An hour or so after the Mets' season ended last October, Francisco Lindor stood in front of his locker, contact lenses out and eyeglasses on, and left me with two words to head into the offseason: "Push it."
By "it," Lindor meant the notion of Carlos Beltran returning to the organization. He wanted to use any means necessary, including the media, to help move that process along.
By then, Beltran had already taken the first step out of an excessive exile. His time away from the team he was once supposed to manage will finally end this week when he signs a contract to become an assistant to general manager Billy Eppler.
The first seeds for this were planted late in the regular season.
On September 15, Beltran returned to Citi Field for the first time since the Mets fired him in February 2020, following revelations of his involvement in the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal. The ostensible reason for that return was a gathering of past Roberto Clemente Award winners, but for Beltran, the day represented an additional layer of meaning, and an emotionally fraught one.
Leading up to pregame introductions of the honorees, Beltran felt nervous, friends of his say. He was expecting to hear boos.
That did not happen. Fans cheered Beltran. Then, during the game, Beltran visited Steve Cohen's box and met the owner for the first time. The two enjoyed a pleasant chat, during which Beltran mentioned that Cohen's commitment to winning would turn the Mets into a preferred destination for free agents. Beltran also spent quality time with owner Alex Cohen.
He left the ballpark that night feeling relieved, with a sense that the evening might be a first step of some kind. The word he used with one friend was "productive."
Down in the Mets' clubhouse that day, two of the team's brightest stars hoped that would be the case.
"He's with the Yankees on the TV broadcast," Lindor said, referring to Beltran's year as a broadcaster for the YES Network. "Hopefully when he gets back to wanting to be on the field or front office, whatever he wants to do, I hope he gets the opportunity. Would I want him to be here? One hundred percent."
Closer Edwin Diaz felt the same way.
"He knows so much about baseball," Diaz said. "He can help the youngest players to develop."
As natives of Puerto Rico, Lindor and Diaz understand the depth of Beltran's commitment to teaching. His baseball academy on the island has turned out scores of high school graduates; at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the academy in 2011, Beltran wept.
It was that love of mentorship, combined with his baseball IQ, that landed Beltran in trouble. As a member of the Astros, he was a part of a group that took advantage of advanced technology to steal opponents' signs via a live video feed.
It was cheating. It was unethical. But it was also a twisted outgrowth of Beltran's passion for teaching, in this case teaching the art of picking up signs. It began as legit, added technology, and crossed the line. Other contributing factors included an amoral front office culture and a bench coach in Alex Cora who was also skilled at stealing signs. Good people did bad things.
In the span of a few days in 2020, Beltran, Cora and A.J. Hinch all lost managing jobs. The latter two have long since returned, in part because of their prior success. Beltran, who had never before managed, was out of luck.
It was a testament to his positive reputation in the game that Beltran found a way back in last year through YES -- a network owned by a team that the Astros victimized in two separate postseasons in 2017 and 2019. Yankees GM Brian Cashman and president Randy Levine continued to like Beltran personally, and felt comfortable providing an opportunity.
As a special assistant to Cashman in 2019, Beltran helped pitcher James Paxton fix a tell in his delivery, made himself available to younger players, and traveled with the inner circle of the front office during the postseason.
While in exile, Beltran actually served the Mets, albeit informally, by helping Lindor through a difficult transition to New York.
"He was the one that helped me find realtors and doctors around here when I first came here," Lindor told me in September. "Where to live, you know, things like that. When I was struggling a lot last year I talked to him a lot. He's amazing."
Over the past year, a glaring need in Eppler's front office became obvious: he did not have enough people with field experience. Eppler himself was a college pitcher and scout, but as GM, he needed more of that perspective in his cabinet.
Eppler was well-aware of this deficiency, and did not object when I pointed it out. Even after the Beltran hire, the Mets need a full-time member of the front office capable of evaluating their own system, as vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring does for the Yankees.
Still, bringing in the greatest position player in franchise history, who also happens to be a passionate and skilled teacher, represents a meaningful step forward for the baseball operations department.
It also puts Beltran right where he should be, in a position to help younger players.
In a conversation on the field at Minute Maid Park in October 2019, when Beltran was interviewing to become Mets manager, he made clear his deep desire to do so.
Why, I asked him, was he considering this job? He had made more money than he could ever need, had a beautiful family, an easy gig with the Yankees that allowed him to choose his hours. And he wanted to leave all that for the grind of managing the Mets? Really?
Beltran smiled and shrugged.
"I want to help players," he said.
Beltran has done his time for cheating. He is still just 45 years old. Now it's time to return to what he loves, and recover what -- by his own doing -- he temporarily lost.