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More Than a Big Stick

Feb. 12, 2007
Feb. 12, 2007

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Feb. 12, 2007

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More Than a Big Stick

A smash hit in October in his postseason debut, Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado is a man whose deep-rooted convictions, like his power stroke, were forged when he was a boy in Puerto Rico

How long does ittake to drive from San Juan to Aguadilla? Ninety minutes? Two hours tops?Carlos Delgado has driven that route countless times: 22 west to Arecibo andthe 2 along the coast, then right on 107, past the Church's Fried Chickens andBurger Kings and Taco Makers to the little cul de sac with the three-bedroom,orange stucco home in which he grew up, sharing a room with his youngerbrother, Yasser. On a weekday morning, with no traffic, the guy should havegotten to Aguadilla by now.

Instead he is telling Delgado--again--that he is on the road, but thetraffic... Dios mío. That's the same story he told an hour ago. Delgado sighs,hangs upand says out loud, but more to himself, "He's coming, he's coming,he's coming. That's all he says."

This is an article from the Feb. 12, 2007 issue Original Layout

This is a specialday--actually, Delgado will tell you that all his days are special, but today,he explains, is "especially special." He is going to surprise hismother, Carmen, with a new car: a silver Acura SUV with a big red bow on topthat she will not be able turn down because there it will be, on the road infront of her house. Carmen, a former medical technician, won't be able to lookat it and say, "No, it's too big for me and Papi," as she did a fewyears ago when he offered her a new mansion a few miles from the modest housewhere she raised her family.

The dealer, who'sdriving the vehicle over from San Juan himself, says the roads are jammed, butwho knows when he really set out? The important thing is that it's now latemorning and the car has still not arrived. "I myself, I am always ontime," says the New York Mets first baseman, a rare trait amongprofessional athletes. If he says he will call you at 9 a.m. or pick you up at9:30, then he will. If you miss his call or are late for a meeting, then hemight not give you another chance. His life seems to be governed by simplerules, and he expects nothing more from those around him than he expects ofhimself.

Delgado shuts hiscellphone, steps out of his pickup truck and climbs the stairs to the gym tobegin his morning workout. The middle-aged women in various shades and stylesof spandex in the Body Work fitness center carefully study him as he goesthrough his routines of pull-downs and chest presses on various machines,sipping from their water bottles as they comment to each other on what Carlosis doing today. Tomorrow, Carlos knows, they will be doing their own version ofwhat he is doing now, for they have taken to imitating the fitness routine ofAguadilla's most famous resident, in the belief that what is good for apower-hitting first baseman must also be good for a fortysomething housewife.Judith, a woman in tan sweats and a white T-shirt, comes over to show himseveral yards of rubber tubing that she has acquired to emulate the resistancetraining that he was doing a few weeks ago. Delgado just smiles and nods.

Judith retreats toa mat where she proceeds to entangle herself in the tubing, looking hopefullytoward Delgado, who smiles but stolidly continues working the cable crossovermachine. He is gingerly rehabbing from Oct. 30 surgery to repair a torn tendonin his left arm. The Mets report to Port St. Lucie, Fla., for spring trainingin a few weeks.

Delgado is rareamong modern sluggers in that he eschews extensive weight training in favor oflight cardio and just a few off-season at bats. (He hasn't played winter ballin Puerto Rico since 1998.) "I'm not a gym rat," he says. "I dojust enough so that I can perform for eight months. The working out, it's alittle boring, but it's what everyone is into now." He says he does 25off-season sessions of swinging the bat, either soft-toss or against a pitchingmachine, only because he hears that's what other guys are doing, "I wish Ihad the balls not to hit until February," he laughs. "You want to findyour swing in March, so when the season starts, you're just getting therhythm."

He feels that lastseason, his first as a Met, he never did quite find that rhythm. Still, despitea May-June slump, during which, he says, "I couldn't hit water if I waspushed out of a boat," Delgado finished with 38 home runs and 114 RBIs,helping to lead New York to 97 wins and a National League East title beforeturning in a monstrous postseason debut: a .351 batting average with fourhomers and 11 RBIs in 10 games against the Dodgers and the Cardinals. Battingcleanup, he has proved to be a steadying influence in a lineup that for thefirst time in 20 years has almost as much pop as the crosstown-rivalYankees'--and maybe more popularity. "He was everything and more," Metsmanager Willie Randolph says of Delgado. "You know this guy is a greatplayer, but he is also the most cerebral and thoughtful player I've ever beenaround. And he shares that knowledge to make his teammates better."

