Thursday, February 28, 2008

Beltran’s New Intangible Tool:

Carlos Beltran, who recently proclaimed that Mets were the team to beat in the NL East, is in many ways your classic five tool player: he 1) hits for average, 2) hits for power, 3) is an excellent base-runner, 4) fields his position exceptionally well, 5) and has a strong throwing arm. Jimmy Rawlins, the Philadelphia shortstop at whom Beltran’s statement was directed, is fairly toolsey himself, but people more frequently praise his fire, leadership, passion, and, lately, his NL MVP award.

The five-tool label is justly regarded with a fair amount of skepticism, firstly because it is hard to accurately judge who actually posses said tools, and also because it is not really necessary to posses all five tools in order to be an amazing ball player. David Ortiz does literally nothing for the Boston Red Sox other than draw walks and smack the shit out of the ball; you’d still want him on your team over the vast majority of baseball players, even if that meant playing him at first and being defensively weak there as a consequence.

The five tool designation is used to identify the players who posses the physical gifts necessary for the game of baseball, and there is an implied opposition between them and the gritty players, the “grinders” and “hustlers” (the David Ecksteins, Paul LoDucas, and Endy Chavie), who, while not blessed with inordinate physical gifts, have gotten themselves a place in the game (and in the affections of sports writers) through heart, passion and character. Classic five tool players include Alex Rodriquez and young Barry Bonds and the implication, when one considers the way in which writers and fans have treated the arc of their careers, is that their superabundance of talent actually hurt them, both as human beings and ballplayers. Due to their amazing physical gifts, they were never forced to develop the fortitude and intangibles of their less talented counter-parts and this is the reason that A-Rod is a choke artist and a head-case and Bonds is an arrogant asshole. Five tool players are frequently presented like the rich girl in my high school photography class, who took far and away the best pictures of any of us: she had a really nice camera and had taken pictures of India-- the rest of us had ok cameras and pictures of New Jersey. I felt no need to giver her any particular credit.

While this attitude is rarely explicitly stated, it is also clearly prevalent and can even be somewhat inferred from the very phrase “five tool player.” Tools are extremely tangible objects, means to the end, rather than an end in itself. The tool exists only to be used; calling someone a “tool” is a fairly serious insult. In the world of actual tools there is no credit or honor associated with owning a very good set of them: you are given credit for using them.

Beltran, then, is further typical of five-tool players, in that, while he has been excellent at most of the measurable aspects of baseball, there has always been a sense that he was intangibly lacking. This was probably never clearer than in the opening days of his Mets career. In a weird departure from A-Rod, the knock on Beltran was that he had hit too much in the post-season, his home run barrage for the Astros in ‘04 coming suspiciously on the eve of his free-agency and leading some to believe that he had done it on purpose, in order to get a larger paycheck. This paycheck he got, and large it was, from the Mets in 2005, and he then proceeded to have, by his standards, a fairly bad season. With their typical sportsmanship and logic, the Shea faithful started to boo him, which Beltran (perhaps unfortunately) took hard; he was pissed enough that Julio Franco had to talk him into coming out for curtain call after he hit his first game winning homer of ’06.*

Beltran is tied for the club single-season home-run record, but, as the New York press never tires of pointing out, is not really your typical New York player. Beltran does not have the exuberance of Reyes or Pedro, the polished charisma of Wright or Jeter, the venerability of Tom Glavine or Marriano Riverea. He doesn’t seem to like speaking to the press; he is not known as a clubhouse leader; he is not a character or a practical joker. He doesn’t really seem to do anything except for hit (for power and average), field his position very, very well, throw out runners, and steal bases at one of the highest percentages in major league history. Off the field he is quite, charitable, religious, and dedicated to training. He is apparently slightly vain about his cloths.

This year, it seems that the poor bastard spent the off-season reading the Post. He learned that the Mets collapse was due to a lack of fire and clubhouse leadership; he lamented, with the venerable of gentlemen of the sporting press, that what little of the later there had been departed with Tom Glavine and Paul LoDuca.

So Beltran reported to camp in ’08, firmly resolved to be more intangible. It is, perhaps, to be regretted that his first foray into leadership was such a blatant copy of Jimmy Rawlins; but Beltran is new at it and if he is going to steel from someone it might as well be from a master-- an MVP of intangibility, if you will. I look forward to his further intangible efforts with interest…as long as it doesn’t take away from his hitting.

*Julio got so much credit for having talked Beltran into that curtain call that maybe they would have gotten rid of him sooner if Beltran would have decided to just trot out there by his own damn self. And if they get rid of Julio earlier maybe they win two more games in ’07, and then…Beltran…what an asshole.


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