ST. PETERSBURG — Christian Bethancourt used to have a hard time being Christian Bethancourt.
Ten years ago, the versatile veteran who has fit so well in a number of roles with the Rays was a much-hyped prospect with the Braves. He was slated to step in for All-Star catcher Brian McCann after the 2013 season. He was a 22-year-old ticketed for stardom and riches.
He just wasn’t very good.
And he let the enormity of the expectations swallow him.
“I was young, and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and trying to please other people and trying to prove them wrong and show them, and that was just a lot of bad things that I didn’t realize,” Bethancourt said.
“I don’t want to make it sound like an excuse, but looking at it now, I know I was trying to prove people wrong: ‘Oh, he’s a prospect, but he’s a failed prospect.’ And, ‘He didn’t live up to the hype.’ And ‘Blah, blah, blah.’
“So I got caught up in it. I know a lot of guys get caught up in it. You have to find a way to remind yourself to be yourself and have fun. At that moment, I wasn’t having fun.”
Not only that, but he was tormenting himself by browsing social media, searching for his name, reading and reacting to the negative comments about his play, a habit he eventually kicked when he played a year in Korea and couldn’t understand what was written.
“You don’t have to go and look,” he said. “You know you already had a bad game. You don’t have to go on social media and read bad comments that are just going to make it worse.”
His re-education process took a while.
In part because the Braves, who saw him struggle in 2014-15 stints, gave up on him and traded him to San Diego. He was converted to a pitcher by the Padres, then eventually back, with the additional versatility of playing corner infield and outfield spots.
And, somehow, he went four full seasons (2018-2021) without playing in the majors.
“Kind of crazy to think about, honestly,” Rays teammate Brandon Lowe said. “Everything about him is a big-leaguer.”
That gap includes a strong 2018 season at Triple-A with the Brewers; 2019 in Korea (after which Bethancourt, who went for the $1 million payday, got released); 2020 sitting home in Panama after being released by the Phillies following the spring pandemic shutdown; and 2021 back at Triple-A with the lowly Pirates, where he had another solid season during which he turned 30.
Bethancourt wanted more than anything to get back to the majors, but also started to wonder if he ever would. “A couple of times,” he said. “Especially last year.”
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He began to make other plans, including partnering with his brother-in-law to invest in a 17-acre farm in Panama on which they raise cattle for meat and dairy purposes. “I had to start thinking about the future,” Bethancourt said.
His 2021 showing at least got him another Triple-A contract and a spring training invite, with Oakland. “I was like, ‘That’s all I need, I just want an opportunity, I just want to be there,’” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Though he started this year in the minors, Bethancourt got somewhat of a serendipitous opportunity when A’s catcher Austin Allen couldn’t make a mid-April trip to Toronto due to being unvaccinated, then missed additional time when he had COVID-19.
Oakland manager Mark Kotsay told Bethancourt he’d get a chance to play and needed to make the best of it.
“I took that as like this is probably my last shot,” Bethancourt said. “I have to do anything I can.”
He did enough, playing first, catching and DHing to stick around. In early July he was traded to the Rays, moving up considerably in the standings, and, even better, into a playoff race.
Plus, he has fit in extremely well with Tampa Bay, contributing with his bat (including five homers in an 11-game span), glove (catching and playing first) and arm (throwing out eight of 16 base stealers and pitching three times).
The past failures shaped Bethancourt, as he says he no longer dwells on bad games, or worries about being in the lineup. His motivations are different, too, with a wife and two kids. As are his social media habits, using Twitter to read up on world news, Instagram to post family photos and TikTok for entertainment.
No, his career didn’t work out the way he expected when he signed for $600,000 as a 16-year-old in March 2008.
But it turned out OK.
“It’s a totally different Christian Bethancourt than I pictured,” he said.
“When I was 21 and at the big-league level for the first time, I was just thinking like everybody else: I made it to the major leagues, now I’ve got to find myself, establish myself and see if I can be an All-Star and be one of the great players in baseball. But it didn’t happen.
“Now I’m back in the major leagues and I think I’m more happy just because of what I went through. It makes it a little more satisfying for me.”
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