Carlos Beltran sometimes tells his teammates embarrassing stories about his early days as a minor-leaguer, stories about how he would nod in approval even though he had no idea what the Kansas City Royals coaches were saying to him in English.
The Mets rightfielder doesn't need to think hard to conjure up the emotions from that summer day in 1995 when he was in a circle of players listening to a coach bark orders in a foreign language. The feelings of being intimidated, overwhelmed and alone have stuck with him for nearly two decades.
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Those memories have spurred Beltran to start a project that certainly ranks as unique among major-leaguers.
This August, he plans to open his own high school in Puerto Rico -- the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy -- with the goal of giving future major-leaguers from his homeland the education and preparation he lacked 16 years ago. Maybe one day he'll confide in them what the road was like for him, because it's something he hasn't forgotten.
In a recent interview with Newsday at his Citi Field locker, he talked about how suffocating it felt to be the only player in a group of outfielders who had no idea what the coach was saying.
Once the coach stopped talking, everyone ran to the other side of the field. Beltran was left standing there with no idea where everybody was going or why. He hesitated, if only for a moment, suddenly faced with an important decision.
Do I follow them? Or do I retreat back home?
Strength to persevere
Beltran shook off the uncertainty and chose to plow forward, intent on giving everyone the impression that this quiet 18-year-old understood English like everyone else. But he didn't.
"You really have to be strong mentally, because people, coaches, anyone can misjudge you because you don't know how to speak the language," he said. "They'll say, 'This guy is too shy' or 'He's too lazy.' But it's not like that. They don't understand you have to go through a lot."
Beltran persevered through the tough first few days as a professional ballplayer, learned English and developed into a perennial All-Star on the field. But he doesn't want the next generation of Puerto Rican baseball players to have to face a road like that.
That's why he came up with the idea of starting a high school, something he said he's been pursuing ever since he signed a seven-year, $119-million contract with the Mets in January 2005. He said he put aside about 10 percent of that contract to help his dream become a reality, then sought donations from friends and corporations.
The school is in Florida, Puerto Rico, about a 15-minute drive from Manati, where Beltran grew up and still lives in the offseason.
The groundbreaking ceremony was in November and construction is 85 percent complete, according to Noelia Lugo, the academy's executive director. The school will have a capacity of 180 students grades 10 through 12. And once they get into the classroom and the teacher begins talking, they might be in for a surprise.
"All of the classes will be in English because I want them to be prepared," Beltran said. "I wasn't prepared. I couldn't communicate. I couldn't express myself. There were times I wanted to say something and I didn't say it because I was afraid people would laugh at me."
It's a baseball academy in the sense that students accepted to the private school will be chosen based on their baseball ability. But Beltran wants to emphasize education in the classroom as much as their preparation on the field, driven by the memory of players who were drafted the same year he was but didn't make it. Who knows, Beltran said, what they're doing today.
"They never went back to school," Beltran said. "So what would have happened if I never made it to the big leagues? I don't know if I would have gone back to school, you know? I don't want these kids to go through that. I want them to leave school prepared and ready for anything."
Beltran's school already has held 10 tryout sessions, scheduled during the winter months so Beltran could attend before reporting to Port St. Lucie, Fla., for what probably was his final spring training as a Met.
Beltran said he was impressed with the talent he saw on the field, giving him hope for the next generation of players. A friend of his was most impressed with the dedication Beltran showed in scouting that talent.
"He was intense," said former Met Carlos Delgado, who attended one of the tryouts. "He might as well have been a scout. He was sitting behind home plate, behind that net. He had a speed gun, a clipboard, a stopwatch. I was like, 'Whoa!' But he's passionate about this."
As a longtime friend, teammate and fellow Puerto Rican, Delgado has heard Beltran talk about this project for years. Perhaps too much, Delgado joked. But Delgado respects what he's trying to accomplish, given that Delgado went through a similarly tough transition when he joined the Toronto Blue Jays' minor-league system at 16.
"I knew a little bit of English, enough to get by, but I couldn't speak it very well," Delgado said. "I knew enough to order food but I couldn't keep a conversation. So you keep your mouth shut. You don't want to embarrass yourself. You keep to yourself a little bit."
In Beltran's vision, he sees current major-leaguers from Puerto Rico using the facility to work out during the offseason. This way, the kids enrolled in classes there might gain motivation -- and perhaps some firsthand advice -- from players such as Yadier Molina or Angel Pagan.
Beltran also sees himself spending a lot of time there once he retires. He views this as his retirement job, a place where he'll spend most of his days, watching over the kids he handpicked to be the next Delgado, Beltran and Molina.
"Those are going to be my kids," he said. "When I talk about this, I get excited, because I wish I could have been a part of something like this when I was 14 years old."