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10 Years After He Went No. 1, Tim Beckham can See Himself at the Top on Baseball

Tim Beckham never quite got what he wanted. His favourite number in high school was 3, but then he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. Evan Longoria wore 3, so Beckham decided he should try something else. He switched to 22 in the minors, but when he reached the majors, that number belonged to Chris Archer. The Rays assigned Beckham 29. He didn’t like that, either.

Three years ago, Beckham switched to No. 1, and he has worn it ever since. The No. 1 overall draft choice, Beckham now bats first for the Baltimore Orioles. Either would be a plausible reason for wearing No. 1, but neither explains Beckham’s choice.

“If you give me the opportunity to play every day, I think I’m the best short stop in baseball,” Beckham said this month after a workout on the back fields behind Ed Smith Stadium. “Everyone has their own opinion, but I feel like that 1 on my back is the confidence I have in myself. It’s a reminder that when I put my jersey on every day, you need to be the best person on the field.”

This remains Beckham’s only goal. Last season was his 10th as a professional but just his first as an everyday player in the majors. Buster Posey, who was picked four spots after Beckham, won three World Series titles for the San Francisco before Beckham made his second start in the majors. Now Beckham is learning a new position, third base, as the Orioles accommodate Manny Machado’s wish to move to shortstop.

Beckham has started just five pro games at third base, and he acknowledged he had a long way to go. It is a familiar feeling — the story of Beckham’s, really — but he loves a challenge. As a boy in Georgia, he would find thrills in the most mundane tasks. If he heated up food in the microwave, Beckham said, he would try to make a pitcher of Kool-Aid before the timer went off. Anything to push himself.

“I’d like to consider myself a perpetual competitor,” Beckham said. “I’m blessed with that.”

The Orioles finished 75-87 last season for their first losing record. But they stood just a game out of a wild-card spot as late as Sept. 5, with Beckham fuelling an unlikely surge. Acquired from the Rays in a July 31 trade for the Class A pitcher Tobias Myers, Beckham hit safely in his first 12 games for Baltimore, batting .531. His final August average was. 394, with 15 multi-hit games.

“The first time a guy is traded, you’ve got a window of opportunity you can walk through,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said. “But I never dreamed he would have the month he had. I mean, he was unbelievable. There wasn’t a better player in the American League for a month.”

Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president for baseball operations, knows all about players thriving in new environments. In 2013, he traded a player who was 27, still with his first team, and who had never quite translated his talent to consistent success. That player was Jake Arrieta, who went on to stardom for the Chicago Cubs.

Beckham was the Arrieta of the Rays: 27 years old last summer, in his fourth major league season with his only team, undeniably talented but going nowhere. The Orioles had seen plenty of Beckham, in spring training and the A.L. East, and they liked his tools.

“He can run, he can throw, he’s an excellent athlete,” Duquette said. “It looked to me like he was learning how to hit and use his power. And he was hungry — he wanted to play every day, and he didn’t get the opportunity.”

You can’t get locked in unless you’re playing every day, unless you’re given an opportunity to fail and they run you back out there,” Beckham said. “If I go 0 for 4 in Tampa, I might not play for four days, and then the next at-bat I get might be against Zach Britton.”

As a right-handed hitter, Beckham would often play against All-Star left-handers like Britton, Chris Sale and David Price, who combined to hold him to two hits in 28 at-bats with the Rays. His pedigree made his lack of playing time stand out.

“I’m 1-1, so how does that happen?” Beckham said, referring to first pick, first round. “Now everyone’s looking at me — ‘he’s not doing this, he’s not playing well.’ No, I’m not playing at all.”

Beckham did play regularly for the Rays last season, to Miller and Duffy. Facing a logjam in late July, Tampa Bay traded him and promptly fell out of the playoff race. The Rays did not have a winning record after, and the tenure of their former top pick had ended with a thud.

“I wouldn’t describe it as not working out. I really wouldn’t,” Rays General Manager Erik Neander said, explaining that, by the end, Beckham had finally blossomed. “Certainly, what he accomplished in Baltimore further cemented that, and we’re happy for him in that regard.

“For us, hindsight helps a lot. But at the time with our infield situation, the way the at-bats were going to be allocated, we felt we were going to move someone, and that’s the way we went.”

Neander said the Rays liked Myers and had depth in right-handed infielders like Beckham. They have since acquired even more, in deals that sent Longoria to San Francisco and starter Jake Odorizzi to the Minnesota Twins, right fielder Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona and left fielder Corey Dickerson to Pittsburgh. A rebuild is on for the Rays, and Beckham is happy in a city where nobody cares that he is not Buster Posey.

“Good for him for all the accolades he’s gotten and deserves — he’s a heck of a catcher, a heck of a baseball player,” Beckham said. “With that being said, me getting a chance to play every day and getting on a winning ball club and a winning organization with of the Baltimore Orioles, I look to do the same thing.”

To Beckham, there is simply no doubt. He will work as hard as he can to learn third base, but short stop could be his again, if Machado is traded or leaves as a free agent next winter. Beckham knows he can still be a star, wherever the Orioles put him. It says so right on his back.