David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Six years ago, Carlos Beltran showed up for spring training in Port St. Lucie and declared his Mets "the team to beat.'' He wound up eating those words when the Phillies roared back to win the National League East. They also won the World Series, a feeling that Beltran, despite playing 16 major-league seasons, still has yet to experience.
This time, as Beltran prepares for the upcoming year in pinstripes, he understands that failure is not an option. The eight-time All-Star has been a hired gun since the Royals traded him to Houston for the Astros' playoff push in 2004, so he knows the deal. He's just never seen the stakes quite this high.
The Yankees spent $478 million this offseason after missing the playoffs for only the second time in the past 19 seasons. Within hours of losing Robinson Cano, they rushed to give $45 million of that to Beltran on a three-year contract.
No one needs to tell him what the mission is here. Beltran got the message this offseason. Loud and clear.
"Of course we have to win,'' he said. "I don't know how far we will go. But at least we have to do something positive -- better than what they did last year. No doubt about that.''
Beltran wouldn't dare mention the World Series by name, but it's been on his mind these days -- especially after he finally made it to the Fall Classic last October with the Cardinals. They lost in six games to the Red Sox, and maybe it's fitting that Beltran signed on with Boston's archenemy in trying to dethrone the champs. The Yankees couldn't have found a more motivated player for that goal.
"I look at the team, I look at our situation, the players that we have,'' Beltran said. "We have a pretty good chance.''
The opportunities are dwindling for Beltran, who will turn 37 in April. When the Mets' dream died in 2006 with Beltran standing at the plate, the future seemed promising in Flushing. That third strike wasn't supposed to be fatal. Just something everyone would look back on -- maybe during the Broadway parade -- as they recalled the hurdles cleared on the path to glory in later years.
But Beltran never tasted champagne across town, and now he's beginning a new chapter in the Bronx just as Derek Jeter has announced his final one. For Beltran, the idea of Jeter retiring seemed to trigger a sense of his own mortality, and he'll have a front-row seat to history during the next seven months or more.
"Being able to play with a guy that is a first-ballot Hall of Famer is a great feeling,'' Beltran said. "I know he has a lot of championships -- but I have none. Hopefully, I can win one.''
Beltran knew last October that the Cardinals weren't going to bring him back, and he already had considered the Yankees as a big-market club that would reload to give him another shot at a ring.
Beltran correctly predicted the Yankees would sign Brian McCann, but he also thought they would pay whatever was necessary to keep Cano.
Beltran was off on that one. It seemed as if the homegrown Cano was the only free agent the Yankees didn't bother to sign during their spending spree, and that aggressive effort to upgrade at any cost makes Beltran feel optimistic about his title quest.
"You want to be around an organization like that,'' he said, "where every year they're trying to improve, they're trying to get better. So in my case, I guess I'm going to be blessed for my three years.''
After a light workout Monday morning at the team's minor-league complex, his first outfitted in Yankees gear, Beltran already sounded like a Bronx veteran. The transition won't be difficult. At one point, Beltran even fielded ground balls at second base in order to chat with Brian Roberts about switch hitting.
"It's going to be fun,'' Beltran said. "I know it's going to be hard because the American League East is a strong division. But on paper, we have a good team.''
Good enough? For Beltran, that's always the question.