When Julio Borbon graduated from De La Salle High School in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 2004, fellow Santo Domingo product Adrian Beltre was in the midst of his career year in the big leagues, hitting a robust .334/.388/.629 for the Dodgers with 48 home runs, 121 RBI, and a second-place finish in the NL MVP race.
Beltre had broken into the big leagues when he was 19 years old. When Borbon was that age, he was a freshman at the University of Tennessee, two years away from being drafted by Texas. The 19-year-old Beltre would never see the minor leagues again, aside from a rehab stint in his fourth Los Angeles season that lasted less than a week. In contrast, Borbon, now 25 — the age Beltre was when he had that storybook 2004 season — is trying to earn a job on the big league club to ensure Texas doesn’t take advantage of his final option and put him in the Round Rock lineup to start the season.
It’s safe to say that every player in a Rangers uniform was happy to see Beltre, a magician with the glove and arm and a right-handed threat offensively, added to the mix, but maybe in a way nobody was as fired up as Borbon, who may or may not have chosen number 29 professionally as a tribute to his countryman but was probably happy to give it up once Beltre arrived.
There was a moment Sunday morning that caught my attention as I was fixated (once again) on Beltre taking fungoes at third base during BP. I wasn’t thinking about any of the Beltre-Borbon connection when the young outfielder stepped in to take his cuts, other than a fleeting thought about how Beltre’s path to the big leagues was so accelerated and certain — his permanent arrival came after only 318 stateside minor league games, including just 64 in AA and none in AAA — while Borbon’s own quick arrival remains riddled with questions, both at the plate and in the field.
Standing near the third base dugout, I was keyed in on Beltre, whose actions are as fluid and irresistible to watch as Omar Vizquel’s were at shortstop. (Chris Davis was taking grounders with Beltre, and looks very good at third as well, but it’s impossible to hold your own in a side-by-side comparison with Beltre.)
Minutes before, Ron Washington had said, asked about any concerns he’ll have when Beltre gets his first game appearance for Texas (three to five innings expected this afternoon, playing both sides of the ball, getting two or three at-bats), that the true test as far as his recovery from a calf strain goes will not be running the bases or hitting the ball but instead on defense, with all the quick-twitch movements it requires.
“The key on Monday,” said Washington, “is just to get Beltre off the field healthy, nothing more” (a remark he also made about Tommy Hunter’s pending start later in the day yesterday, which was about the only box you could check about Hunter’s performance — though a two-out, bases-loaded misplay by Borbon in center didn’t help).
I’m not a trainer and not a scout, but Beltre didn’t appear to be favoring his right calf as he absorbed every shot Jackie Moore swatted his way. He started to creep in and take grounders inside the baseline, on the grass in front of the bag, and I shot a look back toward the plate, to see if righthanders Ian Kinsler or Elvis Andrus, who were taking turns with Borbon, were up. But it was still the left-handed Borbon, who got under a pitch right then and sent it lazily to short left center, a far too frequent and unwelcome sight last season.
“Stay back, stay back!” barked an unfamiliar voice.
I turned back toward the infield, where the instruction came from, looking for Thad Bosley. Nope.
Gary Pettis, maybe? Wasn’t him.
Definitely not BP pitcher Bobby Jones, whose voice is unmistakable and whose comment would have included four or five extra words, none of which I can include here.
It was Beltre, crouched in position, awaiting more Jackie Moore prey, shouting encouragement to his new teammate, who was eight years old when Beltre signed with the Dodgers (at what we now believe to have been age 15) out of Santo Domingo’s Liceo Maximo Gomez High School, and who was 12 when Beltre got to Los Angeles. I thought about what it would have felt like 22 years ago if Robin Yount or Paul Molitor, getting their own work done, had shouted at me to keep my shoulder down, or if Michael Chabon were to email me in a few minutes, suggesting diplomatically that today’s report was another one to quietly file away in the circular bin.
Since Beltre had yesterday off, I’m not sure whether he was in Surprise Stadium to see Borbon drop a perfect bunt single down the third base line to load the bases in the third inning, or to see him single sharply to center to lead off the fifth and eventually steal third bases, setting the table for a two-run inning, or to see him single to center again in the sixth, driving in a run and then scoring another in the Rangers’ three-inning frame. But all three times Borbon did his job, doing exactly what he wanted to do with the baseball, something he needs to do with a lot more regularity in order to solidify his role at this level and prevent a trip to Round Rock for a second go at AAA competition.
Beltre’s 2011 debut comes this afternoon, when he’ll be in Surprise Stadium, wearing the familiar number 29 that Borbon relinquished and hitting cleanup for a Rangers squad that will include Neftali Feliz getting the start and Michael Young playing across the diamond at first base and Julio Borbon manning center field, and while the fact that it will come against the Los Angeles Dodgers probably adds no meaning, it ought to be somewhat of a big moment for the veteran, just as the batting practice moment with him coaching a young hitter while fielding grounders yesterday was for at least one guy — me, that is, if not Borbon himself.
I’m off to the back fields now, with priority one to catch lefthander Robbie Erlin throwing live BP on the minor league side. Hope to see lots of you tonight in the stadium, as we have our free roundtable event with Eric Nadel, Tom Grieve, John Rhadigan, Scott Servais, and Josh Boyd, starting promptly at 6:00. The third base gate will be open for entry, and we’ll set up over the first base dugout.