Appreciating Carlos Delgado, the lost slugger of the Steroid Era
The writer establishes 1996 through 2003 as the heart of the Steroid Era
In that period Delgado ranks in the top 10 in extra base hits, RBIs, and total bases
He says he eschewed steroids for health reasons and because "it's cheating"
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- I came here to Mets camp looking for the lost slugger of the Steroid Era. There had to be some power hitter out there, I figured, whose profile and legacy suffered because too many other great hitters were pumping their bodies full of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Now was a good time, on the heels of Alex Rodriguez sloppily impugning all of his colleagues by laying blame on a "loosey-goosey" culture, to recognize the extraordinary people who were made more ordinary by the deceitful.
"Fred McGriff," Orioles broadcaster Buck Martinez offered to me.
True, McGriff's career may be underappreciated because of what happened to home run numbers in the Steroid Era, but the prime of his career occurred before steroids went mainstream in baseball. I wanted to find the guy who in the prime of his youth was cranking 35 home runs but was lost in the madness of steroid inflation. I define the heart of the Steroid Era as beginning in 1996, when Ken Caminiti won the MVP on steroids and the first full season in which performance-enhancers became rampant, through 2003, the last time players were free to shoot up with anything they wished without any penalty. (Of course, the drugs have been around before and since, but 1996-2003 strikes me as the height of use.)
So I ran the numbers for the greatest home run hitters of the heart of the Steroid Era to find the lost slugger. This list is a terribly sad one, because it is a veritable rogues gallery. It is likely that anywhere from nine to 11 of these top 14 home run hitters from 1996 through 2003 were dirty -- at best, a crime rate of about two-thirds.
When I ran down the list, Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado stood out as the guy most pushed into the shadows. This season, be it anything close to ordinary for him, Delgado will become only the 11th player in baseball history with 500 home runs, 500 doubles and 1,500 RBIs. It is a club with no back door. The others: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Griffey, Ramirez, Palmeiro and Bonds. And yet Delgado never is talked about as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and is rarely discussed as a Hall of Famer at all. He started only one All-Star game (and made only one other, while a juiced Giambi started three), never won an MVP award (he was robbed of one by a juiced Rodriguez) and never won a home-run title (he once finished second to a juiced Rodriguez), even though he hit between 38 and 44 home runs seven times.
The first thing I needed to do was sound out Delgado on steroids, seeing that the unfortunate fallout from the era is that almost no one escapes suspicion. I began to ask him if he was tempted to try steroids, but he cut me off before I could even finish asking the question.
"Not one time," he said firmly. "I don't want to interrupt you, but ... People can think whatever they want. They're going to anyway. What are you going to do? React to what some guy in Kansas says, or some guy in Philadelphia says or some guy in L.A. says?"
So I wondered, if he could see bodies changing all around him, and no testing was in place, what stopped Delgado from joining the juiced nation? Was it the health risk?
"Health, No. 1," he said. "And No. 2, it's cheating. I take a lot of pride in my preparation and my ability to understand the game and try to get any edge by watching the game or taking advantage of what's in my head.
"I guess, if by doing the right thing, should you get extra points for it? I guess so. In this society, all the bad things, the controversial things, get most of the exposure, and I kind of understand how the system works in that way. It's not news that some guy did it the right way."
Delgado, appropriately enough, played his first full season in the majors in 1996. In the 1996-2003 heart of the Steroid Era, Delgado ranked among the top 10 hitters in extra base hits, runs batted in, doubles, total bases, intentional walks and runs created, and yet the majority of the players on such lists were, by his definition, cheating, and they gained more recognition and more awards. I asked him if steroid use by star players detracted from proper respect due him.
"I didn't get full credit because I was playing in Toronto," he said. "That's it. That's my opinion. I might be wrong. I don't think about the whole steroid deal. I don't know if somebody did it or how much it affected the game. I just look at the numbers. That's the only thing you can go on.
"It's pretty hard to prove how big the impact is. I'm not good with those guessing games. I just go with the numbers."