April 13, 2011
Carlos Delgado(notes) announced his retirement today, just 27 homers short of 500 but almost two years after his last major league game. It was somehow a fitting end for a talented first baseman who was nearly always overshadowed by others. Due to a series of injuries, the 38-year-old hadn't played a game in the majors since May of 2009. Since then, his only action consisted of five minor league games with the Pawtucket Sox in Aug. 2010. (He went 3-for-13.)
Announcing the news in his native Puerto Rico, Delgado had a very elegant way of describing the pain of his decision to retire:
"There comes a moment when you have to have the dignity and the sense to recognize that something is not functioning. You can't swim against the current ... And this coming from a man who had nine operations. It is a sad moment as a human being and athlete that some of your abilities aren't what they once were."
With 473 homers, 1,512 RBIs, and a career line of .280/.383/.546, Delgado was one of the best players ever to make only two All-Star teams, standing alongside Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven and Chuck Klein, and fine players like Joe Adcock, Hank Sauer, and Dizzy Trout. (Babe Ruth only made two All-Star teams, too, but the first All-Star Game occurred when he was 38.) The turn of the century, otherwise known as the Steroid Era, featured an embarrassment of riches at first base, and Delgado had a tough time cracking the rosters of teams filled with first basemen like Albert Pujols(notes), Derrek Lee(notes), Lance Berkman(notes), Ryan Howard(notes), Prince Fielder(notes), Adrian Gonzalez(notes), Jason Giambi(notes), Jim Thome(notes), Rafael Palmeiro, Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Tino Martinez, John Olerud, Fred McGriff, Mike Sweeney(notes), Tony Clark(notes), Paul Konerko(notes) — and even Ron Coomer, Ken Harvey, Dmitri Young(notes), and an aging Nomar Garciaparra(notes).
But Delgado hit 30 homers for 10 seasons in a row from 1997 to 2006, and he hit at least 24 homers in each of the 13 full seasons he played, each year from 1996 to 2008. Until injuries forced his retirement, he was a model of consistency for each of those seasons, starting all 162 games in 2000 and 2001 and averaging 148 games played a year, with 35 homers and 112 RBI.
Unfortunately, we've become so desensitized to the inflated stats of the era that it's hard to know how to process Delgado's results. SI's Tom Verducci called him "the lost slugger of the Steroid Era" and asked whether he'd ever considered taking steroids.
"Not one time," he replied. "Health, No. 1. And No. 2, it's cheating."
Of course, a lot of players denied taking steroids and were later proven to have lied —Rafael Palmeiro most memorably — but Delgado's denial shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. In all events, Delgado attributed his relative lack of stature in his prime to having played most of his career in Toronto, outside the U.S. media market, rather than blaming the impact of steroids. Still, if his denial is the truth, then he may indeed have faced an uneven playing field. Verducci points out that he finished second in the MVP vote in 2003 to Alex Rodriguez(notes), who admitted using steroids, and Delgado only started one All-Star Game while admitted steroid user Jason Giambi started three. If Delgado never used steroids, as Verducci clearly believes, he may have gotten robbed.
But in 2004, Delgado became known as much for his politics as for his booming home runs. While playing for the Toronto Blue Jays, Delgado remained in the dugout during seventh inning performances of "God Bless America" as a silent protest of the Iraq War. A Puerto Rican native, he had also previously objected to the U.S. military's use of the island of Vieques for military exercises, and in 2001 he signed his name to protest advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post, along with Ricky Martin, Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez(notes), and Juan Gonzalez, as Dave Zirin recounts. The exercises ended two years later. In 2004, Delgado's protest went unnoticed until he explained his reasons to the Toronto Star.
"It's a very terrible thing that happened on Sept. 11. It's (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it's the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now after the war than during the war."
Delgado got booed in the Bronx after that, and was held up as a hero by other anti-war voices, but he had no wish to become a political firebrand, and his protest later ended as quietly as it had started.
Upon his retirement, he was gifted a rocking chair that was engraved to say "Puerto Rican Home Run King," which he is — he is also the all-time Puerto Rican leader in runs batted in, walks, strikeouts, and OPS. In addition to being the greatest hitter in the history of the Blue Jays, he was perhaps the seventh-best Puerto Rican player of all time, behind Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Orlando Cepeda, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada(notes), and the greatest of them all, Roberto Clemente. And he was probably the island's second-best first baseman, behind only Cepeda. Alomar, Clemente and Cepeda are Puerto Rico's only three Hall of Famers, and though Delgado is unlikely to add to their number, he is a giant among his countrymen.
The Toronto Blue Jays haven't had many superstars, either. Just this January, they got their first Hall of Famer, Roberto Alomar. Prior to Alomar, their greatest players were forgotten giants like Dave Stieb and Tony Fernandez. Moreover, the Jays' 1992-93 championship teams featured a number of players who are now either better-remembered or just as well-known for success with other clubs: Alomar, Olerud, Paul Molitor, Jack Morris, Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, David Cone, Jimmy Key, and even youngsters like Shawn Green and Jeff Kent. But Delgado spent 12 seasons with the team, as many as Roy Halladay(notes), the other chief nominee for greatest Blue Jay ever.
Unfortunately, Delgado was too young to make the postseason roster in 1993, the year of his first cup of coffee, and so he never made the playoffs as a Blue Jay. (His only playoff appearance came with the 2006 Mets and he absolutely murdered the ball, hitting .351/.442/.757 with four homers in 37 at-bats in the LDS and LCS. He was so devastating in the NLCS against St. Louis that the Cardinals walked him during each of his first three appearances at the plate during Game 7. )
No Blue Jay was ever more beloved than Carlos Delgado — maybe not even Doc Halladay. Magpie at battersbox.ca wrote: "Arguably the greatest Blue Jay of them all has called it a career... An easy man to admire, a great player in his prime, and I will miss him." My friend Ian Gray, the biggest Jays fan I know, put it more simply:
I guess my thoughts are that Delgado was the best hitter the Jays ever had, that he was a wonderful ambassador for the team in some very lean years — he has, as you know, a truly phenomenal smile — and that I, as a left-winger, appreciated his open liberalism. I regret that we never got him back after he left in 2004, and I really wish he'd won a Series.
Indeed, he truly did have a gorgeous smile, to go with intelligence, grace, and a hell of a sweet swing. The Hall of the Very Good just gained another very good ballplayer.