Better than you remember: Carlos Delgado

May 25th, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Career: TOR 1993-2004, FLA 2005, NYM 2006-09
Accolades: All-Star 2000, 2003; Silver Slugger 1999-2000, 2003

While watching the final episodes of “The Last Dance” this past weekend, and being blown away once again at the eloquence, intelligence and social conscience of then-Chicago Bulls guard and now-Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, I wondered: Who is baseball’s Steve Kerr? Who is a similar man from the world of baseball who came from an educated, socially conscious background, was eager to speak about the issues of the day, who used his athletic platform to attempt to confront injustice and make the world a better place?

My mind went immediately to Carlos Delgado. But then I realized how unfair that was: Carlos Delgado was a much better baseball player than Steve Kerr was a basketball player.

Carlos Delgado was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, a place where Christopher Columbus landed, about two hours west of San Juan. His parents were well off for Aguadilla; his mother worked in a medical laboratory, and his father was a drug and alcohol counselor. He, like many Puerto Ricans, grew up idolizing Roberto Clemente, who died the year Delgado was born; later in life, Delgado would say, “People thought he was a good player, but the stuff he did off the field goes beyond the 3,000 hits, the Hall of Fame.”

Delgado’s parents wanted more than anything for him to get a college education, but they could not deny what was obvious to everyone else: Their son, who was already 100 pounds at the age of six, had been graced with athletic gifts the likes of which most of the people they knew had never seen before. At the age of 16, Delgado was scouted by several big league teams, but the Blue Jays won over the Delgado family with a promise that Delgado’s college would be paid for, whether he made the Majors or not.

Delgado started out his career as a catcher, actually, but unlike a lot of other sluggers who evolved out of the position (Bryce Harper, for example), he actually played it in the big leagues. Well, he did it twice: He caught one game, three innings, for the 1993 Blue Jays -- it got him his one World Series ring, though he only had two plate appearances that year -- and one more game for the 1994 team. If anything, the insistence that Delgado be a catcher cost him time in the big leagues; the Blue Jays were committed to Pat Borders, keeping Delgado in the Minors. He still struggled in 1994, mostly because he was ineffective against left-handers, a conundrum he would eventually solve. But injuries kept slowing him down, and when he was sent back down to Triple-A Syracuse in June 1995 after more struggles, the Blue Jays eventually decided Delgado wasn’t quite coming along enough as a catcher and put him in left field, where he was even worse.

The bat was so impressive that first base would suffice just fine, anyway, and in 1996, now fully a first baseman and designated hitter, he began to resemble the Delgado we all knew. By 1998, he was firmly established as one of the best hitters in baseball, hitting 38 homers that year, then 44 the year after and 41 after that. (Delgado would actually hit at least 30 homers for 10 consecutive seasons.) He also had a terrific batting eye, even notching a .470 OBP in 2000, the best year of his career, a season in which he also played in 162 games, having defeated that injury bug at last. Delgado arrived just as the Blue Jays themselves were falling back from their two-World Series peak, and he would never once reach the postseason with the team. In 2003, he joined Rocky Colavito as one of just two players to go 4-for-4 with four homers in a single game.

He was, in addition to his talents, beginning to establish a reputation as someone with an eye for the world outside of baseball. He had spoken up on the damage a Navy base had caused to his native Puerto Rico, and while he admitted that he didn’t always feel comfortable speaking out, he said, “Sometimes you’ve just got to break the mold. You’ve got to push it a little bit or else you can’t get anything done.” Delgado was hardly brash in his stances; his statements were often quiet and noticed only if you were paying close attention. He had not been coming out of the dugout for “God Bless America” for several years before a reporter noticed. When asked, he admitted it was because of his opposition to the Iraq war. History would catch up with Delgado on that one.

In 2005, Delgado, after a tough injury year in 2004 in Toronto, reached free agency and signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Florida Marlins. It should have been perfect: A Spanish-speaking town, an up-and-coming team, a lineup spot behind Juan Pierre and in front of Miguel Cabrera. But despite a terrific season by Delgado, the Marlins struggled in 2005 and immediately reversed course, trading him to the New York Mets. Infamously, the Mets' brass asked him to tone down any political rhetoric -- Delgado said he was merely “Employee Number 15” in his introductory press conference, though manager Willie Randolph said, “I’d rather have a man who’s going to stand up and say what he believes” -- and Delgado became a centerpiece for a 2006 Mets team that won the National League East and came that close to reaching the World Series. Delgado had 38 homers and received MVP votes, and the Mets looked for all the world to be a burgeoning NL East dynasty. He also won the Roberto Clemente Award that year, perhaps the most fitting honor imaginable.

As you may remember, it did not turn out that way: The Mets kept having tragic endings to each season, falling short in the cruelest of ways. Delgado did his part, hitting 38 homers in his final full season in 2008, but those Mets teams would have dragged down anyone. By 2009, Delgado’s body was beginning to break down. A hip injury ended his season 26 games in, and eventually the Mets shut him down, just 27 homers short of 500. He rehabbed his injury, hoping to reach the milestone the next season, but he reinjured the hip playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, and then again with the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2010. Just two years earlier, he was the centerpiece of a contending Mets team. Then his career was over.

One wonders if Delgado would have done better in his first year of Hall of Fame voting -- he received just 3.7% of the vote, falling off the ballot, inspiring baseball writer Jayson Stark to say he was one of the best hitters in baseball history to have only one year on the ballot -- had he reached that 500-homer plateau. Instead: He was just a great player who never quite became transcendent. He has many neighbors in history, in that regard.

But being out of baseball hardly hushed Delgado’s voice. He was more than just a public advocate for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria; he was an active participant in relief efforts, working alongside Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and others in the wake of the hurricane’s devastation. His Extra Bases charity is one of the most prominent in all of baseball and Puerto Rico. And he still extols the virtues of speaking out when one sees injustice. “I think it is important that athletes who have this platform, where they can reach millions of people, they should use it," Delgado said. "If your principles indicate that you want to do something or must do it, you should act, whether you act alone or with others. … I say God bless America. God bless Miami, God bless Puerto Rico and all countries until there is peace in the world."

It is worth noting that Delgado honored his parents and their guidance in one final way. After his retirement, he entered college at the University of Sacred Heart in Puerto Rico, at the age of 45.