PITTSBURGH • Shortly after he passed a physical and agreed to a two-year contract with the Cardinals, Carlos Beltran began the serious business of selecting a number. It would appear on the back of T-shirts, in promotions, as part of his autograph, and it would be the ubiquitous ID he’d carry on his back as long as he was a Cardinal.
He knew the No. 15 he wanted was taken — by incumbent shortstop Rafael Furcal — and the list of available numbers was short.
He also knew the number he wouldn’t wear, even if he could.
“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want 21,’” Beltran said of his conversations with the Cardinals’ equipment manager. “I feel like — I cannot touch that number. It’s like, no, no, not 21. That’s something I want to leave.”
It’s a big number. It’s a heavy number.
It’s Clemente’s number.
Even before his first visit to Pittsburgh as a big-leaguer in 1999, Beltran has been moved by the presence of Roberto Clemente, the Hall of Fame outfielder and humanitarian, and not in that order. Beltran has stopped to snap photos of Clemente’s statue outside the ballpark. He looks for it as the team bus rolls by. He marvels at the number of No. 21 T-shirts and jerseys still worn to Pittsburgh games — more than four decades after Clemente’s death at 38. When he played at Three Rivers Stadium as a rookie with Kansas City, Beltran had five hits and a homer in the series. He circled the bases thinking, “Clemente ran these same bases.”
“Even though he passed away a long time ago, he’s still alive,” Beltran said on the eve of this weekend’s visit to PNC Park and Pittsburgh. “Being Puerto Rican and growing up in Puerto Rico ... we grew up listening to what he did on the field, off the field. That’s something that always stays in the back of your mind. That’s something as a player you want to follow his footsteps.”
In the last month, Beltran passed his countryman Clemente in career RBIs (1,313 to 1,305) and doubles (441 to 440). Given another healthy season, he’ll eclipse Clemente in runs. Entering this series against Pittsburgh, Beltran and Clemente had the same career on-base percentage, at .359. Beltran shakes his head when asked about chasing Clemente’s 3,000 hits, the last of which came a few months before the Pirates great died in a plane crash on a relief mission on New Year’s Eve 1972.
Stats are not how Beltran measures the man.
In 1973, Major League Baseball renamed The Commissioner’s Award for Clemente, and since the Roberto Clemente Award has been given each year to a player who embodies and continues “the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.” Each year the 30 clubs nominate one player each for the award, which is presented during the World Series. The deadline for nominations was in late August. A source with the Cardinals confirmed Beltran was their nominee for 2013.
“It has to be one of the coolest awards in baseball,” Beltran said. “It’s not the numbers. You’re not getting hits. You’re helping people.”
In his second year with the Cardinals, Beltran has increased his involvement with local charities while also marking a landmark summer for his passion project, The Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy in his native Puerto Rico. Earlier this season, Beltran flew from Cincinnati to Puerto Rico to attend the first graduation at the academy, a high school he founded. Classes started in August 2011 — on Roberto Clemente’s birthday. The $10-million school has grown to more than 130 students. Friends say Beltran covered more than a third of the cost of the program. Twice a month, Beltran sends money to the academy for the faculty’s salaries.
This winter, Beltran will hold a Christmas Toy Drive and children from around the island will be bused to the academy for a holiday party.
In St. Louis this summer, Beltran organized Hispanic Heritage Day at Busch Stadium and purchased tickets for local Hispanic youth. He has been a regular visitor to a local children’s hospital and has sought opportunities to reach out to the area’s Latin community. He and his wife, Jessica, worked with the Hispanic Arts Council of St. Louis to create the Carlos Beltran Scholarship Award. A total of eight $2,500 scholarships were awarded in August — four to students with a financial need, four based on merit. Earlier this summer, he visited St. Cecilia School and Academy to speak to more than 40 students about the importance of education. Virginia Braxs, a professor at Washington University, said Beltran was the first celebrity of any kind to assist in the university’s Latino Young Tutoring/Mentoring Program.
“School and family,” Beltran told the students, in Spanish, as he listed priorities. He later joked with them: “If you go 3-for-10 in another job you get fired. In baseball, you get megadeal.”
For the first time in his 15-year career, Beltran will finish a contract with the team he signed it with and not a trade. But that also adds context to what general manager John Mozeliak has called Beltran’s “philanthropic presence.” He has increased his reach into St. Louis even as his time here is potentially decreasing. The Clemente nomination could be a goodbye gift.
Beltran’s two-year, $26-million deal expires in October. The Cardinals could elect to offer him a qualifying contract of one year and about $13 million to secure at least a draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere. Beltran is positioned to lead the Cardinals in homers for a second consecutive season, but the depth chart is crowded. Prospect Oscar Taveras, though injured, is considered on the verge of the majors, and if Taveras isn’t ready to start the 2014 season in the majors, Allen Craig could shift to right field so Matt Adams can start at first. The Cardinals have options beyond retaining Beltran, though Mozeliak asserted that he “doesn’t like to close any door.”
There have been no discussions with Beltran or his representatives about an extension. Beltran’s teammates have started asking him privately if there’s any movement toward a return. He shrugs, unsure. At 36, he feels he’s been healthier this season than last and says he’d like to play three more years. He has let the Cardinals know that he would “love to” return.
But he does not want a lesser role.
“I’ve got to play,” he said. “I can’t accept a role where I’m not. How can I accept a role when I’m having the year I’m having and I’m producing at the level I’m producing? I don’t think that would make sense for anybody. I want to have a role where I’m playing.”
Beltran has always enjoyed playing in the NL Central ballparks, but recognizes his next step may take him to the American League, where designated hitter is an option. Interleague play being what it is, that could mean this is his last visit to Pittsburgh, to Clemente’s Pittsburgh.
Last season, during a visit with the Cardinals, Beltran contacted The Clemente Museum, which is located inside a renovated firehouse in Pittsburgh. He wanted to visit — alone. After a game, at about 10 p.m., he was given a private tour of the collection. Beltran got to lift Clemente’s bat, touch the cleats of the man he’d heard stories about since he was a boy. He put his hand into Clemente’s glove.
If he heads to a new team this winter, he may change numbers.
What he looks for will be the same as it was when he put on Clemente’s glove or when he signed with the Cardinals or as he’s sought more ways to be involved. He seeks a fit.
“I want to do more, honestly,” Beltran said. “I have a lot of ideas in my mind. I want to do more involving more people. Baseball players should be involved. It’s like we don’t even know the difference sometimes we can make for people. We should all realize that.”
Derrick Goold covers the Cardinals and Major League Baseball for The Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @dgoold or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BirdLandPD