Beltran aims to follow in idol Clemente's footsteps

Beltran aims to follow in idol Clemente's footsteps

Beltran aims to follow in idol Clemente's footsteps

KANSAS CITY -- Carlos Beltran began his prolific career with the Royals, and now, nearly 16 years later, he continues to be a productive presence for the Cardinals.

In between was a long stay with the Mets, bookended by brief stints with the Astros and Giants. There have been 2,131 hits, 348 home runs, playoff moments, All-Star berths, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, big contracts and, most important to Beltran, his wife, Jessica, and their daughters, Ivana and Kiara.

Through it all, however, two recent off-the-field developments have had exceptional meaning for Beltran. He's been nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award, and he's witnessing the first graduating class of the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy in his native Puerto Rico.

Clemente, the Hall of Famer from the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a hero in Puerto Rico. Beltran was born more than four years after Clemente perished in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission, delivering relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972.

"I talked to Jessica's grandmother," Beltran said. She was in Puerto Rico that day, and she said it was a sad, sad day for Puerto Rico, because people really looked up to Roberto."

Beltran has idolized Clemente.

"Roberto was a player that, as a kid, I grew up hearing about the things he did on the field and off the field," he said. "I never got a chance to watch him play personally, but there are a lot of memories of him in videos. And when I get the chance to see those, it really amazes me how great a player he was. At the same time, he was a great humanitarian.

"In Puerto Rico, he's still a big influence on things that we do."

That's a major reason that Beltran has tried to follow in Clemente's humanitarian footsteps throughout his career. After seven years of planning, he took a giant stride with the formation of the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy in the ecologically-friendly town of Florida, Puerto Rico. It's a high school for 10th, 11th and 12th grades.

"We specialize in baseball, we do tryouts and select the kids that we think we can help develop their tools and their talent," Beltran said. "We provide materials and everything they need to help them get to where they want to be."

The kids, of course, also have an extensive academics program, with all classes bilingual, Spanish and English.

"The reason I did it that way is because when I signed as a professional ballplayer, I didn't know how to speak English," Beltran said, "so it really took me time and it was hard for me to get used to being in the United States -- a different culture, a different place. It really took me time, so I want my kids to be more prepared."

Beltran donated $4 million to build the school and its facilities on an 18-acre site. When the school opened in August 2011, there were 60 students. Now it's up to 145. Transportation is provided, and they come from all over the island, some living an hour and a half away.

"They're really making a big sacrifice, but that's what life is all about -- making sacrifices," Beltran said. "When you work hard and make sacrifices, God will open doors."

The academy's success was reflected in last week's First-Year Player Draft. Two of its players were selected -- shortstop Jan Hernandez by the Phillies in the third round and outfielder Joseph Monge by the Red Sox in the 17th round.

All of the young men, obviously, are good athletes and drawn by the prospect of becoming a Major League player.

"They come with that idea," Beltran said. "They all come there thinking they are going to be professional baseball players. But when we explain the whole thing, they understand that they've really got to focus on academics. Our dream is to become an MLB player, but not all of us are going to be able to get there. However, all of us, by playing this sport, have the opportunity to achieve something else."

The kids are required to have a certain grade point average and must raise it as they continue in school. The goal is to propel them toward productive and successful careers in other fields if their baseball dreams are not fulfilled.

Vera Clemente, Roberto's wife, has visited the academy.

"She talked to the kids about Roberto, and it was great, because you don't hear the stories every day," Beltran said. "So it was a great moment for me and for the kids in the school."

The aim is to further the kids' future, both athletically and academically, by getting them college scholarships.

A huge moment for Beltran has arrived. The first graduation was scheduled to be held on Monday, an off-day for the Cardinals, and he and Jessica planned to attend.

"I'm going to fly to Puerto Rico so I can be there," Beltran said last week. "This has been a dream come true for me, and about 40 kids are going to graduate, and all 44 of them are already committed to come to colleges in the United States. So we're impacting kids in the right way, and I love that."

Beltran later tweeted a picture of himself from graduation, adding the text: "At the graduation of my students. The sacrifice was worth it."

Beltran holds fundraising events to augment his support of the academy with participation by many stars, including Mariano Rivera, David Ortiz, Jose Reyes, Pedro Martinez and singer Marc Anthony. The academy, a nonprofit organization, accepts donations. For information, visit carlosbeltranacademy.org.

"Knowing I'm going to impact kids for a long time -- that's what it's all about," Beltran said. "It's about legacy, it's about leaving something behind that you've worked hard for. When I'm retired from baseball, I can say I played the game, I did the best I could do to have a good career. I was successful and I was able to do something good with the money I earned, with the sacrifices that I made, to impact kids that had the same background I had when I was growing up. So, for me, I'll be a happy man."

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