7:30 AM ET
- Jerry CrasnickESPN Senior Writer Close
- ESPN.com senior writer
- Author of "License to Deal"
- Former Denver Post national baseball writer
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Carlos Correa was nine months old when Carlos Beltran broke into the Kansas City Royals' system in 1995, so pardon him for being out of touch with his new teammate's professional origins.
By the time Beltran went on an epic tear for the Houston Astros during the 2004 National League postseason, Correa was 10 years old and diligently making mental notes. As a native Puerto Rican, Correa felt a sense of kinship with his countryman. As an impressionable, young baseball prodigy, he was spellbound watching his namesake hit eight home runs and slug 1.022 in 56 playoff at-bats.
So Correa did what came naturally: He grabbed a bat and commenced mimicking.
"He's a guy we all looked up to as kids," Correa says. "I loved his stance and how strong he looks on his legs. His posture too. It's intimidating when he steps to the plate. I used to try and imitate him in the mirror because he was so cool to watch."
Correa made sure to file away the details from his introduction to Beltran in June 2012. The Astros had just selected Correa with the first pick in the MLB first-year player draft, and Beltran and the St. Louis Cardinals were in Houston when Correa flew in for a news conference and tour of Minute Maid Park. Yadier Molina and Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo were part of the Puerto Rican welcoming committee, but Beltran provided the advice that resonated.
"He told me it was only the beginning, that I was only getting started and I needed to strive for more,'' Correa says.
The career lines have converged, and a cross-generational Carlos fest is playing out in Houston's camp this spring. Beltran, 39, is in the final stages of a career that could take him to the Hall of Fame. Correa, 22, continues to elicit Derek Jeter comparisons for his rangy shortstop frame, mature work habits and uncanny field awareness at a young age. Their brief hiatus as teammates on the Puerto Rican World Baseball Classic roster just adds to the adventure.
In the home clubhouse at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, Correa dresses between Marwin Gonzalez and Yulieski Gurriel. He's a mere three lockers away from Beltran and a seemingly bottomless well of experience. Beltran lives to talk and teach baseball, and Correa is happy to play Daniel LaRusso to his new teammate's Mr. Miyagi.
"It's not about getting a chance to play with a future Hall of Famer,'' Correa said. "It's getting a chance to learn from a future Hall of Famer. That's what's most important to me.''
When the Astros signed Beltran to a one-year, $16 million deal in December, manager A.J. Hinch received several enthusiastic text messages from players. The most profound and substantive came from Correa, who needed only 10 words to explain why he endorsed the move.
Our team got better. And I'm going to get better.
At a time when aging players are routinely shuttled off to retirement before they're ready, Beltran remains a desired commodity. He hit 29 homers and slugged .513 for the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers on the way to making his ninth All-Star team last season. Beltran has become less mobile with age, but Hinch thinks he has enough bounce in his step to start 30-40 games in left field.
Beltran's other contributions are evident throughout the day at the park, where no nook or cranny is immune from baseball talk. He'll talk hitting in the lunch room when teammates are buttering their toast and converse about fielding on the commute to Grapefruit League road games. At the batting cage, Beltran might corral Gurriel between rounds and get in his ear about his approach at the plate. In the dugout, he'll buttonhole George Springer and point out pitcher cues that might provide an opportunity for a bigger lead and a stolen base.
"When he was in his early 20s, a lot of people thought he was vanilla — or, dare I say, boring. Now, almost 20 years later, he's still doing that, and it's considered a strength. He couldn't please the people who thought he was methodical or emotionally flat-lining. But I think he figured out it was a way for him to conquer the game. And he taught us all a lesson."
Astros manager A.J. Hinch on Carlos Beltran
"He's invested in everyone, and there's no detail too small for him to share,'' Hinch says. "It might be a life lesson for young players who have babies on the way. Or maybe it has something to do with a pitcher tipping pitches or a way to get a lead at second base and create an angle to score around third.
