It’s a question not of if Adrian Beltre will reach 3,000 hits but of whether his Rangers teammates will smack him upside the head when he does.
If you’re just tuning in, 20 seasons and 2,996 hits into what’s sure to be a Hall of Fame career, the Texas third baseman does not like having his head touched — like, ever.
He hates it so much that once, when teammate Elvis Andrus went in for a head-tap during a mound conference at Safeco Field in 2013, Beltre retaliated by taking his glove off and firing it at Andrus. He hates it so much that Ian Desmond, who was long known in D.C. as the guy who removes the home run hitter’s helmet upon his return to the dugout, abandoned the ritual after signing with Texas last year simply because of Beltre’s haphephobia. He hates it so much that even a seasoned veteran such as Cole Hamels — a four-time All-Star with 12 years of tenure who is the ace of the Rangers’ rotation and the highest-paid player on the team — cowers in deference.
“If he hits a homer, then yes. For sure. A hundred percent. If his 3,000th is a homer, then we’ll all touch his head. We’ve talked about it. He said he would let everybody touch his head at least once.”
“I leave it be,” Hamels says. “I respect his space because he’s my elder. He’s been playing this game since I was in diapers.”
The way Beltre snaps whenever someone tries to manhandle his melon, you’d think he is the one in diapers.
“If there are people around, he’ll slap you,” says Andrus, the longtime Rangers shortstop who has spent the past seven seasons sharing the left side of the infield with Beltre — that is, when he isn’t busy trying to cop a feel.
After playing nearly 1,000 games side-by-side with Beltre, Andrus — a notorious jokester who knows Beltre as well as anyone in baseball and takes a sort of sadistic pride in trying to contact his compadre’s cabeza — has it down to a science. “I’ve been playing so long with him that I know when to do it and when not to do it.”
According to Beltre’s unwritten rulebook, a hit on the helmet is OK, but a love tap on the lid is just as unforgivable as a bop on his bare head. And those aren’t the only parameters.
“When he’s angry,” Andrus says, “you don’t get close to him. When he’s happy, when he’s in a good mood, he tends to be nicer.”
In other words, if Beltre’s teammates are looking for the right time to strike, they could do a whole lot worse than right after he joins the 3,000-hit club.
“It’s an incredible feat,” says Texas hurler Andrew Cashner, who spent last season with the Marlins and was on hand when Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th member of Club 3K. “The game paused, we all ran onto the field, and we congratulated him. I don’t think you ever plan anything like that. You just take what the moment gives you.”
For the record, the moment always seems to provide ample opportunity for some headhunting.
Watch any recent clip of a player’s 3,000th hit, and you’re bound to see a head getting hammered. In 2016, even though it was a relatively subdued celebration after Ichiro tripled against the Rockies to join the club, that didn’t stop Miami shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from slapping his teammate’s helmet. In 2015, when Alex Rodriguez homered off Justin Verlander for his 3,000th knock, New York batterymates CC Sabathia and Brian McCann both gave him the head-trauma treatment. In 2011, when Derek Jeter took David Price deep for his historic hit, the entire Yankees team mobbed him at home plate and acted as if his dome had a “Do Disturb” sign on it. Given how deeply steeped in tradition baseball is, the odds are that Beltre could be forced to face his fear on the national stage, especially if he goes yard like A-Rod and Jeter did.
“If he hits a homer, then yes,” Andrus says. “For sure. A hundred percent. If his 3,000th is a homer, then we’ll all touch his head. We’ve talked about it. He said he would let everybody touch his head at least once.”
In the event that Beltre’s 3,000th hit stays in the yard, there’s still a good chance that his gourd will get groped.
“He’s probably going to have to expect it,” Hamels says. “We gotta get him. He is that elder statesman. We listen to and abide by a lot of the rules that he’s able to dictate, so this is an opportunity to get back at him. He can’t fight the whole team.”
Even if Beltre successfully manages to rastle the Rangers’ roster, history says he still might not be out of the woods.
“Sometimes I get mad, but most of the time I’m just having fun. I would rather not do it because I don’t like it, but if anybody does it for a joke, I wouldn’t be mad. It’s a little bit of both.”
A little more than three years ago, in June 2014, Beltre arrived at first base after singling to center off of Tigers lefty Drew Smyly for his 2,500th career hit. When play was stopped, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera was cordial enough to corral the ball as a memento for his longtime colleague. Cabrera flipped the souvenir to his buddy and then, with the hometown crowd in Arlington rising to its feet, he put his arm around Beltre — seemingly in a contrived attempt to disarm the subject — and waited for the inevitable tip of the cap. As soon as Beltre removed his helmet, Cabrera swooped in and landed a direct hit to the head. As much as Beltre seemed to take exception to the sneak attack, and as much as he publicly protests any and all noodle nudging, privately, he admits that there’s a game within the game that he doesn’t totally loathe.
“Sometimes I get mad, but most of the time I’m just having fun,” says Beltre, who claims that his phobia started back in the Dominican Republic when he was 12 years old and a cousin touched his head, and he didn’t like the way it felt. It has been a hot-button issue ever since, spawning a seemingly interminable Tom-and-Jerry routine with teammates and opponents alike. “I would rather not do it because I don’t like it, but if anybody does it for a joke, I wouldn’t be mad. It’s a little bit of both.”
Of course, as with most human interaction, the nature of the reaction depends on the nature of the relationship. In all likelihood, part of the reason Cabrera had the guts to do what he did is that he and Beltre have so much in common. Two of the best right-handed hitters of their generation, they’re both on a collision course with Cooperstown. They’ve played on four All-Star teams together and are two of only three active players with at least 2,500 hits and 450 home runs. They’re both native Spanish speakers, and they even share the same Zodiac sign (Aries). All of which is to say, it takes one to know one.
As fate would have it, the Rangers’ upcoming schedule offers some intriguing opponents who, like Cabrera, have the necessary cred to go pet-a-tete with Beltre. First baseman Chris Davis, whose Orioles visit Texas for a three-game series starting Friday, came up in the Rangers’ organization as a third baseman.
“I would never,” says Davis when asked if he might pull a Cabrera on his old teammate, should he find himself the first baseman of record for number 3,000. “That’s not my deal. If you tell me you don’t like high-fives, I’ll give you low-fives.”
After the O’s leave town, Seattle comes to Arlington for a three-game set. If Beltre follows in the footsteps of his recent predecessors — seven of the past 10 players to reach 3,000 have done so with an extra-base hit, and that doesn’t include Craig Biggio, who was thrown out at second trying to stretch a single — there’s a decent chance that he’ll find himself at second base for his big moment. If so, he’ll be standing right next to fellow Dominican Robinson Cano, who once did this to his countryman and would likely have no problem doing it again:
For what it’s worth, Beltre doesn’t seem too worried about his 3,000th hit, um, going to his head. He isn’t worried about Cano. Or Andrus. Or any of his other Rangers teammates. Not yet, anyway.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” he says. “I think they will stay away from it. I hope they do. I hope I don’t even have to think about it. I think they should just enjoy the moment for a little bit and then go on with the game.”