ON A FRIDAY EVENING in late June, at a charity softball game in Pomona, New York, the celebrities are mostly New York Giants, current players and former ones. Joe Gannascoli, a.k.a. Vito from "The Sopranos," is here, too. But given the scores of No. 13 jerseys at Provident Bank Park, the headliner is clearly Odell Beckham Jr.
He doesn't disappoint.
Killing time between the home run derby and the game, Beckham steps atop the pitcher's mound, a glove on his left hand, a softball in his right, and lets fly with some overhand heat. Beckham's mechanics -- the way he lifts his stride leg, his body control, his throwing motion -- are clean. He generates power effortlessly. The troublesome left hamstring that led the Giants to shelve Beckham for the last few weeks of football practices this spring isn't a problem on this night. The ball pops as it reaches the catcher, who barely has to move. It's so ... smooth.
"The sickest athlete I have ever seen!" says punter Steve Weatherford, himself a fitness nut with 12-pack abs, in an Instagram post documenting the moment. Cornerback Prince Amukamara tweets: "And he can pitch!!! Who throws a softball 90 mph!??"
We can't say for sure that the pitch hit 90, but you get the idea. So we ask: If Beckham's teammates are still awed and amazed by his athletic exploits, how are the rest of us supposed to react?
THE HANDS, THE HAIR, the how-did-he-do-that catches -- it seems to come so easily to Beckham. But back in early November, thanks to a strained right hamstring that cost him almost all of training camp and the first four regular-season games of his first pro season, he had a lot of catching up to do.
Sensing that Beckham could handle it, Giants wide receivers coach Sean Ryan turned up the pressure by introducing a weekly ritual: On Fridays, he would give Beckham a sheet of rookie receiver rankings, by catches, yards and touchdowns. On the initial list, Beckham's production ranked last.
"I think he thrives on challenges," Ryan said. "I think that is what makes that guy tick."
In Week 5, Beckham announced his arrival, catching a touchdown in his first game, on a route he had never before run.
In Week 10, he burned Richard Sherman and Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary for 100-plus receiving yards -- something only two other receivers accomplished all season.
In Week 12, a bending-backwards Beckham made the (one-handed) catch of the year.
(SCROLL SIDE TO SIDE TO SEE "THE CATCH" FROM MULTIPLE ANGLES.)
And then there was December, when the Giants won three of their last four games and Beckham's productivity reached hard-to-believe levels: He racked up 606 receiving yards -- representing 53.6 percent of Eli Manning's total yardage that month -- and made 43 catches while being targeted a ridiculous 63 times. He also caught seven of Manning's eight touchdown passes.
By season's end, if Beckham wasn't quite a one-man show, his name surely was on the marquee.
Looking back months later, coach Tom Coughlin, hardly one for hyperbole, assessed Beckham's rookie campaign: "I think he's just touching the surface here."
He would go on to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and rank No. 32 on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2015," which is voted on by the players. As part of the greatest rookie class of receivers ever, Beckham led the way with 91 catches, 1,305 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, ranking among the top 10 overall in each category. That he produced such statistics despite missing September? Remarkable enough to make you wonder, How good can he be?
Beckham's answer: "It's not like I want to be (able to say), 'I'm better than you.' I just genuinely want to be the best."
The Pro Bowl in late January served as Beckham's final game. Hours before kickoff, as other players milled around the field, Beckham booted a 46-yard field goal through the uprights. Giants players had seen this act many times at practice, but this was a bigger stage with a new audience. Colts punter Pat McAfee captured the kick on his camera phone.
A short time later, the Seahawks Pro Bowlers arrived on the sidelines. Told of Beckham's field goal, safety Kam Chancellor raised his eyebrows and asked, "Is there anything he can't do?"
ODELL BECKHAM JR. IS 22 YEARS OLD and has played in 12 NFL games. Perhaps it is because he looks like a finished product that we expect him to be one.
Early on, he showed the ability to prepare like a veteran and learn through mental reps. Despite scant practice time, Beckham had full command of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's complex playbook when he made his pro debut.
"He's a unique player," McAdoo said.
"The game makes sense to him," said Ryan, meaning Beckham doesn't have to memorize concepts because he understands them.
Added McAdoo: "I don't think people realize the type of competitor this guy is. This young man is a fierce competitor and wants to be the best at what he does."
Beckham's emotional edge can cut both ways. In the last two games of the season, he incurred two fines (tab: $21,025) when his emotions got the better of him, for kicking an opponent who tackled him out of bounds in Week 16 and for slamming his helmet to the ground in frustration in Week 17 (he wasn't flagged, but could have been). He also drew a taunting penalty while celebrating a Week 16 touchdown.
"I'll never change the way I play, the passion that I have for the game," Beckham said. "But the stupid penalties and the fine that I took for taking my helmet off, it's just not what I want to represent. It's something that I work on, but it's so hard to control your emotions (doing) something that you really, truly love. So I try my best."
For the Giants, all of this cuts both ways, too. There have been times under Coughlin, the team's two most recent Super Bowl runs notwithstanding, when the buttoned-up squad has fallen into ruts defined by listlessness and losing. The team has failed to make the playoffs in five of the past six seasons.
So, yes, Beckham's youthful enthusiasm -- including his dancing during practice, particularly when Coughlin isn't looking -- is welcome in East Rutherford.
"I don't want him to lose his edge in any way," Ryan said. "He is not going to hurt the team. That is clearly stated to him, and he understands that. In a lot of ways, that passion and that energy is what makes him special. You have to be very careful not to really put your foot down or squash that, because it is an important part of his game."