"What I've noticed for all these guys — but especially Correa — is the conversation doesn't end until Carlos Beltran is finished with his point. That type of respect is earned over an entire generation of playing — not just by making the most money or having glossy numbers on the back of your baseball card.''
Hinch speaks from personal experience. He was a backup catcher with Kansas City in 2001 when Beltran hit .306 with 24 homers and 31 stolen bases for the Royals. Beltran played with a calmness that could be mistaken for emotional detachment, and he had an athletic grace that made the game look easy.
"When he was in his early 20s, a lot of people thought he was vanilla — or, dare I say, boring,'' Hinch says. "Now, almost 20 years later, he's still doing that, and it's considered a strength. He couldn't please the people who thought he was methodical or emotionally flat-lining. But I think he figured out it was a way for him to conquer the game. And he taught us all a lesson.''
Beltran's baseball and life clinics are rooted in the examples set for him in his native Puerto Rico. He grew up watching Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra and Pudge Rodriguez play for the Rangers, tapped into the knowledge of his winter ball teammate, Bernie Williams, and devoured everything he could possibly read on the great Roberto Clemente.
Like Clemente, Beltran understands what it means to give to the less fortunate. He spent $2 million to help fund an academy in Puerto Rico where high school-aged players can develop their baseball skills and pursue academic excellence away from the field. He was a driving force behind the introduction of Spanish-language translators in MLB clubhouses, even as he kept pushing for Latino players to learn English.
Beltran's communicative approach to baseball stems from an appreciation of the game's challenges. He knows ruts are inevitable over a 162-game season, so the best way to minimize slumps is to catalog how things feel when things are going right. This is a constant theme in his discussions with Correa and Houston's other young players.
"I'll watch [Correa] when he hits and ask him, 'How do you feel when you're swinging the bat well? What is the process? What are you thinking?''' Beltran says. "There will come a time when he's struggling, and I can remind him, 'Hey, man, I remember you told me this, this and that.' Everything starts with a feeling. Hitting is such a complicated thing to do. But he really wants to learn, and that's the right attitude.''
When Beltran left Houston to sign a seven-year, $119 million deal with the New York Mets in January 2005, some Astros fans took it as a personal affront and booed him on his subsequent trips to the city. Beltran's antagonists in Houston might find it harder to stay angry after seeing how enthusiastically his new teammates embraced him at the start of his second go-around with the team.
While Houston's front office was working on trades at the winter meetings outside Washington D.C., Beltran, Correa and Jose Altuve spent a night at a steakhouse at the Galleria mall in Houston. The team posted a shot of the three on its Twitter account.
During that meal and subsequent talks, Beltran developed an appreciation for Correa's intelligence and commitment that go beyond the bat speed and baseball instincts readily apparent from the other dugout.
"There's no doubt: The sky is the limit,'' Beltran says. "He's a smart kid, and he's super-talented. What I wish for him the most is health. He has the work ethic and everything else.''
Mentor-protégé relationships can take a different form in sports than in other walks of life. The Chicago Cubs' fondness and admiration for catcher David Ross was readily apparent last year, but it was tinged with good-natured ribbing about his age-related infirmities. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and the other young Cubs referred to the 39-year-old Ross as "Grandpa Rossy.''
Beltran is immune to such hijinks in Houston. He's comfortable with the hip-hop music favored by the young Astros players, and he's a smooth dresser. No one will be calling him "Grandpa'' in this or any other lifetime.
"He's always looking good,'' Correa says. "He's got his swag.''
When Beltran and Correa talk baseball, they're just two kids from Puerto Rico who grew up to realize their dreams. Like Springer, Altuve and the other young Houston players, Correa yearns to get better, and he feels blessed to be under the guidance of such an ageless and accomplished mentor. After all these years, Carlos Beltran is still cool to watch.
"He has an old body,'' Correa says, "and a young soul.''