Yankees Magazine: Playing the right (and left) way
Dedication to their craft has led switch-hitters Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran into the pantheon of all-time greats
By Nathan Maciborski
Yankees Magazine |
Robin Ventura was trying to win a game. The White Sox manager was in the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium, plotting to take the rubber match of a mid-May series. On this unseasonably cool Sunday afternoon, his first-place team was winning, 4-3, in the sixth inning of a back-and-forth game that had already seen four lead changes.
Ventura had a left-handed reliever on the mound in Dan Jennings, but with two outs and Jacoby Ellsbury on second base, he wanted someone with a little more experience to face the Yankees' dangerous switch-hitting designated hitter that day: Carlos Beltran.
Knowing that Beltran had been searching for his stroke from the right side -- he was 10 for 45 (.222) on the season with his only home run coming in a 16-6 blowout on April 6 -- Ventura opted to keep him there by calling upon another southpaw, veteran Zach Duke.
Beltran had seen Duke before, going 5 for 27 (.185) against him with a home run, the 277th of his career. But most of those at-bats took place ages ago, when both were in the National League and Duke was still a starter with the Pirates. Now a middle reliever, Duke is a much different pitcher. So as he made his way to the mound and began tossing his warm-up pitches, Beltran ducked into the video room for a quick scouting session on his opponent.
Beltran emerged with a better idea of what to expect from the side-arming lefty, but his approach at the plate remained the same as ever: Look for a good pitch and try to hit it hard somewhere up the middle.
After pulling two ground balls foul down the third-base line, Beltran had a 2-2 count. Like an expert physicist eyeing a complex equation on a chalkboard, Beltran peered out from underneath the brim of his batting helmet, his years of knowledge and expertise computing within milliseconds to help steer him toward a positive outcome.
Duke's next offering was a 91-mph fastball over the heart of the plate that ended up in the left-field seats -- the 400th home run of Beltran's illustrious career. While the crowd went wild, the 39-year-old simply put his head down and rounded the bases. No bat flip. No histrionics. Not until he crossed home plate and was able to look up into the stands and make eye contact with his family did he finally crack a smile, which remained there as he received heartfelt congratulations in the dugout from his teammates.
Of all the people inside the stadium that day, no one had a better understanding of what that home run meant than the next batter, Mark Teixeira. With 397 career home runs at that point, Teixeira was three away from joining Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones and now Beltran as the only switch-hitters in the 400 club.
He sent a 1-0 pitch from Duke to deep left-center that bounced in front of the wall for a double. For Teixeira, 398 would have to wait until another day. But he was delighted that Beltran's homer proved to be pivotal in a 7-5 win that capped off a 7-3 homestand.
"I'm just so happy for him," Teixeira said after the game. "That's a big number, and Carlos deserves so much credit for this win today. I'm glad the 400th made a big difference in the game."
Four hundred is a big number. And while their paths leading to that milestone were quite different, Teixeira and Beltran share one important characteristic in common, something integral to each of their successes. Ask anyone, and they'll say: They play the game the right way.
Sure, it's a vague concept that has been spouted to the point of cliché, but Yankees fans and players alike know it when they see it.
"To see the way they go about their business on a daily basis is something I'm sure I take for granted now, but once I'm done playing or once those guys are gone, I'm going to look back and realize just how special it was," said Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner. "They're Hall of Fame-caliber players, and to not only be able to play with those guys but to know them as people and to be able to learn from them, it's been a lot of fun."
Just a few hours before his milestone home run, Beltran sat at his locker, contemplating various aspects of switch-hitting. It was a Sunday morning, the 75th anniversary of the start of Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, and after a clubhouse attendant stopped by to hand him a half-cup of black coffee, Beltran offered his thoughts on his teammate Teixeira.
"When he got to the league, I knew that he was going to be a good player because of the way that he played the game," Beltran said. "He has pride in his game. Very disciplined, very serious in what he does. I am serious also. Every time I dive for a ball in the outfield and I catch it, in my heart I'm happy. But I don't show those emotions very often. That's who I am, you know. And I feel also that that's my job. My job is to go out there and try to do the best I can to help our team win, whether it's hitting a homer or making a catch or making a throw. So, we both kind of show the same emotions: almost zero."
