Muchas Gracias, Béisbol


Some of the best advice I have ever received in my life did not come from a ballplayer. It came from a golfer, if you can believe it.

It was Chi Chi Rodríguez.

I have been in many conversations with Chi Chi. He is a legend in Puerto Rico, and he is a very wise man. I remember in 1999 — when I was named Rookie of the Year — he approached me.

“Carlos,” he said, “what do you want to accomplish in life?”

I said, “I want to be successful, Chi Chi … successful at the game of baseball.”

And he said to me, “Oh, that’s super simple.”

I was confused. Simple? Was this a joke?

So I said to him, “If it’s so simple, why don’t you see more successful baseball players? Why can you only count the very best in the league on only two hands?”

He put his hand on my shoulder.

“To be successful in life, Carlos, you have to surround yourself with successful people. You can’t be afraid to ask questions to those people that you look up to.”

That one piece of advice changed everything for me. See, the sport we play has a long season. We have long road trips with a lot of travel and down time. So as ballplayers, we can be very laid back — even shy — and keep to ourselves at times.

After that conversation with Chi Chi, I decided that I was not going to keep to myself anymore.

The best example of this is from All-Star weekend in 2007. I was standing in the clubhouse at AT&T Park in San Francisco when I saw Barry Bonds in the corner, sitting at his locker. Now, most players only have one locker. Some guys have two. But Barry? He had like five lockers … and a TV … and a recliner — like a massage chair. He owned an entire corner of the clubhouse. I think a lot of players were intimidated by him just because he was Barry Bonds. He was the best player in the world, and he just had this … presence. And when he was sitting in his corner of the clubhouse, he basically felt unapproachable.

I had never been so wrong.

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I thought about Chi Chi’s advice, and I walked over to Barry’s corner, went up behind him and tapped him on the back.

He turned around and said, “Hey, Carlos. How are you doing?”

I felt like a little kid. It was an honor to me that he even knew my name.

Then I said to him, “Barry, when is a good opportunity for us to talk about hitting?”

He paused for a moment to think, and then he got up and said, “O.K., let’s go.”

Then he led me out of the clubhouse and out to the cages.

So there I was, alone with the best player in the world, and he was basically giving me a private hitting lesson.

Just because I asked.

Throughout my career I tried to get as much knowledge out of every opportunity as I could. I would look around the league at the players who I had the ultimate respect and admiration for — guys like Bernie Williams, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Carlos Delgado, Iván Rodríguez, Alex Rodríguez and Derek Jeter, among others — and I would follow Chi Chi’s advice. I would ask these players, “Hey, what have you got for me? What can I do to be a better ballplayer?”

I remember when I was with the Yankees, I saw a lot of Reggie Jackson. It was later in my career, so one day I asked him, “Reggie, when you got older, what kind of adjustments did you make to allow you to play longer?” We talked, he gave me some tips, and then I saw him at spring training the next year and I yelled to him, “Hey, Reggie … thank you!”

He looked at me like, “What are you thanking me for?”

I got a lot of those looks in my career. I would find myself constantly thanking people because there were so many players who had opened the door for us like Orlando Cepeda, Rickey Henderson, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith … so many people I have to show gratitude to.

And as I got older, and I became the player that the younger guys came to for advice, I started to understand something … that my purpose in this game is not only to hit home runs or to win championships. It is to share what I know with the younger players, like so many other players have done for me.

It is to give back to the game of baseball.

Growing up, my dad used to play amateur baseball in Puerto Rico. So did my uncles and my older brother. So baseball runs in my family, like it does in so many Puerto Ricans’ blood.

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But I also always had this love for the game of volleyball. I used to go straight from baseball games in the afternoon, to volleyball games at night. When I was in high school, my love for volleyball grew. That does not mean I did not have love for baseball. Volleyball was just … different. And I was very good at it.

Then one day my dad sat me down and said to me, “Carlos, I want to ask you something: How many volleyball players have come from Puerto Rico who are playing in the United States?”

I could not come up with one.

“O.K.,” he said. “Now, how many baseball players do you see representing Puerto Rico in the big leagues?”

There were many.

My dad never put any pressure on me. He just told me that he thought I had great potential to be a pro ballplayer in the United States. And then he let me make my own decision.

Now, I know that if I would have become a professional volleyball player, my family would have supported me 100%. But I didn’t. I was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the second round and came to the United States. A couple of years later, in 1998, my dad, my mom and my brother found themselves in Wichita, Kansas, watching me play in the playoffs with the Double A Wichita Wranglers.

