Don’t tell Tim Beckham he can’t do something, because odds are he will do everything he can to prove you wrong.
That’s how he learned to be growing up in Griffin, Ga., a city of about 23,000 an hour south of Atlanta. It’s how he became the top overall pick in the draft a decade ago, and it’s now how he’s approaching the biggest challenge of the second chapter of his big league career with the Orioles.
How Beckham, 28, would handle his transition to third base from shortstop — where Manny Machado will play in his final season before free agency — was an unknown entering spring training. But now as the season approaches, Beckham’s move has been seamless. And for an Orioles club that entered the 2018 season with many questions, Orioles manager Buck Showalter sees it as one less thing to worry about.
“He's been solid over there,” Showalter said. “It's been a real highlight for me.”
As for Beckham, he’s never doubted he could handle the switch. It’s why he wears the No. 1 on his back. It’s not because of the top overall pick title that he’s shouldered his whole career. That’s in the past. Beckham looks to the future, and his goal is to be the best at everything he does.
“If I’m on the field, you want me at third? Hey, let’s go,” Beckham said. “You want me at third, I’ll play third and I’m going to work my [butt] off to be the best third baseman in the American League and in baseball. If I’m not, then I’m not, but that’s what I’m shooting for.
“And if someone else isn’t shooting for that, they might as well go sit in the truck. You’re here to play for seconds or are you here to be the best? That’s how I see it.”
Moving to third
Beckham is confident, but he insists he doesn’t border on being cocky. He realizes that might rub some people the wrong way, but he’s played the game with a certain swagger since he was a kid, and if that’s taken away, he says he’s not the same player.
“Some people might call it cocky [or say], ‘You’ve got a big head,’ ” Beckham said. “OK, well I just think that anyone who is saying that is insecure about themselves. You can call it what you want to call it. … And any man should be confident in anything that they do.”
When he arrived in Baltimore at the 2017 nonwaiver trade deadline in a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, he was given the keys to the shortstop position and the unspoken message that he was a part of the club’s future for years to come. He responded well, putting up a remarkable August that paced the Orioles’ surge back into the playoff picture.
He’s meshed well with the team’s young core, especially infield mates Machado and Jonathan Schoop, who play the game in a similar youthful manner. Beckham is a part of the new-wave generation of players who don’t hold back emotion on field. He won’t apologize for the occasional bat flip or on-field celebration.
“I play with energy and I play with passion, and I always have,” Beckham said. “I feel like that brings the best out of a baseball club. … When I [arrived here] … a lot of guys came over and they were like, ‘I always thought you were this and that playing from the other side.’ I’m like, ‘Look, that’s just how I play the game.’ I run balls out hard. I make diving plays and if I showboat a little bit, that’s just what it is.
“But if I’m getting the outs and I’m getting the job done and I’m playing with energy and my team’s winning the game, I couldn’t give a [damn] about what the other team is saying. If they had me on the team, they’d want me to do the same thing. … I know how baseball is like, though, and I’m not saying anything against that. I’m just saying to each person, be themselves. Be you.”
Still, Beckham hopes his performance on the field will speak louder. He is coming off the best season of his career, setting highs in homers (22), RBIs (62), OPS (.782) and wins above replacement (3.3). As for Beckham’s move to third, Machado — who won two Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove at the position — thinks it’s gone well.
“Man, it's been awesome,” Machado said. “It's been amazing. It looks like he's been playing there his whole career. Hopefully, he can keep it up. He's a hard worker. He's been working hard with [third base coach Bobby Dickerson] and he's going to make the plays. I think he's going to surprise a lot of people, and us as a team, we're going to surprise a lot of people. We've just got to keep doing the little things, playing good defense and playing small ball as much as we can.”
Back in Griffin, Beckham was a three-sport athlete growing up, playing baseball, basketball and football. His hometown is known for its football pedigree, producing NFL players Willie Gault, Jessie Tuggle, Chris and Nic Clemons and Bobby Rainey.
Beckham actually quit baseball for about three years during his adolescence, disturbed by losing his starting spot on a travel team when he was 11. But he got back into the game with the encouragement of his brother, Jeremy, who had a two-year pro career in the late 1990s. He returned to baseball when in eighth grade, and made his junior varsity high school baseball team.
His friends still pushed him toward football and basketball. He was often the only African-American kid on the baseball team, and his friends would rag him for playing what they called a “white guy’s game.” But Beckham didn’t have imposing size. He realized he wasn’t going to grow into a 6-foot-5 point guard or a bull-rushing defensive end. Baseball was his ticket out of Griffin.
“If I want to get drafted out of high school and I want to get drafted out of Griffin, Ga., then I need to play baseball,” Beckham said. “It’s just the mentality we have in Griffin. If I’m going to play, I’m going to play to be the best. I’m not going to play for second. I’m not going to let Joe Blow beat me in a one-on-one basketball game so he can go tell everybody in school that he beat me. So, we grew up playing for keeps there. We always played with that competitive edge. That’s why I think that competitive edge is embedded in me.”
Away from the main stadium field at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, Beckham spent many mornings working with Dickerson, who serves as the Orioles infield coach, on the finer points of playing third base. He arrived in Sarasota 10 days early, after a stint in California working out with vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson.