Teixeira echoed that sentiment earlier in the week during a lengthy interview in the Yankees' dugout. When he was still in college, Teixeira recalled, he admired watching Beltran patrol center field for the Royals on TV. That admiration grew once he made it to the Big Leagues and was able to see firsthand how Beltran handles himself.
"I think every veteran has that quiet confidence that they don't get too high, they don't get too low," said Teixeira, who finished fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting with Texas in 2003, four years after Beltran won the award in Kansas City. "They're the same guy when they're on a hot streak and when they're in a slump. And that's just doing your work, keeping your head down, being professional -- that's what I love about Carlos."
With their futures uncertain as they fulfill the final year of their contracts with the Yankees -- Teixeira signed an eight-year deal prior to the 2009 season; Beltran inked for three prior to 2014 -- Teixeira also took a moment to reflect on the benefits of having had a fellow switch-hitter with Beltran's experience in the lineup these last few years.
"It's huge," he said. "I've enjoyed playing with a lot of great switch-hitters -- Chipper Jones in Atlanta, Lance Berkman for a brief period of time here, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada -- and I'll put Carlos near the top of that list as someone that you love watching hit, you love what he can do from both sides of the plate, and you don't feel like you're losing anything when he switches around. There's been a lot of switch-hitters that have really big splits, one way or the other. I feel like Carlos is the same guy both sides of the plate."
Teixeira is on the mark: Beltran is a career .280 hitter: .280 from the right side and .280 from the left. It underscores the importance that both hitters place on maintaining their swings from both sides of the plate. They may tweak things based on how they're feeling from a certain side or that night's starting pitcher, but Beltran and Teixeira take batting practice left-handed and right-handed every day. Same goes for their tee work in the cage prior to the game.
"If I take 30 swings from the right side, I've got to make sure that I take 30 from the left side," Beltran said. "I try to make sure that I'm even in my work. But yeah, I mean, it's still double the work of anyone else."
Their willingness to put in that work has been a constant throughout each of their careers from day one.
Like almost every switch-hitter who has ever played, Beltran and Teixeira are both naturally right-handed. ("It would be very difficult to get the at-bats versus left-handed pitchers to try to develop a right-handed swing," Teixeira explained.)
When Teixeira was in eighth grade, he challenged himself to bat left-handed. He developed into a two-time Maryland Player of the Year and first-team All-American in high school, then a National Collegiate Player of the Year at Georgia Tech. The work ethic it took to become a switch-hitter has remained a part of Teixeira's DNA as a professional, allowing him to sustain a lengthy career in which he has been a three-time All-Star with five Gold Glove and three Silver Slugger awards.
When asked what advice he would give a younger player seeking the longevity that he has had in the Majors, Teixeira said it comes down to taking care of yourself.
"I think a lot of guys get to the Big Leagues and they think it's really cool to be on the road and be on TV and go out and meet people and party, whatever it is," he said. "That's cool, but it's also cool making an All-Star team. It's also cool playing 14 years in the Big Leagues. It's also really cool winning a World Series. And I would say that's probably been my greatest asset: I've always understood how important the game was to me, and so I've always taken care of my body and focused on nutrition and on getting my sleep because, really, I've always wanted that longevity. And young players have to understand that it can be taken away from you very quickly if you don't take care of yourself."
Beltran didn't start switch-hitting until his second year of professional baseball, when he was in Single-A.
"I just felt that I wanted to try it," he said. "I had a lot of speed early in my career, so I felt that being able to hit from the left side was going to allow me to get on base and extend my career. Being a switch-hitter, you get to play basically every day."
From the get-go, Beltran approached switch-hitting with the same vigor that he maintains now, 20 years later, earning incalculable respect from his teammates.