Delgado's careernumbers--407 homers and 1,287 RBIs at age 34--have him on pace for Cooperstown.Yet his teammates say he provides more than just a big lefthanded bat thatforces teams to pitch to switch-hitting centerfielder Carlos Beltran, whoseoffensive numbers with Delgado hitting behind him improved considerably fromthe previous season. Delgado has also proved to be the missing ingredient inthe Mets' multicultural stew. "From the beginning, in Toronto," saysShawn Green, a longtime friend and current teammate who spent seven years withDelgado as a Blue Jay, "he was always really unique in that he pullseveryone's respect, the Latin players', the American players'. He's someone whowill go out to dinner with anyone, no matter what race. A lot of teams don'thave that unifying presence."

Beltran, who hailsfrom Manatí, 50 miles east of Aguadilla, agrees: "No one doesn't listen toCarlos. When he's slumping, he doesn't let it show. He's still the same smartguy who will always help you."

Delgado takes abreak from his workout, cracking open a bottle of water. His Under ArmourT-shirt and shorts hang from him like tarps over a battleship--you can sensethe muscle and menace beneath, but all you can see are gentle curves andexpanses of fabric. He is large but so well-proportioned that you only noticehis size when you are next to him. That is why, when viewed on television orfrom the stands, he doesn't seem as immense as some of his slugging peers,whose bulging chests and hypertrophic forearms make them seem like a differentspecies. But up close Delgado seems a bona fide 6'3", 240 pounds, mostlybecause of the broad smile, his one feature that could belong to a much largerman. It starts slowly, a parting of lips to reveal blinding white teeth, andthen radiates out from his mouth, through goatee and mustache, up past his noseand cheeks to the eyes and then even past the eyes to those muscles over thebridge of his nose and his forehead. The result is as unambiguous as one ofthese: (:.

He deploys thatsmile often, always to great effect, and down here in Puerto Rico, in his hometown of Aguadilla, he goes through entire days in a state of such easygoinghappiness that, when he picks up the phone and calls the car dealer after hisworkout and finds out the car's arrival time is still up in the air, the waningof that smile is like a momentary eclipse. The ladies wrapped up in theirrubber tubing, the older gents on their excercycles, the young menbench-pressing, they don't know why it seems darker. But it does.

Carlos, the secondoldest of four siblings and the oldest son, has always been smart, his mothersays. He was an A student, a jock for whom quadratic equations came almost aseasily as hitting righthanded pitching. He showed enough athletic promise as asix-year-old that his father, Carlos A. Delgado (the son is Carlos Juan),decided to convert the natural righthander into a lefty batter, having deducedthat the game's greatest hitters were lefties. "Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, TyCobb," says Carlos A., a former social worker and drug and alcoholcounselor. "If your right hand is your power hand and the front hand iswhat you use to drive the ball, it makes sense to bat lefthanded." Theyounger Carlos still eats, writes and throws righthanded and, in his dreams, hestill hits righthanded. "I wanted him to be a switch-hitter," hisfather says with a laugh. "That didn't work out."

Still, the familydidn't have high hopes for young Carlos as a baseball player. His sisters,Tamara and Tania, called him Gordito (fat boy). Yasser, two years Carlos'sjunior, was considered the more promising athlete. Taller and more slender,Yasser every year won the Race of the Turkey, a five-kilometer footrace heldeach December in Aguadilla, with the winner in each age group receiving a freebird. Through his years at Dr. Agustín Stahl Middle School and Jose De DiegoHigh, Carlos impressed his parents more with his commitment and focus--tosports as well as academics--than with any natural athletic ability. "Hewas always so organized, disciplined," says Carmen. "He was like anadult. He would go to practice every day. He would do his homework by himself.He was happy to do the work to become better. His brother, he never liked topractice."

"If you'relike me," Carlos explains, "not naturally an extraordinary athlete,then the mental side of everything becomes more important."

That part of thegame--knowing what to expect in every situation, the tendencies of the pitcher,how he has worked each hitter--was the part of baseball that came most easilyto Delgado. (And still does; his famous "book," volumes of graph paperwith elaborate markings tracking every pitch of every at bat since 1994, is alegendary repository of information that he will share only with teammates.) Heand his father would practice at a park next door to a chicken restaurant inAguadilla. When he was 11, Carlos, already the best player on his Little Leagueteam, switched from aluminum to wood bats. His father quickly noticed that,despite the change, there didn't seem to be any drop-off in power. In factCarlos was soon hitting the chicken restaurant's tin roof more than 300 feetaway; no other kid had come close. "That's when I knew he had afuture," recalls Carlos A.

