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More Than a Big Stick
February 12, 2007
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
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February 12, 2007

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

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

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

Still, the family didn'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's junior, was considered the more promising athlete. Taller and more slender, Yasser every year won the Race of the Turkey, a five-kilometer footrace held each December in Aguadilla, with the winner in each age group receiving a free bird. Through his years at Dr. Agust�n Stahl Middle School and Jose De Diego High, Carlos impressed his parents more with his commitment and focus--to sports as well as academics--than with any natural athletic ability. "He was always so organized, disciplined," says Carmen. "He was like an adult. 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 to practice."

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

That part of the game--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 easily to Delgado. (And still does; his famous "book," volumes of graph paper with elaborate markings tracking every pitch of every at bat since 1994, is a legendary repository of information that he will share only with teammates.) He and his father would practice at a park next door to a chicken restaurant in Aguadilla. When he was 11, Carlos, already the best player on his Little League team, 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 fact Carlos was soon hitting the chicken restaurant's tin roof more than 300 feet away; no other kid had come close. "That's when I knew he had a future," recalls Carlos A.

Father and son soon outgrew the local park and began taking a sack of balls and bats to downtown Aguadilla's Parque Col�n, a vast, brick stadium with the kind of dimensions that can make a lefthanded hitter swear off pulling forever: 396 feet down the rightfield line, 421 to right-center. The Delgados made an agreement: Each ball that the son hit to rightfield, he had to collect. The father would fetch those that went to left. The boy learned to go the opposite way. And then, just when the 14-year-old catcher seemed to be making progress as a baseball player, he quit--to play volleyball.

"I asked him," says the father, "how many professional volleyball players can you name? Never mind how many professional volleyball players are from Puerto Rico."

Young Carlos didn't care. He was going through a rapid growth spurt and found spiking and setting preferable to hitting and catching. "My body was changing, and I was becoming more athletic," he says. "I was becoming faster--relatively speaking--and a better leaper. And come on, volleyball is fun. I love it."

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

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

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