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Beltran boasts new level of happiness

Beltran at new level of happiness

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The proclamation from Carlos Beltran that the Mets were the team to beat in the National League East raised eyebrows and perhaps the tenor of the Mets' relationship with the Phillies. When manager Willie Randolph heard of Beltran's uncharacteristically bold challenge last month, he explained it away to a degree, saying Beltran's new status as a father had changed him.

Beltran might have been more surprised by his manager's remark than Randolph had been surprised by the center fielder's comment. He didn't see the connection, still doesn't.

None of which is to suggest that Beltran isn't unchanged by nearly five months of fatherhood. Just as certain as he is that baby Ivana has a full complement of fingers and toes -- he counted them several times shortly after the Oct. 26 delivery -- he is a changed man.

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"Just happier," he said. "A lot happier."

Beltran's expression changes when he speaks of his new level of happiness and the daughter responsible for it. A soft glow develops and sincerity takes over. Smiles last longer and are more plentiful. He appears younger and gentler and far less circumspect. In clubhouse parlance, he is looser.

Howard Johnson, the Mets' hitting coach, sees the looseness and calls it "a good thing." And Pedro Martinez said, "In Spanish or English, Carlos is a happier, more fulfilled man. You can see that. And that is good."

Good for him, of course. Good for the Mets? We'll see. Happiness doesn't turn around an on-the-black slider or drive in a runner from third. The notion, fulfilled fathers say, is that happiness allows a player to better deal with the heaping helpings of struggles that come with playing regularly in the big leagues.

"When you're happier away from game," Al Leiter said after the birth of his son, Jack, "you're better equipped to deal with the up and downs of the game."

Beltran has yet to take a swing of consequence since Ivana's birth; more to the point, he has yet to endure his first 0-for-4 evening since her presence added another dependent to whatever tax form multi-millionaires use. Beltran's not sure that first-time fatherhood will enhance his game or make playing and its aftermath less trying.

He's pretty sure that he -- father or not -- still will seek the sanctuary of the basement at times when he returns home from an exasperating day at the office. He can foresee that instance -- coming home kissing Ivana and her mother, Jessica, grabbing a bat and disappearing.

The basement has a home theater, a pool table, a small bar and all the imaginable amenities -- and, thank goodness, a mirror and enough space for a switch-hitter to reflect and swing.

"I'll still go down there. There still will be times when I need to think about what I'm doing," Beltran said, "even if I enjoy my life more now and I am a happy father."

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The Mets' No. 4 hitter and primary slugger knows himself, and that the $117 million contract he signed in January 2005 enabled him to afford the home theater, pool table, et al. It didn't eliminate the need for the mirror and the space to swing.

"People think because I signed such a big deal that I don't get frustrated if I don't play well. I do," Beltran said. "I don't always go to the basement. We have a good team, we win more than we lose. But when that's not happening and I'm not doing what I think I should to help, that's when I go down there. Being rich doesn't matter then."

Perhaps being a father won't either.

"I don't know," Beltran said. "Maybe I'll go upstairs sooner."

The game and his personal achievements may become less urgent now. Perhaps age -- Beltran turns 31 next month -- or perhaps life experiences have afforded him an altered perspective that he doesn't yet recognize.

"My career is very important to me, my beliefs are, too," he said. "My family is so important."

Beltran wanted fatherhood, he wanted to share parenting with Jessica, his wife of nearly seven years. He wanted the responsibilities of shaping a life, of passing on what his parents had taught him, "so that my little girl can be the best human being she can be."

But fatherhood was delayed. Jessica twice miscarried, once after two months, once after four. Those heartbreaking experiences made the third pregnancy more challenging and filled with anxiety. The Beltrans had endured an awful silence -- no heartbeat -- in the second miscarriage.

"I told her we'd be all right," Beltran said. "But I went to the parking lot and I cried. She came out and told me, 'We'll be OK.'"

They carried that weight through the third pregnancy.

"I'd listen for it a lot," Beltran said, mimmicking the practice of putting his ear to his wife's womb.

He recalls the terror of the instance when he heard nothing. He called the doctor and made an appointment, unbeknownst to his wife, and then told her the doctor had wanted to see her.

"The baby [had] moved," he said, reliving the relief. "The heartbeat was on the other side."

Another time, Jessica asked for an additional visit and ultrasound examination the morning after a disturbing dream.

"We were nervous," Beltran said. "We were on the computer every day. Every time [Jessica] felt a symptom, we wanted to know what it was. We were happy, we were nervous.

"We were having a good life. But we knew everything is not perfect, and we believed things happen for a reason. We are strong, we have strong beliefs. God puts you through only the things you can handle. We think we had trouble twice because we could take it and then have testimony for other people who had problems like we had. We could be their example. 'See, it can work.'"

He recalls another Puerto Rican big leaguer whose wife miscarried in her ninth month.

"He told me, 'You'll be OK.' But it was hard to feel that way when it happened," Beltran said. "But now we have our girl. And everything is good. We are thankful for that, and we are so happy."

Whether the contentedness makes for more home runs, fewer strikeouts and more running catches is imponderable for now. Beltran is a different and, he thinks, stronger man. He doesn't know whether he will be a better player. This much he knows.

"I was OK before I was a father," Beltran said.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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