It happens every so often, and whenever it does, it immediately becomes the coolest thing to come from that day in baseball. In the second inning of last night's 3-2 Rangers win over the Houston Astros, Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre got a hanging breaking ball and, dropping to one knee, thwacked it over the leftfield wall. Over the years, the genuflecting dinger has become Beltre's special-occasion signature move, broken out once or twice annually. It distills his whole ethos to a half-second of action, and it reminds anyone watching why he's not only one of the game's best players (.298/.356/.517 at age 37, with his usual Gold Glove-level defense) but also one of its most distinct.
In his 19th season, Beltre still plays as he always has: with absolute gusto, with a virtuosity less polished than enthusiastic. In the field, he has the character of a gruff mechanic, glowering at his apprentice Elvis Andrus, planting himself in the dirt to fire a four-seamer across the diamond, or bending at full sprint to collect a dribbler and, in one ligament-wrenching motion, sidearming it just in time to first. Batting, he looks like he's never conducted a second of video study. He stands at the plate with his shoulders hunched like Joe Frazier; his swing is an uppercutting hack. He fouls bucketfuls of balls off the inside of his foot, misses others by miles, and hits rockets down the line.
What better summary of this all-out approach than a swing that looks like a total failure—he has plenty of those—and ends up an absolute success? When Beltre has fallen to his knee in the past, he has usually done so in response to a low pitch, but the one last Tuesday night was up in the zone. He seemed not to predict its flight all that well, having to improvise a last-second cut. Though what he ended up with certainly worked out, it looked like it hurt; kneecap on packed-in dirt can't feel all that good, nor can a follow-through that sends the bat-head knocking straight into the ground and reverberations up the arm.
If painless mastery is more your flavor, today's baseball has plenty to offer. Manny Machado plays like the next iteration of Beltre, evolutionarily corrected to avoid the bumps and bruises. But while Machado doesn't have to spend as much time checking on the condition of his legs and elbows, he also doesn't quite match Beltre's appeal. Machado plays as if to solve the game; Beltre plays like he's trying to beat it in an arm-wrestling contest.
Beltre sometimes seems a little envious of the smoother styles. After Tuesday's game, he expressed his usual ambivalence towards the one-knee swings: "I don't like doing it, but it normally happens on breaking balls—when I'm trying to fight off a breaking ball...I think it hurts me more than it helps me."
He might want to swap out that approach for something a little more honed, but he doesn't seem able to. Fans everywhere should be thankful that it isn't his call.