We got eliminated that night, and after the game I was packing up my locker and preparing to go back to Puerto Rico with my family when my manager, John Mizerock — came into the clubhouse and said, “Hey, Carlos, don’t go. I need to talk to you. I’m just waiting on a phone call.”

At this point, you know, it’s late. I’m kind of tired. I don’t want to wait. My family is waiting for me in the parking lot, and I’m thinking that I had a good year — I grew a lot as a player, and now it’s time for me to go play winter ball in Puerto Rico and keep working to get better and come back next year and hopefully get an opportunity. So really, I just want to go home.

Then the phone rings. John answers, talks for maybe one second and then he calls me into his office.

“Congratulations, Carlos. You’re going to the big leagues.”

I’m like, “What? Me! I’m going to the big leagues!”

It was so unexpected because I had not even played in Triple A, where guys usually get called up from. It was such a surprise — a happy surprise. I went to the parking lot and I told my family, and we all just started jumping up and down.

Then we got into our cars and we drove from Wichita to Kansas City.

Looking back, I’m very happy my family was there with me to share that moment.

Chuck Solomon/SI/Getty Images

I remember when I first got to Kansas City. The manager was Tony Muser, and he said to me, “I don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get, Carlos, but I want to congratulate you. Welcome to the big leagues.”

I said, “You know, I don’t really care how many opportunities I get. I just want you to know that whenever you need me, I’m going to be ready for you.”

Well, that night, in the seventh inning, Tony yelled down the dugout to me, “Carlos! You’re going to centerfield.”

Johnny Damon was playing centerfield, and they moved him over to right to put me in center. And I remember thinking that Johnny had been the Royals’ centerfielder for the last two years. And for them to put me — a kid who just came up from Double A — out in his place? That meant something. They didn’t have to say anything to me. I could feel it in my heart that they were sending me a message that they believed I could play centerfield for this team.

So I finished out the season — maybe 14 games total — and then I went home to Puerto Rico and worked extremely hard that off-season to get better. I got stronger. I got faster. And when I came back for spring training, I was ready to compete.

When the season started, the team announced that they were moving Johnny Damon to left field, and that I would be the full-time centerfielder. That was the start of my major league career.

So thank you, Dad. Thank you for telling me that you believed in my ability to be a great pro ballplayer, and thank you for allowing me to make my own decisions.

I think you will agree that I made the right choice.

I remember when I got traded for the first time, from Kansas City to Houston in 2004. When I received the news, I was excited for the opportunity to play for a team that was contending. But at the same time, it was sad for me because of the great organization and teammates I had to leave behind. One of my dreams was to play for one organization for my entire career. I had always looked up to George Brett, who had played for the Royals for his entire career. I recognized how special it was for him to do that, and I wanted that, too.

Now, 20 years later, I have played for eight great organizations, and I would not trade any of the experiences I had with them for anything in the world. It has allowed me to play with many great players — to learn from them, to pass along my knowledge, to build great friendships, and to have a broader perspective on every aspect of the game of baseball.

But winning has always been one of my main goals.

I particularly remember when the Mets were thinking about trading me to the Giants in 2011. The Giants were in the playoff race, and when the moment came to accept the trade or to exercise my no-trade clause, it was a difficult decision. I had bought my first home in New York. I had my three-year-old daughter, Ivana, and my wife, Jessica, was eight months pregnant with our second child, Kiara. New York had become — and still is — my home. So for me, it was a difficult choice.

But before I could tell Jessica how I was feeling, I remember she had already started packing a suitcase.

She said, “The Giants are winning. And if they want you and need you, we need to try catch a flight today.”

Usually, players get a three-day period after a trade is approved to move to their new city.  But there was my wife, the strongest person I know, willing to move across the country immediately to support me and my desire to win.

Because she knew that that’s what I have always wanted to experience more than anything.

Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire/AP Images

That is one of the reasons that this past season, when I got the opportunity to go back to Houston and play with a team like the Astros, I could not pass it up. I was entering my 20th professional season, and I still had not experienced winning a World Series. I had come so close in 2013 when I was in St. Louis, but we could not finish the job. And in 2006 with the Mets. And, of course, in 2004 with the Astros.

So going back to Houston, I had a feeling that I could help the organization finish what we had started back in 2004.

This last season … I have to tell you, it was amazing. Coming in, I knew this was a special team that had a chance to win a World Series. I didn’t know what my role was going to be. I just remember I told A.J. Hinch to put my locker next to the young guys because I wanted to help them out in any way I could — just be there for them, you know?

Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could help keep the guys loose before every game. We play so many games. And after a while, ballplayers can start to take it very casually. Even after a win, it’s just like, “Good game.” And then you take a shower and you go home.

But I told myself, No … this year, we have to celebrate everything.

Maybe it was because I knew this was probably going to be my last year — or because looking at this team, I knew we were going to win a lot, and I didn’t want the young guys to take that for granted. So I wanted to create an environment in the clubhouse of constant support and encouragement. After every win, we would sit down as a team and embrace it — we would enjoy every single win, together.

So I brought in the championship belts. You know, like the wrestling belts.

We had two belts that we gave out after every win: one for the position player of the game and one for the pitcher of the game. We voted as a team on who would get the belts, and the player who won each belt after our last victory would present it to the new winner. And then after every game, that player had to give a motivational speech to the team.

Giving out the belts was fun and it definitely brought us together. We would go into the clubhouse, turn off all the lights and … we had these party lights and a fog machine and we would turn the music up really loud, and we would just celebrate.

I think it was something that really united us as a team. But it also, it made winning fun — which, you know, it’s supposed to be.

And we won 101 games, so we were basically celebrating every day.

We were just a laid back team. We had a lot of great ball players, but also a lot of great personalities.

I remember one day in the middle of the season, I walked into the clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, and all the guys were wearing black T-shirts, and they were all looking at me and kind of laughing. Then I saw Brian McCann putting on a black robe, like some kind of priest.

I was like, What is going on here? This looks serious….

Then I saw a sign posted that said, FUNERAL FOR BELTRAN’S GLOVE AT 3:15 IN CENTERFIELD.

They were holding a service to bury my glove because I was not playing the field very much anymore. I was DHing most of the time.

So we all went out to centerfield before batting practice, and McCann and Josh Reddick brought my glove out in a little coffin and put it on the ground in front of these little tombstones with my name on them.

Bob Levy/Getty Images

Think about it: This is around the middle of July, when the season starts to feel really long — when it’s easy to forget that we play a game for a living — and these guys were still having this much fun.

It was funny because like two or three days later, A.J. put me in left field, and he said to the guys, “You should have told me that you guys were going to bury Carlos’ glove because I need to put him in left, and now I don’t know what to do.”

They didn’t really bury my glove … it was just a joke. But that’s the thing: It was always something with this team — something to keep the guys loose and just let them be themselves, play the game and enjoy it.

I think that in the end, that’s why we won.

After we lost Game 5 of the ALCS to the Yankees, I sensed that the guys were a little bit tense. So I called a team meeting, and I just talked to them in a very casual way. I wanted to loosen them up. And I guess it helped, because we went on to win Game 7 and advance to the World Series.

Then, before Game 7 of the World Series against the Dodgers, in my mind, I was going to do the same thing. I was going to talk to the guys, very casually, and make sure they were ready.

But when I got to the clubhouse, there was no tension. I could see that everybody was relaxed. They were doing their normal routines and they were very loose. So I did not need to call a meeting or give a speech. I knew they were ready to play, and I was 100% confident that we were going to win.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune/ZUMA Wire

I had always dreamed about winning a championship, and I chased every opportunity to do so in my career. But I never thought that I needed to win a World Series to make my career complete. Like I said before, I realized early on that my purpose in this game was to share knowledge with younger players and to give back to the game of baseball. I always wanted to do that — that, and be the best teammate I could possibly be. Over 20 years, I feel like I accomplished that. So whether we won or lost Game 7, I would have still been happy with my career.

But it still feels nice to have a ring….

And now, if I have to leave you with only one thing — one thing that I think represents my career and the way I feel about everybody who has been a part of it — I will leave you with a story about something that happened right after we won the World Series.

We were in the clubhouse, celebrating as a team, and all of the young guys — Springer, Marwin, Correa, Altuve — they were all coming up to me saying, “Thank you, Carlos! … Gracias! Gracias! … Thank you for everything!”

I stopped them and I said, “No, no, my friends. No….

“Thank you.”

This is and always will be my response when someone thanks me for what I’ve done in this game. Because I am so eternally grateful.

I am blessed to have played this game for 20 years.

I am blessed to have played for so many great organizations.

I am blessed to have shared all of my experiences with my wife and my three kids, my family and friends. To have so many loving fans. To have been able to build a school in Puerto Rico and change the lives of so many kids. To have won the Roberto Clemente Award, which is the greatest honor I could have ever received as a ballplayer.

And I am blessed to be a champion.

But now, my time as a player has come to an end.

Today, I am officially announcing my retirement.

Muchas gracias, béisbol.

I can’t wait for what the next chapter holds.