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Homecoming, Part I

This homestand marks the homecoming of two of the most prominent members of the 2004 NL West-winning campaign: tonight, Adrian Beltre returns to Dodger Stadium as a member of the Seattle Mariners; Friday night, Jim Tracy returns as the skipper of the Pirates. Both men played prominent roles in the downfall of Paul DePodesta. Tonight, we look back at Adrian Beltre.

The Promise of Homegrown Talent

Back in 1998, I was pretty excited. Mike Piazza was coming off of a .328-40-124 season (I still thought in those terms back then). Karros and Mondesi each topped 30 homers; in fact, with 32 steals, Mondesi was a 30-30 guy. The famous Guerrero brother was our man Wilton, who still looked promising at second base. At 22 years old, Roger Cedeno even looked pretty good. Valdez, Park, Nomo, and Martinez upheld the Dodger tradition of quality starting pitching. Nobody really thought in terms of a drought. The next World Series seemed just a player or two away. The Spring Training Baseball Yearbook, which annually lists its top 100 prospects (no more than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched), topped the list with these five players:

  1. Travis Lee (1B, Diamondbacks)
  2. Kerry Wood (P, Cubs)
  3. Adrian Beltre (3B, Dodgers)
  4. Miguel Tejada (SS, Athletics)
  5. Paul Konerko (3B, Dodgers)
It looked like a sure thing that the longtime struggle to fill third base after the departure of Ron Cey was over. In fact, in this context, Tommy Lasorda's trade for Jeff Shaw--in which he surrendered Paul Konerko--doesn't look quite as ridiculous. At this point, Konerko was the famous prospect, so when we got word that there was a younger, better prospect at third it seemed like an embarrassment of riches, and we expected great things. Adrian Beltre would be saddled with these expectations for his entire Dodger career.

For the first three seasons, the expectations continued to build. Traditional stats rose from year to year: .215-7-22 in '98, .275-15-67 in '99, and .290-20-85 in '00. Going into the 2001 season, Beltre looked set for a breakout season. But it didn't come. In March, we learned that Beltre would have to have a wound in his abdomen closed. The wound was the result of an emergency appendectomy performed in the Dominican Republic that January. He hadn't been on solid food since. The breakout was on hold.
2002 wasn't that great either (.257-21-75), but 2003 was different. In a season mostly defined by Dodger pitching, Beltre broke out. His season line of .240-23-80 didn't show it, but if you squinted you could make it out. His second half was what we'd been waiting for. In the 80 games he played in July, August, and September, Beltre hit .258 with 17 home runs and 52 RBI. That was what we were waiting for. Beltre was a hitter now.

2004 was some year. So much was written by the team--the whole organization--that year, but Adrian Beltre was the screaming two-inch headline. I was lucky enough to attend several of the watershed moments that year, but the Braves game on August 20th will always stand along side the clincher against the Giants as the best. While the Giants game (and the Finley grand slam) will be replayed in highlight reels for years to come, that August night continues to play itself over and over in my mind. Beltre had 36 homers up to that point, and was emerging as a challenger to Bonds for the MVP award. With the Braves leading 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, John Smoltz took the mound. Smoltz had 32 saves and an ERA of 1.84. Beltre promptly homered. The crowd went nuts. Smoltz quietly retired the Dodgers, and we went into extra innings. Carrara held down the fort and the lineup came back around to Bradley leading off in the 11th. He struck out, but Beltre followed with a walk-off homer. Needless to say, the crowd went ballistic. We were chanting "M-V-P" throughout Beltre's post-game interview until he emerged from the dugout for a curtain call. All of the expectations, all of the hopes and dreams had been fulfilled.

Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

By then, Dodger fans were growing a little wary, a little jaded. The Fox years were hard, featuring trades of popular players, changing of managers and general managers, and disappointing records. So it was understandable that there was a cloud hanging over the breakout season: it was a contract year. Suddenly, starting Beltre's service clock at 19 years old didn't seem so sharp. With a G.M. most famous for his prominent role in "Moneyball," Michael Lewis' chronicling of the Oakland A's ability to succeed on a budget, the prospect of signing him seemed remote. And, oh yeah, his agent was Scott Boras.

As it turned out, teams were willing to pay huge money for Beltre, despite his having only shown a season-and-a-half of star performance. The winners were Seattle, who shelled out $64 million over 5 years. Detroit was reportedly offering $90 million for 6 years, but Beltre chose to stay on the west coast. He got $17 million last year alone. As much as I wanted him to stay, I was glad the Dodgers didn't match that. Every dollar you spend on one guy is a dollar you can't spend on another, and we weren't good enough to start overpaying. Not even for sentimental reasons.

And, just like that, it was over. The press would soon wage all-out war on Paul DePodesta and Frank McCourt. Injuries would destroy the 2005 season. J.D. Drew may always be denied a place in Dodger fans' hearts simply for having been the big bat that was signed instead of Adrian Beltre. But it would be hard to argue that DePodesta and the Dodgers made a mistake. Beltre has received over $20 million from the Mariners, and has yet to regain his amazing 2004 form. He OPSed just .716 (I think in those terms now) last year, and this year he's at a dismal .647. He's hit just 25 home runs as a Mariner. While I feel some satisfaction that my view--a minority view, I feel--was vindicated, it pales in comparison with the sadness I feel for Beltre.

That promise of so long ago still echoes in my mind. The joy I felt for the Dodgers when it was fulfilled hasn't come back since. And, in many ways, he's still our Adrian Beltre. We watched him grow, and we took pride in him. It's hard to let that go. And while we dream on a new set of prospects, I hope my fellow Dodger fans welcome back one from the past with the cheers that he deserves.