The most blissful smile in sports since Magic Johnson's belongs
to Carlos Delgado, the Toronto Blue Jays first baseman who hits
like a bouncer but schmoozes like a maitre d'. At home and on
the road, Delgado carries on conversations with fans on his way
to the on-deck circle. His idea of infield chatter is yapping
with base runners, umpires, coaches and fans seated near first
base, all while flashing a grin that cranks out nearly as much
wattage as the Hoover Dam. Both because he has the power of
Willie McCovey and the game face of Wink Martindale, Delgado is
fun to watch.
"If you can't smile and have fun, you're in trouble," Delgado
says. "So if somebody in the stands says hello, I'm going to say
hello back. Why shouldn't I? I know what I'm doing in this game.
I'm still going to be ready to hit when I step into the box."
"I remember him when he was 16 years old and he was a catcher
invited to our spring training camp," says former Toronto pitcher
John Cerutti, who's a Blue Jays broadcaster. "He always had a
smile on his face. Whenever anybody wanted to do extra work and
throw on the side, Carlos would jump up and say, 'I'll catch
you.' He hasn't changed a bit."
Actually, at 28, Delgado has evolved into a rarity among baseball
players. He's not only a $12 million-a-year man who owns just one
car ("You can only drive one at a time anyway, right?" he says of
his BMW 750) but also a childless bachelor who loves to help
kids, a slugger who doesn't lift weights during the season and an
aficionado of food, cigars and musicals. What separates Delgado
from every other hitter this season is that he has a shot at
winning the Triple Crown. No player has been so coronated since
Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967.
Through Sunday, Delgado had continued his ascent as a premier
power hitter, with 36 home runs (two behind American League
leader Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox) and 112 RBIs (eight
fewer than leader Edgar Martinez of the Seattle Mariners). More
surprising is that the lefthanded-hitting Delgado, a career .267
batter entering this year, was hitting .360 (within reach of the
.374 of leader Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox).
Delgado smiled, naturally, when asked last Saturday if he could
win the Triple Crown. "That's the easiest question to answer," he
said. "I don't even think about it. Why? Because it's not in my
control. If Frank keeps hitting home runs, I'm fried. Or if Nomar
gets a hit every time up, I'm fried. Nothing I can do about it."
Delgado's numbers in less glamorous categories were equally
eye-popping. He was on pace to collect 107 extra-base hits. (Only
Babe Ruth, with 119 in 1921, and Lou Gehrig, with 117 in '27, had
more.) He was also on track to become the fourth player since '59
to amass 400 total bases and only the sixth in that same span to
finish with a slugging percentage better than .700. "He has Bugs
Bunny numbers--like from a cartoon," Toronto reliever Billy Koch
says. "What he's done already makes for a great season, and we
still have five weeks to go. I'm not surprised anymore by what he
can do. They could throw a pitch into the righthanded batter's
box on an intentional walk, and he could hit it out the other
Delgado's stats put him among the front-runners for the American
League MVP award, especially if he can keep the Blue Jays in the
thick of a wild-card race that's tighter than a game of Twister.
Through Sunday they were only 3 1/2 games out of the playoff spot,
with four teams in front of them. Delgado's production will also
add to his leverage this winter. As part of the three-year, $36
million contract he signed last year, Delgado has the right to
demand a trade within 15 days after the World Series this season.
"That's another easy question," he says when pressed about his
plans. "Now isn't the time to think about it. That's something
for after the season."
In 1998, then Toronto manager Tim Johnson named Delgado the Blue
Jays' captain, an extraordinary honor for a player who had yet to
turn 26 or play 400 games in the big leagues. However, since Jim
Fregosi replaced Johnson the following spring, the Blue Jays no
longer make any official reference to the captaincy. Says Toronto
catcher Darrin Fletcher, "He's our captain, but he doesn't need
that title. Just by the way he carries himself, we all know who
butters our bread. He could win the Triple Crown, but I'll tell
you my favorite thing about Carlos: He's the most down-to-earth
superstar there is. This game can be a grind, but he never
complains. If your son wanted a role model who was a real good
guy besides being a real good player, Carlos is the guy. He
should be one of the poster boys for the game."
In a way, he is. Cerutti, who assists Major League Baseball as a
counselor at its rookie orientation every January, uses Delgado
as a role model for how to handle fame, money and media
attention. Delgado grew up in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, where he
still lives in the off-season. His father and namesake is a
retired drug and alcohol counselor. His mother, Carmen, works as
a medical laboratory assistant. "They always stressed the
importance of education," Delgado says.
Toronto signed Carlos as a nondrafted free agent on Oct. 9, 1988,
when he was 16 and beginning his senior year of high school. (He
graduated on time the next June.) He got a $90,000 signing bonus
and, in accordance with his parents' request, a promise that the
Blue Jays would pay for his college education if he pursued a
degree later. "I didn't go out and buy anything; I invested all
of it," says Delgado, who tracks his expanded portfolio almost
daily with his laptop.
