Did the Mariners yesterday sign the next Sammy Sosa? Don Welke, who has a better eye and idea than most, sees that as a possibility.
Did the Mariners yesterday sign the next Sammy Sosa?
Don Welke, who has a better eye and idea than most, sees that as a possibility.
Welke, one of baseball’s most respected scouts, worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers the past five years, a period in which Adrian Beltre developed the talent that he brought to Seattle this week. He is the second-youngest free agent in history, only 3 months older than Alex Rodriguez when he left the Mariners after the 2000 season.
Hearing that Beltre had passed his physical in the morning and signed a contract that will pay him $64 million for the next five years, Welke assured Seattle that the monster numbers the third baseman attained last year were not a one-time phenomenon.
“He just matured,” said Welke of Beltre’s .334 average, 48 home runs and 121 runs batted in. “Adrian was always a premier prospect, and last year he just put it all together.
“In a lot of ways, you can relate him to Sammy Sosa. Both of them were skinny little kids out of the Dominican when they signed, both had long swings early and chased a lot of bad pitches, then learned better technique, to cut down on the swing, to be patient.”
The comparison includes their physiques. While Sosa’s powerful 220 pounds on a 6-foot frame has been alleged to be the result of steroids, no one has such suspicions of Beltre’s 5-11, 220 body.
Beyond builds, there is more than passing similarity in what could be considered breakthrough years.
For Sosa, who went on to hit 574 homers and drive in 1,530 runs in a 15-year career, that came in 1993, his fourth season. He batted .261, but powered up to 33 homers and 93 RBI.
For Beltre, the breakthrough came last year, his sixth in the big leagues. Significantly, it was the first he played as a father, with wife Sandra having given birth to daughter Cassandra, who charmed the media with baby talk during yesterday’s introductory news conference.
“I changed my hitting some, I learned to use my legs and hands at last, to keep still at the plate,” said Beltre, who came across solid and sincere and happy to be in Seattle. “I was more patient. I think starting our family, being a father, helped me as a hitter. It has taught me patience. With kids, you have to be patient, and I just took that with me to the plate more.”
Juxtaposed against the image of gentleness is the other quality that makes ballplayers into major-leaguers and into stars toughness.
For that, Welke and general manager Bill Bavasi, who was the Dodgers’ farm director before coming to Seattle, spoke of the spring when Beltre played ball wearing a colostomy bag after suffering a ruptured appendix.
“That is how tough this kid is,” Bavasi said. “Everyone in camp was in awe of what he was trying to do.”
Said Welke, “That was something. No one I know had ever heard of anyone doing that, but that tells you a lot about his toughness and desire.”
In January 2001, when he was home in the Dominican Republic, Beltre felt a pain in his right side and went to a hospital. He was told he had eaten something that didn’t agree with him and sent home. He returned to the hospital the next day and was rushed into surgery. His appendix had ruptured.
“They were worried about peritonitis,” Beltre recalled. “A few days later I was still feeling bad, and they found it was infected, not healing, but leaking. I was still sick when the Dodgers flew me out to L.A. for examinations.”
By that time he had lost 20 pounds, down to 205. He did not follow up what had seemed a breakthrough year of .290, 20 homers and 85 RBI in 2000.
“They told me it would heal on its own or I could have surgery,” he said. “The surgery would have taken longer for me to play again, so I wore the colostomy bag and worked out.”
For more than a week, Beltre took grounders and tried to hit, his bag taped to his right side.
“It was tough, but that’s how much I wanted to play,” he said. “The guys all thought it was nasty and I was crazy and it was true, but it was worth it if I could play sooner.”
He couldn’t. He went back into the hospital and had 15 inches of his small intestine removed. Able to eat no solid food for two months, his weight fell to 190.
He came back in May, and hit only .265 with 13 homers in 126 at-bats. Worse, his development was stalled.
“I was impatient. I didn’t want to take the time to let it heal,” Beltre said. “I think I learned something there, too.”
Not much older, but lots wiser, Beltre regrouped and jumped to 21 homers, then 23, the next two years and to 75 RBI, then 80. Then his production exploded this year.
Now he needs another number to move into Mariners blues. His usual No. 29 is worn by Bret Boone, and his second- and third-favorite numbers are taken as well.
“I’ll find something,” he said. “I’ll make it my new lucky number. But really, I feel lucky already. It was tough to leave the organization I grew up with, but I wanted to be where Edgar Martinez had played, the best right-handed hitter I ever saw, and I know how hard Seattle worked to get me here and I am thrilled.”
No one is more thrilled than Seattle officials, who see Beltre as a fixture at third, just as they hope they made Richie Sexson a fixture at first two days before. The defense, not to mention the offense, will be measurably improved by these two, each among the top major-leaguers at their positions.
“When I heard Richie Sexson, a 40-homer guy, was coming here, it made me want to come, too,” Beltre said. “It will be a good lineup, a good team, a team that will win soon. … That is why I am here, to help my team win.”
Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or email@example.com