Father and sonsoon outgrew the local park and began taking a sack of balls and bats todowntown Aguadilla's Parque Colón, a vast, brick stadium with the kind ofdimensions that can make a lefthanded hitter swear off pulling forever: 396feet down the rightfield line, 421 to right-center. The Delgados made anagreement: Each ball that the son hit to rightfield, he had to collect. Thefather would fetch those that went to left. The boy learned to go the oppositeway. And then, just when the 14-year-old catcher seemed to be making progressas a baseball player, he quit--to play volleyball.

"I askedhim," says the father, "how many professional volleyball players canyou name? Never mind how many professional volleyball players are from PuertoRico."

Young Carlosdidn't care. He was going through a rapid growth spurt and found spiking andsetting preferable to hitting and catching. "My body was changing, and Iwas becoming more athletic," he says. "I was becomingfaster--relatively speaking--and a better leaper. And come on, volleyball isfun. I love it."

He would comearound to his father's way of thinking a few months later, however, returningto baseball in time for the regular season of his local club team, theTiburones. But now he found that his eye-hand coordination had caught up withhis new physique, and he felt more comfortable on the diamond than ever before."He had become stronger," says his father. "He was so much betterat making steady contact. He was no longer Gordito."

The Toronto BlueJays agreed, signing Delgado a year later as a 16-year-old catcher andassigning him to Class A St. Catharines (Ont.). "When you're 16, living inanother country on $800 a month before taxes, you grow up pretty fast," hesays. "You learn to cook, to do your own laundry. You also learn very fastwhat you believe in, what matters to you and what kind of man you're going tobe. That's the thing I get from my father, that you have to do what you thinkis right."

Carlos's father,62, wears his plaid shirts open to his navel, revealing a thick gold chain witha ship's wheel medallion. Even seated at his dining room table, drinking icewater in a tall plastic glass, his deep, phlegmy breathing and thumping gulpssuggest massive power only now waning. He talks in a low, melodious voice abouthis own athletic career, five years as a small forward for the semiproPonce-Quebradillas basketball team. Then he becomes more serious, pausing,taking a long breath and saying that if there is one thing he is proud of, itis that his son has the courage to speak his mind. "In this family," hesays, "we say what we think."

"I am asocialist," he adds. "I am anticapitalist. I am militantlypro-independence for Puerto Rico." He sits beneath a Puerto Rican flag anda framed photo of Ramón Betances, the father of the Puerto Rican independencemovement. On the lowboy there is a bust of another Puerto Rican hero: RobertoClemente. The father is like a rough-hewn prototype of the son; he went to jailfor his beliefs during the Vietnam War, protesting what he calls the U.S.occupation of Puerto Rico and demonstrating on behalf of friends who wereconscripted to serve in the U.S. military. The desire to gain full nationhoodfor the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains a central issue in the Delgadofamily, and the son learned to view the world through that lens. He knows thatAmerica sometimes says one thing (that it is a democracy, for example) but doesanother (granting Puerto Rico no voting representation in Congress, even thoughthe U.S. controls so much of the island's affairs.)

The son, while heechoes the father's opinions, has a smoother-edged personality. With his bettercommand of the English language, he's a more soft-spoken critic, but hepossesses that same fierce determination to speak truth to power. That is whatcompelled Delgado to become an activist, raising money and spending off-seasontime helping to clean up the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, used for decadesby the U.S. Navy as a bombing-practice target, with tragic consequences for theinhabitants and the environment.

Delgado says thathis refusal to stand for the singing of God Bless America in 2004 and '05 toprotest the Iraq War was simply a logical extension of the values that he andhis family have long held. "I think it's the stupidest war ever," hesaid in The Toronto Star in '04. "Who are you fighting against? You're justgetting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than duringthe war. You've been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are theyat? You've been looking for over a year. Can't find them. I don't support that.I don't support what they do." He had stood for the singing of God BlessAmerica immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but threeyears later he felt that the song had come to stand for support of the U.S.invasion of Iraq rather than a tribute to those who fell on 9/11. He didn'tmake any public statement; he simply went to the clubhouse during the songwhile his teammates stood in the dugout. (Much less publicized is that Delgadowas one of the first baseball player to support a 9/11 charity, giving $100,000to a fund that supports widows and children of New York City firefighters.) TheToronto Star article appeared a few days before the Blue Jays played a seriesat Yankee Stadium, provoking the predictable booing and chants of"U-S-A!" when Delgado--a U.S. citizen, of course--came to bat. Hebecame a regular sports-radio villain and the whipping boy for those who arguethat politics has no place in sports.

"As soon as weheard about it," his mother says, "I knew he would cause controversy. Isaid, 'Now they boo. In a few years, they will agree with him.'"

"Nothing aboutthe way I feel has changed," says Delgado, who nevertheless abided by teampolicy last season and stood with the rest of the Mets for the singing of GodBless America on Sundays and holidays. "You watch the news and see what'shappening. What are they accomplishing? People say I'm very political. I'm not.I hate politics. I believe in peace, that's all."

