Inside pitch: Beltre — "A beautiful person"

VERO BEACH, Fla. — They don't just like Adrian Beltre around Dodgertown.

"Revere" is the word that his former manager, Jim Tracy, used, waxing lyrical about the Dodgers' departed third baseman while sitting in a golf cart here last week.

"A beautiful person," chimed in longtime Dodgers coach Manny Mota.

"He plays with heart," said Dodgers shortstop Cesar Izturis.

"Great teammate. Great clubhouse guy. A good guy to have on your team in all aspects — personality-wise, playing-wise, teammate-wise," said Dodgers outfielder Jayson Werth.

The question of how Dodgers management let Beltre wind up a Mariner this winter is a controversial one in Los Angeles, with numerous theories about various flaws in their negotiating tactics.

But what's unequivocal is the admiration that everyone associated with the Dodgers holds for Beltre's perseverance through his early struggles, and his emergence last year as an MVP-caliber player.

"He is one of the finest people you would ever want to meet," Tracy said. "I saw this kid standing out there on Field One a few years ago, with a (colostomy) bag hanging from him, with a hole in his side. He wanted to take ground balls. Do we need to know anything else about what this guy is all about?"

Mota, a revered Dodgers presence in his own right for the past 25 years, whisked a reporter outside the clubhouse when he heard the topic of conversation was Beltre. He didn't want any of his comments lost amidst the clamor of boisterous players getting ready for a workout.

"Ah, Beltre," said Mota, a fellow Dominican. "He comes from a beautiful family. They teach him well. Good orientation. His father used to play baseball — third base. I used to tell Belly, 'Your father is better than you.'

"I spent so much time with Belly, so many years. To me, Beltre is like one of my own kids. Besides being a great player, he's a very hard worker, who never gave up even though he took a lot of shots. I'm so pleased to see him on the level he's on now, because he earned it with his dedication. He's one of the best third basemen I've ever seen in this game. And I've seen a lot."

The nagging question about Beltre is whether last year's glittering numbers — a .334 average, 48 homers, 121 runs batted in — warranted the Mariners' five-year, $64 million contract. Or whether his struggles in his first five years indicated that his 2004 season was merely a fluke.

To Tracy and Mota, it's a no-brainer. They believe the expectations for Beltre early in his career were unreasonable, considering that he was brought to the major leagues in 1998, at age 19, with a couple of seasons' worth of minor-league at-bats to his name.

"The way to learn to play baseball is in the minors, but he had to learn at the major-league level, facing one good starter every day," Mota said. "Every year, I see he's a little more improved. I see him getting more mature, more patient, more confident."

Beltre's early struggles were compounded prior to the 2001 season when a botched appendectomy in the Dominican had to be fixed with another operation to close the wound. Thus the colostomy bag in spring training and at least a season to get back to full strength.

"He's a perfect example of understanding the developmental process it takes if you have someone you feel has a tremendous amount of ability, but you want it to happen a hell of a lot quicker than it actually does," Tracy said.

"Because of the expectations heaped on him, it's human nature to expect more than what the numbers actually say. That's compromising the player. You're not allowing the developmental process to run its course. He just stayed with it."

Tracy gives much credit to Dodgers hitting coach Tim Wallach, who in his initial season in L.A. in 2004 convinced Beltre to use the whole field and condense his strike zone.

"The job Tim did with Adrian last year, and the relationship the two of them built, it became a very neat thing to watch, very special," Tracy said. "Timmy did a terrific job of simplifying, and Adrian had been through enough situations where he said, 'Let me try this and see where it takes me.' "

Where it took him is territory occupied in the National League only by the big guy to the north, Barry Bonds.

"Adrian was a feared entity in our league," Tracy said. "I can think of only one other guy where you would sit there as a manager, as I guarantee I did sometimes, and go, 'Oh oh.' And I think you know who I'm talking about."

As for where Beltre is headed next, Tracy made a strong pitch for reasonable expectations among Mariners fans.

Asked if he believes Beltre can sustain his 2004 performance, Tracy replied, "Yes. Yes. Yes. I think it's unfair if the analysis of sustaining it is that he needs to hit 50 homers to be considered a success. That's wrong. That's unfair.

"There's such a thing as solid years, which he's capable of having a number of in a row now, and there's such a thing, in between those solid years, you throw up that monster year periodically. He has acquired all the elements necessary to maintain a pace like that. If he doesn't hit 50 and it's considered a failure, that's a really sad analysis to whoever offers it."

Tracy added, "Even 40 is unfair to ask. Let me ask you this: If over the course of the next 10-plus years — because we're talking about a 25-year-old kid — would you take 30-plus and 100-plus for the next decade? Sure you would. And Gold Glove type defense. Because the same guy's going to show up in the clubhouse every day, I promise you that."

Concluded Tracy, before driving off on his golf cart to the Dodgers' workout: "You have no idea how proud we are of that guy, and what he's accomplished, and where he's gone, and what he's become since he was 19."

Notes and quotes

• One of the Rockies' closing candidates is Eddie Gaillard, who got pushed aside by the Yokohama BayStars after Kaz Sasaki voided his Mariners contract to return to Japan last year. Two other candidates for the wide-open closer's job in Colorado have Mariners ties: Brian Fuentes, traded away in the ill-fated Jeff Cirillo deal, and Aaron Taylor, a winter acquisition from the Mariners. Allan Simpson, another Seattle product, could also make the bullpen.

• You don't think Bonds is big news this year? ESPN plans to have its well-regarded reporter, Pedro Gomez, travel with the Giants all season to keep up with Bonds-related developments. Speaking of Bonds, there has been speculation out of Giants camp that his spring debut could come March 16 — in Peoria, against the Mariners. Manager Felipe Alou suggested that Bonds, rehabbing from knee surgery, would likely start off as a designated hitter in an American League park. And that game happens to be televised by ESPN2.

• Braves pitcher Tim Hudson is already looking ahead to Atlanta's three interleague games against Oakland, June 10-12. "I'm pretty sure I'm pitching against them," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I already counted it down."

• Wednesday was a big day for Aaron Boone, who played two innings of a Cleveland intrasquad game. It was Boone's first game of any kind since Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, after which he blew out his knee in a basketball game and had his contract voided by the Yankees. "I've got to admit I had some goose bumps when I took the field today," said Boone, penciled in as the Indians' regular third baseman.

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