Philosophers have been arguing about the nature of time since...well, since philosophy was a thing, since the first person caught a reflection of themselves in a running stream and pondered the nature of the self. The self is tied to time: whether one’s view of it is linear or circular (or flatly circular), ending or unending; at some point the self will be located within some conception of time. Cut to you making a third cup of coffee in the work kitchen, willing time to go a little faster.
Aristotle said time is not change, time is the measure of change, and thus baseball—and the competing theories of what baseball is—can easily be laid over these theories of time. Baseball, like time, like the self, is present with us enough of the year that we can read our own stories into it. We say, “boy that makes me feel old” when a childhood favorite announces his retirement and we see him stride stiffly onto the field to receive one last round of applause. A blast-from-the-past name reminds us of how long we’ve been a fan of a particular team, and can be a way to carbon-date one’s fandom (the name Félix Fermín, when I came across it in the Dominican Leagues, had such an effect on me). The tragic loss of a young player like José Fernández or Yordano Ventura has us contemplate the occasionally jarring and serrated nature of time’s rougher edges. And seeing a player who seemingly played for your team for a long time go on and have a whole other career, reinventing himself even, can also reinforce the relationship between the self and time. Experiencing time through baseball can lead us to the Heideggerian notion away from time as a linear concept and into a more authentic form of Beingness, by experiencing time as a phenomenon outside of ourselves. For a Mariners fan, this is the most acceptable way to understand the career of Adrián Beltré.
The Seattle Mariners signed Beltré as a free agent prior to the 2005 season after he’d played seven successful seasons with the Dodgers, where he was a consistent 3-4 WAR producer outside of his rookie year, when he was just 19, and a down 2001. In the year prior to his free agency, however, Beltré exploded, hitting 48 home runs—more than his previous two seasons put together—and putting up a ridiculous wRC+ of 161. The Mariners charged into the 2005 season determined to spend their way into relevancy, signing free agent Richie Sexson to a four-year, 50-million-dollar contract the day before signing the much-coveted Beltré to a five-year, 64-million-dollar deal. That may not sound like a lot, but the Mariners spent the third-most money on free agents in MLB that year, at 122.45 million, trailing just the Mets and Dodgers.
And for all that money, the Mariners got a .426 winning season (69-93, decidedly NOT nice) for a last-place finish in the AL West. Richie Sexson swatted 39 homers and Ichiro put up a very Ichi-rific .303/.350/.436, but the Mariners’ prized new free agent acquisition was merely meh. Not only did he not repeat his 48-home run season, he didn’t even get to 20, while taking hardly any walks (not even 6%), and while he didn’t strike out a ton, he did set a new career high for strikeouts. His ISO plummeted almost 150 points, from .294 to .158, as what were home runs in Dodger Stadium became doubles in Safeco’s spacious confines. Still, Beltré was one of the best players on a team that featured looking-up-at-Mike-Z’s-BA Miguel Olivo, an aged Bret Boone, and even more aged Jamie Moyer, and some kid no one had ever heard of named Hernández. Adjusting to the AL is tough after you’ve been an NL player, and Safeco Field (pre-fence-adjustment) was a hard place to hit. Next year would be better.
Next year was better, in fact. In 2006, Beltré’s ISO rebounded to more career levels, he got his home run power back (not to his preposterous 2004 numbers, but again, in line with his career and actually a shade better), raised his slash line across the board, and almost doubled his WAR. The Mariners still finished fourth in the AL West, and they still had a losing record, but managed almost ten more wins than they had the previous year. In 2007, the team finished second in the AL West, with 88 wins. Things were very clearly on the upswing.
No one remembers mathematician E.T. Bell for his science fiction, which he wrote under the pseudonym “John Taine”; he’s only known for the quote “time makes fools of us all,” which is in itself sort of a cruel joke. Also a cruel joke: the Mariners’ 2008 season, in which they went 61-101. Closer J.J. Putz had some harsh words about the lack of clubhouse chemistry after he was traded to the Mets, and when Beltré was asked about it, he intimated that some players weren’t “doing the right things” in terms of helping the team win. To be fair, Beltré wasn’t exactly doing his part to help the team win, either, as Jeff Sullivan pointed out in this analysis of Beltré’s heat maps. Nonetheless, when free agency rolled around after the 2009 season, Beltré appeared eager to get away from Seattle, signing a one-year deal with the Red Sox where he surged back to 28 homers and slashed .321/.365/.553, for a batting average almost fifty points higher than he’d ever achieved in Seattle. In Seattle, mutterings—amongst the non-baseball-intelligentsia, clearly—began that Beltré was a head case, a contract year player who wouldn’t do the day-to-day grind once he had his fat contract, a mistake signing. His name began to appear—in some places it still appears—on “worst FA signings in Mariners history” lists.
Time is tricky, but it also offers gifts, and one of these is the gift of hindsight being 20/20. Looking at the Mariners teams of the later half of the ‘00s, it’s pretty clear that the dysfunction went beyond an individual player. Adrián Beltré proved as much when he signed with the Rangers and has gone on to be a perpetual All-Star candidate there. In what should be the twilight of his career, the ageless Beltré has been hitting for average better than he ever has, and if he could just take a few more walks, would come uncomfortably close to challenging for a spot in the exlusive .300/.400/.500 club. He’s done this while striding defiantly past first base every day on his way to the hot corner, where he’s been a well above-average defender almost every year, with at least 9 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) every year except 2013. He was supposed to the be Mariners’ rock. Instead, he’s doing that for the Rangers.
It can be easy to feel despair about this—like Macbeth, the Mariners are at odds with time. There’s some comfort, then, in Heidegger’s notion that “every thing which actually is, every being comes and goes at the right time and remains for a time during the time allotted to it.” Beltré came to Seattle, and remained for a while, and then went to Texas for his right time. Sometimes in life you meet the right person at the wrong time, and that’s a thing that happens. It can feel frustrating, like you are trapped in a particularly self-pitying Tumblr post, but that’s a time that, too, will pass. Time moves on, circular or not, unending or not; no matter what we think about it, we will experience the sensation of time passing us by. It’s good, then, every so often, to have a Heideggerian ecstatic moment—to take a step back, crane our heads up and have a look around, and appreciate someone like Adrián Beltré, one of the greatest of all time.