Beckham had his challenges at shortstop. Third is a different animal. There’s less time to think, so a decision on how to play a ball must be made quickly — whether to charge a ball and try to scoop a short hop or to back up on a ball and wait out a long hop, then have enough time to throw to first.
“He plays the game real energetic,” Dickerson said. “You can just see him. He’s fired up. He wants to do it. He’s going to make it happen. Manny’s more laid-back, lets the game come to him a little bit. That’s one difference in them. Beck, I always said if you give me a guy that has some work ethic, some aptitude, then you know what? We can get it done. And Beck has both.”
Beyond the diamond
Before reporting to Sarasota, Beckham returned home to hold a baseball camp for local kids, something he’s done the past three offseasons. He knows how many of his friends put their stock in futures in sports, and when that didn’t work out, they turned to the streets. So while Beckham’s clinic teaches baseball skills, he also preaches the value of getting an education.
“I probably had it worse than a lot of those kids,” Beckham said. “A lot of kids in Griffin think, ‘I’m going to play basketball or football, and if I’m not good at those then I’m gonna be a rapper. If I’m not a rapper, I’m gonna sell drugs.’ A lot of my friends are either dead or in jail now, because a lot of my friends were doing that growing up.
“I don’t want the next generation to grow up thinking like that. I want the next generation to think, ‘I can be a baseball player, I can be a basketball player, but if all else fails, I have all A’s.’ I preach that to those kids because everyone’s not going to make it. The majority of the people I talk to at those camps, you’re not going to make it to the major leagues, so I make it a point to let them know — not to discourage them — but sometimes you’ve got to face facts and be brutally honest with people in order to get a point across at that young age, at age 12. If I’m brutally honest with you at age 12, and you’re thinking about what I said at age 17, then I’ve done my job.”
Also this offseason, Beckham took a trip to South Africa with a group named “Black & Abroad.” He toured Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were both imprisoned.
“Eye-opening, man,” Beckham said. “To hear the stories and walk around and see the 7-by-7-by-7-foot cell that they were locked in for 23 hours and they were getting one hour out. Just to learn the history about what they went through and for someone like Nelson Mandela to go through something like that [and be in jail] for 27 years and come out and be the president of his country.
“The amount of mental stability that he had to have that was taxing on him, it just shows that impossible is nothing, and anything is possible if you put your mind to it and if you’re that driven to help the next generation and that driven to be that impactful individual in life for us today.”
In neighboring Soweto, he played cricket with local kids, none of whom knew he was a major league baseball player. He found quickly that despite the fact that these kids had little, they were very much alike, especially when it game to gamesmanship.
“It was an awesome time to see how much fun they had, just throwing the ball around and talking smack,” Beckham said. “Talking trash, I don’t want to say it made me what I am, but it’s something we just did growing up. In baseball, it’s kind of put like it’s disrespect. It’s not disrespect. It’s competing. It’s competition. I’m here to compete.
“If you feel a certain type or way because you’re insecure, you’re not going to sit here and tell me you’re going to beat me in a race. ‘Well, let’s go race.’ If you beat me, you beat me. But I’m probably going to come back tomorrow and want to race you again. That’s just how it is.”
A fresh start
In Baltimore, Beckham no longer has to live up to the No. 1 overall pick moniker. Tampa Bay selected Beckham in 2008 over the likes of Buster Posey and Eric Hosmer. The Orioles took left-hander Brian Matusz with the fourth overall pick that year. So, expectations were huge from the first day in the organization.
On this day, talk turns to looking at his career from a wide scope. Last year was the first time he received any kind of regular playing time, and his role diminished over the season before the Rays traded him to Baltimore. Unprovoked, he opened up about his time with the Rays, and yes, there might be still be a chip on his shoulder about how he became buried in Tampa Bay.
“A lot of people can look at my career in different ways, you know, because they see me in Tampa not playing every day,” Beckham said. “The situation in Tampa, it was what it was. I don’t know what it was, but they didn’t sign anyone over there who was better than me.
“So you’ve got a platoon player who is a star athlete on the bench. Everyone on the other side looking in is like, ‘Oh well, Tim Beckham hit .240 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs.’ Yeah, I did that in 160 at-bats when I’m hitting off David Price, Chris Sale, I’m hitting off Cy Young pitchers, left-handed pitchers. You’re running me out there where I’m only getting six at-bats a week. But that’s no excuse, but if you put in a right-handed hitter in Tampa Bay and ask him to platoon and get off the bench in the ninth inning to hit off Zach Britton, look, throw them out there and see what they do. You know? … It was what it was. I appreciate the time there, but they didn’t utilize their personnel correctly. I can definitely say that.”
There’s definitely no one who has more confidence in Beckham than Tim Beckham himself, and he’s comfortable with that.
“I don’t think there’s a limit,” Beckham said of his potential. “I’m going to work my [butt] off every day. If I come up short, I come up a little short, but I’m shooting for the stars. Hopefully I land on the moon. No doubt about it. What I can do is come in here every day, bust my [butt], listen and be receptive and go out and play ball. And when the lights are on, let’s go. It’s time to play ball.”