Green, who joinedthe Mets last August, says that Delgado does not assert his political views inteam settings. "We talk every week or so in the off-season," Greensays. "We haven't really gotten into too many in-depth conversations aboutpolitics. He has his views, but he is not the type to push them on you. He'sone of the smartest ballplayers I've known. Scratch that, he's one of thesmartest human beings I've ever met."

Mets generalmanager Omar Minaya says that Delgado's strong convictions actually made himmore attractive as a player. Minaya initially tried to sign Delgado as a freeagent before the 2005 season, flying to San Juan with special assistant TonyBernazard to pursue him. According to reports at the time, Delgado turned downthe Mets because he felt he was being patronized by a team that was trying tocorner the Latin free-agent market. (Minaya had just signed Beltran andDominican Pedro Martinez.) But Minaya and Delgado insist that was not an issue."The Marlins looked like they had a better pitching staff in 2005,"says Delgado, who signed a four-year, $52 million contract with Florida."They had good young arms--[Dontrelle] Willis, [Josh] Beckett, [A.J.]Burnett. I thought they had the best chance of winning."

When Delgadobecame available last off-season as the Marlins looked to cut their payroll,Minaya moved quickly, trading three prospects to acquire the cleanup hitter heneeded, despite the potential for controversy. "I never hesitated for asecond," says Minaya. "New York City has room for these kinds ofopinions. In an age when athletes don't stand up for anything, he will stand upfor what he believes in. It shows backbone. He's not only a good player, he's agreat person."

Delgado, for hispart, says that playing in New York was always an ambition of his. "Comingto New York has been one of the best things to happen to me," he says,"both because of this team and my family." His younger sister, Tamara,a former school teacher in the Bronx, lives in the city, and his parents visitfor long stretches during the season.

Off the diamondDelgado has done much more than just speak his mind. His efforts on behalf ofPuerto Rican youth--raising money, delivering gifts to hospitalized childrenand sponsoring youth sports through his Extra Bases foundation--earned himbaseball's Roberto Clemente Award last year as the player who best exemplifieshumanitarianism and sportsmanship.

"There's asaying," Delgado says. "It goes, 'God, grant me the serenity, to acceptthe things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and thewisdom to know the difference.' Well, I do what I can do."

This is the housethat Delgado had intended to give to his parents: a modern, yellow stucco,single-level with white trim on a lush half acre studded with oak, ficus andmango trees. He is sitting on a wicker sofa, on a patio facing the backyardwhere he plans to install batting cages and pitching machines. It is one of adozen properties he owns in Puerto Rico; he also just purchased a five-bedroomcolonial in Greenwich, Conn. (He lived last season in an apartment onManhattan's Upper East Side.) When he is told that he is becoming a capitalist,he laughs and says, "Please, no, don't say that. Don't tell my father."His wife, Betzaida, a civil engineer whom he met seven years ago at a Christmasparty, is in a service room off the garage, putting some clothes in the dryer.She is seven months pregnant with their first child, and just yesterdayunderwent a sonogram. She comes out to the patio to tell Carlos that she isplanning to drive to his parents' house to show them the images of theirgrandson. When he speaks to her, it is with a steady stream of "miamors" and "corazóns."

Sprinklers turn onwith a sputter in the yard as Carlos tries to reach the dealer, who must, bynow, be approaching Aguadilla. No luck. On the glass-topped table is a copy ofDavid Maraniss's biography of Clemente. Delgado says he reads mostlybiographies, a little history and some self-help books. "With fiction, Ionly read the good stuff," he says. "Gabriel García Màrquez, PauloCoehlo."

Finally, hereaches the car dealer, who is pleased to inform him that he has fought throughthe traffic and will be arriving at Delgado's parents' house in a few minutes.Carlos stands up and says, "Now, let's go to surprise my mother."

Pantheon ofPower

FOR NEARLY adecade Carlos Delgado has quietly been one of baseball's most consistentlyproductive power hitters. He enters 2007 riding a streak of nine consecutiveseasons with an OPS (sum of on-base and slugging percentages) of at least .900.Only seven players in history have fashioned longer runs (minimum 500 plateappearances per year), including Manny Ramirez (left) who has the longestactive streak.

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PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (RAMIREZ)PHOTOBOB LEVEY/WIREIMAGE.COMGLOVESTORY
Delgado may have had his best year in the field in 2006, committing just eighterrors in 141 games at first base.
PHOTOSIMON BRUTYHOMETEAM
Carlos and Betzaida have been together for seven years, and their first childis due right around Opening Day.