"What we get to see on a daily basis that not everybody else gets to see is the way he goes about his business," Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. "He's one of the best professionals that you're ever going to play with."
Feats of Strength
It's been said that hitting is the hardest thing to do in all of sports. For switch-hitters, it means spending the majority of their careers in the batter's box opposite from the one where they learned to hit (68.6 percent of Teixeira's at-bats have been left-handed; 72.5 percent for Beltran).
It makes the idea of hitting a home run from both sides of the plate in one game seem impossible. But when you put in the work that Teixeira and Beltran do, amazing things can happen.
"It's super difficult, and it's the coolest thing that I can do on a baseball field," said Teixeira, who has done it 14 times -- a Major League record that he shares with Swisher. "The first time I did it [in 2004], I remember going around the bases saying, 'I just did an Eddie Murray,' because as a kid back in Baltimore, it was a big deal when Eddie hit a home run from both sides of the plate. And so the first time I got to do it, it was pretty special."
"You've got to feel good from both sides of the plate, which, being a switch-hitter, is kind of rare," said Beltran, who is third on the all-time list with 12 games in which he has homered from both sides -- one ahead of Murray and Chili Davis. "It's hard to do. And that's why you don't see that number being higher. It's not an easy feat, but once you accomplish that, you feel a lot of pride. As a hitter, I take a lot of pride in my work and in what I do, so being able to do it from the right side and from the left side, you feel kind of special."
Their approach at the plate differs. Teixeira goes up to bat with a plan in mind, but relies more heavily on his instincts to "see the ball, hit the ball" than does Beltran, who studies pitchers closely, searching for the tiniest indicator of what they might throw next.
But the pride they take in their craft, their dedication to keeping themselves ready to hit at any time, in any situation -- these are the traits that have put them among the game's greatest switch-hitters and that have inspired nothing but admiration for each other.
"He's been an impact player on the field, defensively and offensively," Beltran said. "He's a guy who can change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat. … I'm different in [my approach]. But at the same time, we've been successful in what we do. I think you need to have pride in whatever you do. I believe he has that for his game, and for me, it's the same thing."
"I'll celebrate when we win a big game; if we have a walk-off," Teixeira said. "But you don't see me dancing around the bases when I hit a home run, and I think Carlos is the same way. He hits a home run, and he puts his head down and he runs around the bases. I love that about him, and it's kind of the way that I've tried to play my career, as well."
How many more milestones are in store for the record-breaking switch-hitting duo remains to be seen. Both have expressed interest in playing beyond this season. Will Cooperstown come calling some day? If you look at the entire body of work, it's entirely possible.
"I hope fans remember what a great center fielder Carlos was because I think that's how he made his mark early on," Teixeira said. "He was a great center fielder. And so I hope fans can appreciate his longevity going from Gold Glove center fielder, a home run hitter, a guy that's done it for 19-plus years - not many guys can do that. And his résumé is going to stack up with some of the greats."
"I've played with quite a few special players over the last eight years here, and Carlos is right up there at the top," Gardner said. "I think the numbers speak for themselves, but he's just as good of a person, if not better, off the field. I've loved having him as a teammate, and when things are not going well for me individually or for us as a team, he's going to be the first guy there to pick you up and tell you to keep your head up and remind you that there's greener pastures ahead. He's a special player, a special hitter, and the way that he prepares and how seriously he takes things -- I strive to be more like him."
Beltran told the reporters who crowded around him after the game on May 15 that it meant a lot to even be mentioned as a potential Hall of Famer. The ball he smacked over the wall for No. 400 sat on the ground near his feet; the fan who caught it received two autographed bats in exchange. It was a nice memento, but it wouldn't have meant nearly as much if the Yankees didn't win.
"Right now, I think what is important for us is we won the series," he said. "We beat Boston, we beat the Kansas City Royals, we beat the White Sox -- those are three good teams, and it really shows we are capable of winning against good teams. So it's good to see we are playing better baseball.
"For me, what is important is trying to win a championship, and that is something I've never experienced in my baseball career."
Nathan Maciborski is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the June issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.