One of the definitive events in recent Met years happened on April 6, 2006 — Carlos Beltran, after being treated shabbily by the Shea faithful for much of 2005 and booed during a slump in the early part of his next season, hit a home run, circled the bases and then plunked his behind on the bench, obviously angered by the fans' sudden about-face and demands for a curtain call. As the cheers continued, Julio Franco came over and spoke quietly but pointedly to him, after which Carlos popped out of the dugout for a wave. It was quick and it was grudgingly done, but it was the end of booing Beltran — he and we were off on a magical season.
Fast-forward to yesterday, with Carlos Delgado mired in what's either a horrible slump or the middle stages of the end. After his second home run of the day — an old-fashioned Delgado no-doubter off the scoreboard — the fans who have booed him mightily at Shea of late wanted their curtain call. But Delgado wasn't coming out — and there was no Julio Franco to suggest he rethink that decision.
The tabloid and radio debate over whether that was a bad move will go on for a bit, with what Delgado does tonight against Pittsburgh having potentially serious bearing. Delgado said yesterday that that kind of thing isn't his style, citing respect for the game — and the Associated Press backed him up with the tidbit that he's only taken curtain calls for a four-homer performance and his 400th round-tripper.
Logical enough, but awfully facile as explanations go. Delgado's a smart guy. He knows fans, and he knows New York. He knows perfectly well that what he was given yesterday was a peace offering, and he declined it. Which is his right, of course — he's been treated poorly by a fan base for whom “the natives are restless” would be a perilous understatement these days, and I don't blame him for refusing to bask in the warmth of their fair-weather affection. On the other hand, that rejection is an invitation for even-heartier abuse — and the comment about respect for the game, with the insinuation that the fans lack it, won't be missed by the boobirds.
I've found myself shifting a little where Delgado's concerned. While I haven't booed him, I haven't exactly been in his corner. By even the kindest measure his play has been atrocious this year both at bat and in the field. But what continues to burn me is the ever-flammable subject of 2007. For all Delgado was hailed as a clubhouse leader when he arrived, I remember him being in evidence off the field twice last year — once during the farcical week when Paul Lo Duca was supposedly a racist, and again when he was telling the New York Observer that the Mets got kind of bored out there. Neither particularly endeared him to me. (Though on Saturday CW11's cameras caught him consoling Aaron Heilman in the dugout after Heilman absorbed his own latest blistering of the fans — a welcome sight, but the kind of thing I thought we'd get from him routinely.)
But this column by the peerless Tim Marchman moved me to a bit of pity — Marchman offers a cold-eyed dissection of Delgado's woes, with little hope for a turnaround, but tempers that grim analysis with the observation that “one just hopes that the fans and even the writers keep in mind that baseball is hard. Don't get down on the man: Even if it isn't enough, he's doing what he can.” And there's no reason to doubt that. Delgado appears to have gotten old a couple of years earlier than we'd thought he would, but that's not a hanging crime. Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez and Edgardo Alfonzo, to name just three, all had the same thing happen to them. I'd like to think I never would have booed them, no matter what the circumstances.
Saturday, too, was a bit of an eye-opener where Delgado was concerned. Sitting in the bleachers with Greg and Emily and Joshua was fun for a lot of reasons, but it was an eye-opener about some baseball basics that I'd never appreciated because of years of seeing balls in play primarily from the camera behind home plate.
1. Losing a ball against the sky is easier than you'd think. Endy and Church both struggled with fly balls Saturday afternoon, and from the bleachers it was easy to see why. The best possible description of the sky was “baseball-colored” — once balls cleared the top of the stadium, it was touch and go just where they'd gone.
2. He really isn't going to throw that runner out. Runner on second, single to center, runner is heading home, the center fielder has the ball — and then you mutter when the center fielder just lobs it in. There wasn't a possible play on him? Really? Really. The view from the home-plate camera is foreshortened. When Francoeur rushed home in the sixth on Prado's single and Beltran flipped the ball in, I knew by the timing of events that it was exactly the kind of play that would have had me wondering if the run was assured of scoring. Watching it from behind Beltran's position, it was obvious he had no chance at a play. That camera lies about just how far it is to home plate.
3. Most fly balls have no chance. I'm rarely fooled into thinking flyouts are home runs or doubles anymore (heck, just look at the outfielders if you can't figure it out off the bat), but there's no doubt at all from behind the outfielders. The sound, velocity and trajectory of a well-struck ball are instantly and obviously different from a long but routine fly.
Delgado's drive in the fifth — the one Mark Kotsay caught on the warning track and thought was the third out — was different. It was hammered, and knocked down just enough by the wind to stay in the yard. And then he got booed for it, by a crowd that included lots of people yelling excitedly for balls the second baseman reeled in 30 feet into the outfield. I wouldn't feel charitable after too many days of that either.
But finally, there's this difference between the two Carloses and their curtain calls. Beltran was beginning the second year of a long stay in New York, one that had begun on a difficult note. Handed an olive branch, he had to take it — or run the very real risk of having to hear about that refusal from the fans and the beat writers forevermore. This is Delgado's last Flushing rodeo — barring a Lazarus-like turnaround, he's getting bought out before Citi Field opens and either moving to the American League or hanging them up for good. Beltran had to come out, for any number of reasons enumerated hastily by Julio Franco. Delgado did not, and didn't.