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Misplaced Priority

His stoic eyes grow strangely heavy. His soft voice suddenly thickens.

Watching him grow up as a Dodger for the last nine years, you have seen tough Adrian Beltre on the verge of anger, on the verge of joy, on the verge of greatness.

You have never before seen him on the verge of tears.

“You OK?” you ask.

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“Just thinking,” he says.

“About what?” you ask.

“About the chants,” he says. “Remember when the Dodger fans chanted ‘M-V-P’ for me last season? Every day during the last month? I was thinking, those chants were better than the award itself.”

He pauses, the corners of his eyes now glistening.

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“I never, ever wanted to leave the Dodgers,” he says.

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Last week, Frank McCourt loudly called it a priority.

On Sunday, Adrian Beltre softly called it a sham.

The Dodger officials have had two months to spin their version of the truth about their failure to retain their most important player.

It is now Beltre’s turn.

Sitting at an end locker in his new Seattle Mariner clubhouse, the last player inside after signing 20 minutes of autographs, he shakes his head.

“The bottom line is, the Dodgers didn’t want to sign me,” he says. “If they had only talked to me and told me their plan, I would have signed for less money to stay there. I needed to hear it from them. We could have worked it out. But they never even talked to me.”

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The communication problems that were a virus to Paul DePodesta’s first off-season as Dodger general manager were particularly destructive here.

Beltre says the last time he spoke to owner McCourt or DePodesta was during a Dodger Stadium meeting a couple of days before Thanksgiving.

“They both told me that I was their top priority, that they wanted me back,” he says.

He hasn’t heard from either man since.

He canceled a trip to the Dominican Republic to await their call but never heard.

He hung out in an Arcadia home he had purchased a couple of months earlier because he thought he would stay a Dodger but never heard.

He thought about how both men made a similar “priority” promise to him during the division-clinching celebration, but still he never heard.

He read where the Dodgers were negotiating with Corey Koskie to replace him ... but still never heard.

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According to Beltre, when the Dodgers finally did make an offer, they first had to be phoned several times and finally tracked down by agent Scott Boras, who warned that three other teams had made offers with 24-hour deadlines.

When somebody finally did call him back, it was not DePodesta but assistant general manager Kim Ng. She delivered an offer for almost $3 million less annually than the Mariners’ $64-million offer and the Detroit Tigers’ $90-million offer.

“But it wasn’t about the money, and that offer would have been fine,” Beltre says. “But they never explained their strategy to me. They never told me what they were doing. They never let me feel I was part of things.”

Beltre understands that during negotiations, teams usually talk only with players’ agents, not the players themselves. And certainly, Boras would have advised against signing for less money.

“But it was the whole idea of it,” Beltre says. “To me, if I’m your priority, you call me and tell me what is going on. Nobody ever did that. To me, their offer was not a serious one, it was only to make them look good.”

It certainly made the Mariners look good, as two former Dodger officials -- Bill Bavasi and Dan Evans -- clearly stole a guy who had just completed one of the best seasons by a third baseman in baseball history.

At, by the way, age 25.

“I had never seen him much, so I’ve been watching him and, man, he’s so fluid out there,” said new teammate Bret Boone. “He can play, and he knows he can play.”

Think how fluid he will be now that he has the use of both feet.

“Six spurs and one floating ligament,” Beltre says, proudly reciting what doctors removed from his left ankle this winter. “I’ve never felt better.”

It will be more difficult removing the Dodger from underneath his new uniform.

During spring training, Beltre is living in Eric Gagne’s house. He talks on the phone with Cesar Izturis. During the winter he had lunch with Shawn Green.

After he was signed by the Mariners, he was phoned by everyone from Jim Tracy to Tim Wallach to John Shelby.

Everyone but you-know-who and whatshisname.

“That clubhouse last year was the best one I have ever been in,” Beltre says. “The coaches, the players, we knew each other, we took care of each other, we pushed each other. The best ever.”

Then why did the Dodgers break it up?

“Good question,” he says.

In the new Dodger lingo, Beltre apparently did not compute. Because he hit more than twice as many home runs (48) and had 36 more runs batted in (121) than in his previous best seasons, it seemed he was deemed a fluke and not worth the money.

However, Dodger officials had not been around the team long enough to realize, this wasn’t a freak show, it was a maturity show.

This was the sort of player Beltre was supposed to be when they signed him when he was virtually a child. His was not just an individual triumph, but one for the entire organization.

He is no fluke, something at least three other teams with big money understood.

Beltre shrugs. He understands.

“I had a big year, but now there’s a big question mark,” he says. “I know that. That’s my challenge, to show people who don’t think I can do it again.”

Playing home games at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, it is doubtful he will put up the same numbers, even with the repaired ankle. But to be worth the money, he doesn’t have to.

Finding a decent third baseman anywhere is hard. Finding one who was the best hitter and fielder at the position in his league at age 25 is unthinkable.

“It’s really too bad, because if you think about it, I grew up in Dodger blue,” he says. “That was my home.”

He has returned to that home once since leaving, stopping by the clubhouse in the middle of the winter to pick up his belongings.

Some players clean out their lockers when they become free agents. Adrian Beltre never did.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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