Toronto figured it had a future star. Soon after Delgado was
signed, general manager Pat Gillick was telling people that
Delgado would have more power than Blue Jays first baseman Fred
McGriff, who hit 34 home runs that year. "The guy has a great
makeup," Gillick, now the Mariners' general manager, says of
Delgado. "A lot of guys come from dysfunctional families. He
comes from a very solid background. His mother and father really
support him. He has a good work ethic, and he has fun playing the
Delgado rose steadily through the Toronto farm system before
making the Blue Jays as a catcher in 1994. He blasted a
major-league-high eight home runs in Toronto's first 14 games
that year but hit only one more before he was returned to the
minors with a .215 average on June 10. "I learned the hard way,"
Delgado says. "When I started hitting home runs, I thought, I can
hit these pitches. Then I started thinking, If I can do this, I
can hit the pitch four inches outside or four inches up. I
expanded the zone and got myself out. Pitchers are smart. If they
find out they don't have to throw strikes, they won't."
Delgado had nearly another full year of seasoning at Triple A
Syracuse, and his major league home run production since 1996
reveals his steady improvement: 25, 30, 38, 44 and, if he
maintains his pace this year, 47. He has also grown into a 6'3",
238-pound slugger who wields one of baseball's biggest bats (35
inches, 34 ounces) with a ferocity that must be heard to be
believed. "The ball explodes off his bat," says New York Yankees
righthander Roger Clemens, a former teammate. "It sounds louder
off his bat than anybody else's."
"There's a certain crispness to the sound of the ball coming off
his bat that only a few players have," says Minnesota Twins bench
coach Paul Molitor. "It's because he's so strong. What you're
seeing this year is that he's using the whole field. For him,
that means he's hitting the ball over the leftfield wall as
easily as he does over the right."
So far this year Delgado had hit 12 home runs to the left of
centerfield, one fewer than he stroked last season and more than
double his five opposite-field homers in 1998. Still, he remains
primarily a pull hitter. The Twins, for instance, employed a
shift against Delgado last weekend in which all their fielders
moved progressively toward the rightfield line with every ball
that put the count more in his favor. However, Delgado has also
shown remarkable improvement in his pitch selection. For the
first time in his career he was walking (95 times, second in the
league) more than he was striking out (82). He still knows when
to be aggressive, as evidenced by his 21 hits on the 40 occasions
(.525) he had put the first pitch into play, and by a league-best
.404 with runners in scoring position.
"He's always been able to hit the ball to all fields," says Los
Angeles Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green, a former teammate who
talks regularly with Delgado. "He's gotten to the point where he
doesn't try to yank everything. Now if he needs to hit a home
run, he's not trying to hook one, causing him to roll over [his
wrists] and ground to second. He might try to take the ball deep
to center or left, depending on the pitch. He'll take what the
pitcher gives him, and that's something he taught me."
"They're pitching me different from last year," Delgado says.
"Cutters in, breaking balls away, not much to hit. I've learned
if they want to walk you, let them walk you. I'm not a gifted
hitter. I have a younger brother who's 10 times better than me.
He just doesn't have the dedication. I'm not a natural. I've had
to work at it."
Delgado takes extra batting practice every day, rides a
stationary bike before and after games and logs notes in a green
marbled composition book on every pitcher he faces. "And he
takes extra fielding practice every day," Toronto manager Jim
Fregosi says of Delgado, who had made a league-high 10 errors at
first base this year. "That's what I find so impressive about
him. He wants to be a complete player."
Delgado's quest to become a competent defensive player has taken
him through several position switches. The Blue Jays moved him
from catcher to leftfield in 1994 because of his deficiencies
behind the plate, and to first base a year later after he
struggled in the outfield. Toronto employed him primarily as a DH
in '96 before moving him back to first base the next season.
Delgado won a game on Aug. 16 against the Anaheim Angels with a
walk-off home run on a 3-2 forkball from righthander Lou Pote.
Last Friday, with his next swing, he drilled a two-run home run
to left center off Twins righthander Matt Kinney, a pitcher
making his major league debut and for whom Toronto had no advance
scouting reports. "He threw mostly two-seam fastballs running
away to the hitters in front of me," Delgado said after the Blue
Jays' 3-2 victory.
No one cheered the blast louder than the section in rightfield
behind the CARLOS' KIDS banner. Once every homestand he gives
tickets, dinner, autographs and a pep talk to groups of 25
underprivileged children because, Delgado says, "in 10 years
these are the people who are going to be running the world, and
not all of them are lucky enough to have the upbringing that I
Minnesota shackled Delgado's bat last Saturday--one base on balls
mixed among three hitless at bats in the Jays' 5-1 defeat--but not
his spirit. In the usual quiet gloom of a losing clubhouse,
Delgado took a peek at the digital clock on the wall as he
slipped quickly into shiny black shoes, black slacks and a gray
sports shirt. It read 7:48. He and his sister, Tamara, had
tickets for the eight o'clock show of Mamma Mia!, a musical
comedy featuring songs by ABBA. "No problem," he said. "Five
minutes away by cab."
Then he smiled. The whole room seemed to brighten.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM DIPACE
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON
"If you can't smile and have fun, you're in trouble," Delgado
says. "If somebody in the stands says hello, I'll say hello back."