In late December, amid the disappointment of a six-win season, Giants president and CEO John Mara singled out Beckham, saying he hadn't felt such excitement about what a rookie could mean to the franchise since Lawrence Taylor joined Big Blue in 1981. Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson suggested more recently that the current Giants should rally around Beckham's competitive spirit the way his teams fed off Taylor's.
Beckham has captivated the New York metropolitan area -- and beyond -- with his skill and his style. He has dined with LeBron James, met childhood idol David Beckham and sat next to Vogue editor Anna Wintour during Fashion Week in New York, at her request. When in public, he poses for countless pictures. He's gotten used to strangers asking to compare their hands with his 10-inch mitts.
From the outside, it has seemed like an avalanche of attention. That assessment isn't far from the truth.
"It was almost overwhelming at some point," Beckham said. "Just having your life change so fast, and you kind of have to change so fast, and it all came in a hurry.
"God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, (and to whom) much is given, much is required. I really believe in that. ... So, with that being said, (I try) to be the best person that I could be. You know, each and every day. On the field, off the field, whatever it is."
WHEN TRAINING CAMP OPENS, the "plan" -- Coughlin's word -- is for Beckham and Victor Cruz, who tore his right patellar tendon in October, to be on the field, but the Giants will be careful with both players. Beckham and Cruz played fewer than seven full quarters together last season, and their offense suffered for it.
Cruz is ahead of schedule in his arduous rehabilitation and is optimistic he will make a full recovery. Beckham has learned from last year's nightmare, when he pushed to return from his right hamstring strain, only to reinjure it; he said he was never fully healthy. His more recent obstacle, tightness in the left hamstring, hasn't warranted the same level of concern. He didn't even undergo an MRI this spring. But he and the Giants will proceed with caution -- maybe extreme caution.
Beckham's practice workload, possibly a contributing factor to his hamstring problems, will be closely monitored in the days and weeks, and perhaps seasons, to come. As Coughlin said, "We don't have our head in the sand. We know the guy has an issue."
Beckham vows to play it smart -- he did not object to skipping some spring drills -- because, he said, "I obviously would not want to play hurt all my career."
A year ago, Beckham worried about the first impression he was making, sitting out as his veteran head coach proved increasingly impatient with injuries. Now, after seeing how hard Beckham works and how much the game means to him, Coughlin has taken a different tack.
"I want him on the field," Coughlin said. "Just like he wants to be on the field."
BECKHAM STILL CAN'T BELIEVE he was on the field for just four victories last season.
"You know, it was like we were a good team for bits and pieces of the game," he said, "and then the bits and pieces would just go to waste."
He struggled for words before deciding, "I'm really just looking forward to this year, to be honest."
From top to bottom within the organization, the challenge is for the Giants to be more successful in 2015. Assuming Beckham is healthy, it will be intriguing to see how -- or if -- he can be better.
Coughlin said the key for Beckham is to be able to practice, the surest way to reach what the coach called "the next level."
Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said that, based on their matchups on the practice field, Beckham is "everything you want in a receiver," but noted he can make some improvements in route running.
Ryan called Beckham a willing pupil: "There's a lot of work to be done, but he knows it." For example, Ryan said, Beckham needs to be more consistent with his releases against press coverage and with his finishing angles at the top of routes.
"To me, that's why he has a chance to be a really great player," Ryan said. "Because he's OK with (someone) saying he needs to make improvements in route running."
The question How do you become a better player? elicited a bigger-picture response from the thoughtful Beckham.
"I think that's the hardest part," he said, "just not being satisfied with what you've done and never being complacent."
Teammates say there is no doubt about Beckham's work ethic. But there are scenarios in which his personal numbers dip slightly -- and the Giants become a better team.
If Cruz, who has caught at least 73 passes in each of his three full seasons, is himself, he'll serve as an additional playmaker. Randle won't be forgotten after logging 71 receptions in 2014. Free-agent signee Shane Vereen, who was Tom Brady's favorite target out of the backfield during his time with the Patriots, could become exactly that for Manning. And then there's the Giants' running game, which was anemic in 2014, managing just 3.6 yards per rush. If the offensive line is improved, Manning could wind up directing an offense with actual balance.
But you have to believe that Beckham still figures to be a commanding presence in this, or any, offense. At the very least, Manning suggested he'll always be able to count on him, describing Beckham as a speedy but disciplined and conscientious route runner, making it "easy to read his body language."
And there's more. "I think you have to love what you're doing to be successful at this sport," Manning said. "I think he loves being out there, making plays in games. But he likes to practice, he likes being in the locker room, he enjoys everything that goes with it -- the work, the training. I think that's the attitude you have to have."
The Giants were as creative with Beckham last season as they've ever been with a player, and that's not likely to change. Opponents "can plan for him," Ryan said. "But they have to find him first."
So what will Beckham do for an encore?
"I hope we're hoisting up that trophy," he said, eyeing the Lombardi Trophy banners hanging in the Giants' field house. "That's what I look at every day. That's really the biggest thing ever. The biggest thing on my mind is to get to a Super Bowl, and to win a Super Bowl."
Few outsiders will expect anything close to that from these Giants; for starters, Coughlin and company would be happy to have a healthy Beckham on the field for the Sunday night season opener on Sept. 13 in Dallas.
Of course, Beckham is already part of NBC's "Sunday Night Football" opening sequence. In June, he was invited to shoot a personal intro: In full uniform but no helmet, Beckham runs onstage, catches a football and tosses it into the air. And then he dances.
Kimberly Jones is a reporter for NFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @kimjonessports.