Carlos Beltran takes a swing in the batting cage as he prepares for the upcoming season. (Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports)
By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – The rosary hangs from a hook in Carlos Beltran’s locker, a gift from a special man whom Beltran met in January for only the second time in his life.
He doesn’t know the man’s name.
All Beltran knows is that when he and his wife Jessica made a pre-spring training trip from their home in Puerto Rico to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic for a short vacation, he happened to run across this young man -- who was a boy when they first met, in the same place, in 1999.
The first trip came after Beltran had won the AL Rookie of the Year award with the Royals. He had never been to the Dominican, and his wife is half-Dominican, and he wanted to make the trip, to see the country. Thinking it would be nice to do something for the children in the country, he bought 200 pairs of shoes to give away while he was there.
“I knew there was a lot of poverty and poor kids in the country,” Beltran said this week. “I went to the Plaza Colonial and starting giving shoes away. There was a young boy there shining shoes and I gave him a pair of shoes.”
Beltran did not think about that boy again for more than 13 years, until he and Jessica went back to the Dominican in January. He wanted to see how much the country had changed and grown since that first visit.
He went back to the Plaza Colonial. As he stood there, a young man, now 23, approached him. It was the kid who had been shining shoes in the plaza on Beltran’s first visit.
“I swear to God that was the last thing I had on my mind,” Beltran said. “I remembered the moment. I never thought that kid would be there. He came up to me, and told me how he remembered the day I was there, he remembered my wife, the car I drove, he remembered all of the detail.
“He came up to me with a rosary and said, ‘I want you to have this.’ He said, ‘This is for you. Thank you for the shoes that you gave me.’
“Honestly, I didn’t remember him but he remembered me, and that moment when I showed up and gave him the shoes. That really meant a lot to him.”
The gift of the wood and stone rosary touched Beltran, which is why it is hanging in his locker, a place Beltran intends to keep it all season, to serve as a daily reminder that what doesn’t seem like a big gesture to one person can make a tremendous difference in the life of someone else.
“I always believe in doing good things and believe you can make a difference by doing little things,” he said. “There’s different ways to impact people, by doing something big or doing something small. It might not have that much meaning for us, but for others it can have a lot of meaning.”
This might have been one isolated moment, but Beltran’s daily life in the off-season at home in Puerto Rico is filled with people telling him thank you for the difference he has made in the lives of their children since opening his long-time dream, the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy, in Florida, Puerto Rico, not far from where he grew up.
The school opened its doors to about 100 students 18 months ago. It will graduate its first class of seniors this spring, one of whom, shortstop Jan Hernandez, is projected as a first-round selection in the amateur baseball draft in June.
The school is bilingual, with all classes and baseball instruction in both English and Spanish. Students have to maintain a 2.5 grade point average to stay in school, and Beltran has helped provide scholarships for students without the financial means to pay for the school.
The school grew out of Beltran’s dream to provide young baseball players in his native country with a better opportunity than he had when he was growing up. He has talked often about how unprepared he was for both baseball and life when he left the country to sign with the Royals in 1995, when he was 18 years old.
He is at the school every day when he is home during the winter.
“I want to make sure we are doing the job and we are supporting the kids with what they need,” Beltran said. “I really enjoy the time because they are the future of our country. They have a dream, they want to be a ballplayer, but most important their focus is on school. All I want is for them to have an opportunity.”
It is through watching what is happening at the school that Beltran realizes how many lives he has touched, with countless more to come in the future.
“I see the kids and their development,” he said. “I see the parents coming up to me and saying, ‘Carlos, thank you for what you did. My kid is a different kid. He’s really focusing on school and focusing on his education, and he has not been that type of kid before.’ I really appreciate that and it gets me going.
“I feel a lot of pride because I come from a humble family and being able to go through what I have gone through, and God giving me the opportunity to play this game, become successful, and making a good living out of the game, it was time for me to do something. I chose education and sports, because that’s what my passion has always been.”
A special guest instructor at the school in January was Cardinal coach Jose Oquendo, a fellow Puerto Rico native, who spent two full days working with the kids at the school.
“It really means a lot to me because there’s different ways to support an academy or a non-profit organization that’s trying to do something positive for the community,” Beltran said. “You can do it by donating your money or you can do it by donating your time, and that’s what he did.”
Oquendo enjoyed the experience, and was impressed by what Beltran has done in developing the school.
“It is a nice place and he does a good job with the kids,” Oquendo said. “I gave the coaches a few pointers, and saw some of the kids. They’ve got some good prospects there. It’s a good group of kids.”
Having those experiences this winter helped Beltran get over the sting and pain of losing the NL Championship Series to the Giants in seven games, the third time in his career Beltran has been on the losing team that fell one game away from the World Series.
It would not be far-fetched if the thought had entered Beltran’s mind that maybe he is not destined to play in the Series during his career. He does not want to let his mind go there.
In the second year of his two-year contract with the Cardinals, the 35-year-old Beltran (he will be 36 in April ) knows this might be his final shot to get to that elusive goal with the Cardinals. He can stand in the clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium and look down the wall of lockers and see Oscar Taveras, the organization’s top prospect, who most project will take Beltran’s job as the starting right-fielder next season.
“We realize that we didn’t play to the level that we can play,” Beltran said of the loss to the Giants. “We didn’t play consistent baseball. This year we need to learn from the things we went through last year, and hopefully we can get to the playoffs and get to the World Series.”
That elusive World Series appearance is about the only goal left for Beltran to accomplish in baseball. He also knows he might not have many more chances, depending on what happens after this season.
“I know there have been a lot of things said about me that maybe I am not the same player I was 10 years ago, but no one is the same after 10 years,” he said. “All I have to say is that I am healthy, and I’m looking forward to taking the field and doing my job. The positive I take it, and the negative I let it go and sometimes I use it as a motivation to prove myself to people.”
Beltran doesn’t have to prove anything to the students at the academy, or to his special friend from the Dominican Republic. Winning a World Series, or never getting there, won’t do anything to change that.