If Carlos Beltran took one more swing in the 2006 NLCS, Carlos Delgado could have become an immortal in the Pantheon of New York October heroes. Instead, he retired this week with little fanfare. Mets fans and the New York press have been respectful of Delgado and his career, but there has hardly been a huge emotional outpouring regarding his career.
His Hall of Fame clock will start retroactively in 2009, but he doesn’t have much of a chance to get in. In another era, his 473 homers and .929 career OPS might be enough. But his numbers paled in comparison to others in the post-strike era.
Delgado was never accused of or linked with any steroids; maybe that will eventually help his cause. Between 1996 and 2003, the height of the Steroid Era, Delgado hit 292 homers, tied with Ken Griffey Jr. Only eight other players hit more: Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, Mark McGwire and Manny Ramirez, and almost all of them have been linked to steroids or there is great suspicion of performance-enhancing drug use. (Thome has so far totally eluded connection or strong suspicion.)
He was also one of the true good guys in the world of baseball. A Roberto Clemente Award winner, he raised millions through his Extra Bases. And his protests of the naval bombings of Vieques in Puerto Rico and his opposition of the Iraq War showed he is a man of principles.
His timing for his career was not ideal in terms of postseason play. He was a September call-up for the 1993 World Champion Blue Jays but was not on the playoff roster. (He may have received a World Series ring anyway. I am not sure.)
Delgado arrived and blossomed just as the bloom went out in Toronto. When he arrived in Toronto, World Series heroes such as Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Pat Borders, Ed Sprague, Devon White, Pat Hentfen, Juan Guzman and Todd Stottlemyre were all still there. By the time he left Toronto after 2004, Vernon Wells and Roy Halladay were his teammates.
He was courted by the Mets after the 2004 season but seemed turned off by Omar Minaya’s pitch for Latin players. Instead he went to Florida and made a wonderful 1-2 punch with Miguel Cabrera. He landed in Queens anyway due to a fire sale in Miami. The Marlins netted Mike Jacobs, Yusmeiro Petit and someone named Grant Psomas who should be thrilled that he is being mentioned in this article.
The 2006 Mets had all the potential of being a truly special team in New York sports history. Willie Randolph, who grew up in New York, was manager. Minaya, another New Yorker, put the team together. The team had two Puerto Ricans named Carlos at the heart of their line up (Carlos Beltran was the other). David Wright seemed like he was going to be the new prince of the city. Jose Reyes was a flashy style option for those bored with Derek Jeter’s predictable substance. And for a while it looked like a Subway Series was in the cards as the Yankees won the division title and the Mets finally dethroned the Braves.
Given his first taste of postseason play against Los Angeles in the Division Series, Delgado did not disappoint. He went 4-for-5 in the first game, including a home run and the game-winning hit in the seventh inning. He finished the three-game sweep with a .429 average and an OPS of 1.072. If there was a Division Series MVP, he would have won it.
The Mets went to the NLCS, but a strange thing happened on the way to the 2006 Subway Series. The Yankees were shockingly eliminated by the Tigers. Suddenly the Mets were the only game in town.
In the National League Championship Series against a beleaguered Cardinals team, Delgado’s bat remained hot. He batted .304. His OPS was 1.274. He drove in nine runs over the seven-game series. With the Mets down 2-1 in the series and forced to send Oliver Perez to the mound for Game 4, Delgado went to town. He broke a fifth-inning tie with a three-run homer and drove in five runs all together as the Mets won big, 12-5.
By the time the series went the full seven games, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa wasn’t confronting Delgado. He drew three walks in Game 7 but the other Mets batters couldn’t drive him in.
During the heart-stopping ninth inning, Adam Wainwright loaded the bases with two outs and clinging to a 3-1 lead. Carlos Beltran, who was having a fine series of his own, was at the plate. Delgado was on deck. All Beltran had to do was not make an out and Delgado would have been at the plate with a chance to win the pennant with one swing of his bat. That swing of course never came and Carlos Beltran struck out looking.
There was no World Series trip for the Mets. No chance at pennant-winning immortality for Delgado. Even if Beltran connected for a walkoff home run or a bases-clearing pennant-winning double, Delgado would have probably been MVP of the Series.
The 2006 Mets would have clobbered the 2006 Tigers. With the Joe Torre era winding down, who knows what the confidence of a 2006 World Series would have brought to Flushing?
They probably don’t collapse down the stretch in 2007 and 2008. No doubt both Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya would be untouchable beloved Mets figures. Perhaps the Mets take advantage of a weak National League field in 2007. Or go all the way instead of the Phillies in 2008.
But it would have been Delgado who led them to the World Series. Had his hitting continued against Detroit, he would have been a cinch for the Babe Ruth Award. And winning a championship in New York and having October highlights means a special immortality.
Don Larsen played only five of his 15 seasons for the Yankees. He never won more than 11 games in a season and was essentially a mediocre swingman. But he still gets standing ovations and is considered a Yankee legend for his World Series perfect game 55 years ago.
Len Dykstra’s popularity far exceeds the value of his regular season production. But he was the spark of the 1986 Mets. Players like Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez can have the confusing title of “Real Yankee” bestowed on them despite not being home grown and playing huge chunks of their careers elsewhere.
Reggie Jackson spent just five seasons in the Bronx and yet is often mentioned as a Yankee legend alongside DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle and Gehrig.
So imagine what the love for Delgado would have been had the Mets won that final game. He could have been celebrated for all time in New York baseball lore. Instead he will be remembered as a good player, a good man and will no doubt receive a warm reception in Toronto and New York for Old Timer’s Day.
That, and universal respect, a career devoid of steroid scandal and over $146 million in salaries earned, makes for a nice consolation prize. But it is not the same as immortality.
An earlier version of this post was written for The Hardball Times in 2011.