," says Lasorda, who as general manager in '98 brought Beltre to the bigs after only 64 games in Double A. "The talent was always there--that was never the question--but Adrian had to grow up."
Beltre matured in a hurry during the past off-season, when he and his wife, Sandra, welcomed their first child, Cassandra. Wallach is the other key addition. In spring training he closed Beltre's stance, producing better plate coverage, but more important, Wallach has instilled a new discipline in a free swinger who had 37 walks and 103 strikeouts last year. (At week's end Beltre had 41 walks and 77 whiffs this season.) The two have almost daily chats about the art of hitting, and through videotape Beltre has learned to break down how a particular pitcher will attack him at the plate. "I have a game plan every time I go up there now," he says. "I never really did before."
Then there are the effects of the batting-practice home run contest. "It has helped me a lot," says Beltre. "Before, when I wanted to drive the ball, I was only looking for a pitch on the inside half of the plate that I could pull. Now I know I can do damage going to rightfield, so I'm not trying to guess on pitches and I'm not swinging wildly at breaking stuff away. I just react."
Says Arizona ace Randy Johnson, "You used to be able to get him to chase your pitch. He'd get himself out. Now he's much more selective, and that's made him a lot more dangerous. You can see he's locked in up there every single time."
Beltre has pushed the Dodgers to the brink of their first playoff berth since 1996 while playing most of the year with bone spurs in his left ankle. That toughness is part of what has made him a team leader, but he's also beloved for his kindness. He's a regular visitor to the children's ward at L.A.'s White Memorial Medical Center. That compassion has grown out of Beltre's relationship with his 13-year-old brother, Elvin, whose meningitis at a young age left him with impaired speech and motor skills. Adrian calls Elvin in the Dominican Republic every other day and credits his brother with spurring him to reach out to disadvantaged kids.
Beltre leads in a stoic manner. He's a curious type who spends team flights with his nose buried in a laptop computer, creating elaborate playlists for his iPod. He will be a free agent this winter but has adopted a stance of studied indifference toward his contract status. (His agent, Scott Boras, calls Pujols's seven-year, $100 million deal "the starting point.") "I don't think about it," Beltre says. "I just want to play ball."
Despite the pressure of a pennant race, Beltre brings an obvious joy to the ballpark, and it's on display during every batting-practice home run derby. After being vanquished by Green the other day, Beltre offered a forced handshake and a little advice. "Greeny," he said, "enjoy your victory because I'm going to kick your butt tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day...."