NEW YORK — Carlos Beltran was honest: Sometimes he misses New York — and sometimes he doesn't.
The St. Louis Cardinals slugger returned to Citi Field on Friday for the first time since he was traded by the New York Mets last summer, concluding a rocky tenure in the Big Apple that included several outstanding seasons and one momentous strikeout.
"I felt personally, in the years that I was healthy, I had my best years in baseball," Beltran said.
Moments before the first pitch of a four-game series, the Mets played a 1-minute video tribute to Beltran on the big scoreboard in center field. In the dugout, he smiled and tipped his cap.
When he came to bat in the first inning, Beltran received mostly cheers from the sparse crowd, save for a handful of boos and catcalls. He shattered his bat on a foul ball and struck out against old pal Johan Santana.
"I'm happy to be back," Beltran said. "I have a lot of friends here that I really miss."
Sitting in the St. Louis dugout hours before the game, Beltran answered questions in two languages from a media mob for 20 minutes. He hosted a charity event in New York on Thursday night, an off day for both teams, that was attended by Santana, Mets manager Terry Collins and trainer Ray Ramirez.
Beltran said he really enjoyed his 6 ½ seasons with the Mets after signing a $119 million, seven-year contract in January 2005 that brought with it the weight of lofty expectations. He only wishes he could have been healthy the entire time and helped the team win a championship.
The Mets came close in 2006, when Beltran took a called third strike with the bases loaded to end Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against St. Louis.
It was a pivotal moment for both franchises. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series that season and again last year. The Mets collapsed down the stretch in 2007 and 2008, and haven't been back to the playoffs.
With the Mets trailing 3-1 and fans on their feet at a rocking Shea Stadium, Beltran froze on a nasty curveball from rookie closer Adam Wainwright in October 2006. In a fitting twist, Wainwright started Friday night for the Cardinals in the opener of a four-game series and Beltran was back in center field for the first time all season because of injuries to teammates Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker.
Beltran, a three-time Gold Glove winner in center, graciously moved to right before the 2011 season to ease the strain on his surgically repaired knees and make way for speedy protege Angel Pagan.
"He came with such tremendous expectations, and expectations can hurt you in a way," Collins said. "Here was a guy who was supposed to hit 40 homers every year and be a perennial All-Star and not have a bad knee and be a guy that carries a ballclub. And when he was healthy, he did that. He had numbers to support that when he was healthy. There were times when he was injured that he didn't. And so, as we know, sometimes that doesn't fly."
After a huge 2004 postseason with Houston, Beltran became a free agent and was lured to New York by new Mets general manager Omar Minaya. With few familiar faces in the clubhouse, the switch-hitter struggled to adjust and batted only .266 with 16 homers and 78 RBIs.
Fans booed him, but Beltran bounced back in 2006 with perhaps the best season a Mets hitter has ever had: 41 homers, 116 RBIs and 127 runs. New York won the NL East and Beltran finished fourth in MVP voting.
He followed that up with two strong seasons, but was limited to 145 games from 2009-10 because of injuries. He returned to form last year and waived his no-trade clause, allowing the Mets to obtain an elite prospect when he was dealt to San Francisco.
"I felt the years that I was healthy, I did a pretty good job, and I feel proud of what I did," Beltran said. "At the end of the day, it's not about what you do and numbers, it's about winning championships. We didn't win anything, so I guess it doesn't mean anything."
Still, it was an up-and-down tenure in New York — and he had a difficult relationship with Mets fans at times.
"Probably fans also like to see players that show emotions, come here in the media and say crazy things. I'm not that type of player," Beltran said. "Everyone has a different personality. For me as a player, I have a personality where maybe I don't show a lot of emotions on the field, but that doesn't really mean that I'm not enjoying what I'm doing. I love what I do. I love to play baseball. It's just that that's the person that I am and if I try to be different, I'm being fake to myself. So I don't like to be fake. I like to be me all the time."
Stung by the early boos, Beltran once declined to come out for a curtain call until good buddy Carlos Delgado practically shoved him out of the dugout. And some fans never forgave the six-time All-Star for failing to get the bat off his shoulder on that fateful pitch from Wainwright.
"If that's what they want to remember, that's them. I can't control that," Beltran said. "I just wish I could have done different. It didn't happen."
Looking toward the future and with Beltran in the final season of his deal, New York shipped him to the Giants just a few days before last year's trade deadline for top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler. And that was the end of Beltran's time in New York.
"Sometimes I do miss it, sometimes I don't. Being honest," Beltran said. "I consider my time here a life experience for me."
Wheeler is throwing well at Double-A Binghamton, while Beltran is off to a great start with his new team. After signing a $26 million, two-year contract with the Cardinals in December, he began the night batting .294 with 42 RBIs and an NL-best 15 homers. He ranks among the league leaders in several categories.
"I think he's one of the most efficient players I've ever seen," rookie manager Mike Matheny said. "I think in every aspect he's been a huge part of what's becoming the makeup of this team."