“It was out of my reach. What do you want me to do — dive for it?”
—Roger Dorn, Cleveland Indians, 1989
“I'm not going to dive just to dive. If I think I can reach it, I am going to dive. If I don't think I can catch it, I am not going to”
—Carlos Delgado, New York Mets, 2008
And in the
sixth fourth inning of the third night of the rest of our lives, Carlos Delgado dove. He left his feet. He flew until he landed in dirt. And he caught something in his glove.
Could it be…? Was it really…?
Yes! A baseball! An official Major League baseball, autographed by Allen H. Selig, tattooed by
Jeffrey F. Kent Andre E. Ethier, zipping toward the Right F. Corner.
It was stopped cold by Carlos J. Delgado.
The “J” stands for Jumpin' Jehosephat, He Gloved That!
Kent lined Ethier grounded to Delgado in the sense that Long Island Rail Road trains are declared to be operating on time as long as they're not six minutes late, the way that the Mets “draw” 45,000 on frigid Monday nights in early May for the Nationals. You could make a case that Kent lined Ethier grounded to the general vicinity of Delgado, but that would be akin to approximating paid attendance based on tickets sold (or printed). Let's say Kent's liner Ethier's bullet of a grounder was on the express track and Delgado seemed, as ever, to be loitering on the local platform, looking at his watch, fiddling with his PDA, calculating how much longer it would be until his time with the New York Mets is up, or perhaps checking his bank balance — which we assume is more liquid than his movement around first has been fluid.
But maybe we're thinking of the Carlos Delgado who used to play here, the one who started at first base no matter how little he did to rate it, the one who stubbornly stood his ground while the ground shifted under his tired feet, the one whose batting average has been tied firmly to the tracks by some Snidely Whiplash of a slump or, more likely, a perilous decline into physical dotage. He may as strong as a bull and as able as an ox where as compared to your run-of-the-mill 35-year-old, but he hasn't looked a damn thing like a baseball star for nearly two years now.
That Delgado was earning no curtain calls and no discernible percentage of the balloon payment the wicked Florida Marlins cleverly inserted into the final year of the contract they long ago pawned off on the New York Mets, long before they would ever have to pay the $16 million he's due through '08 (to say nothing of the $4 million in chump change the Mets will have to dispense unto him just to not hand him $12 mil on top of that in '09). That Delgado was the starting first baseman 'til Tuesday.
Tuesday he was no longer that guy. He got the night off, to “clear his head,” it was said. Cleared the batting order of its most obvious dead wood as well. The Mets got on without him on Tuesday, and it worked so well, they tried it again Wednesday. It's quite possible his head was cleared just fine Tuesday, so fine that it began to fill up with miff. Those pesky SNY cameras occasionally caught him appearing none too enthusiastic that the Mets were going toe-to-toe, lung-to-gill versus the first-place Marlins and that he wasn't a part of it all. When he got his opportunity, pinch-hitting in a tie game in the ninth, he worked out a walk. He was the winning run, in the event of a homer or a triple. Anything less, and he'd be six minutes late to the plate.
Willie Randolph didn't pinch-run for him, not until another walk pushed him to second. The manager didn't have a surfeit of bench players at that point; in fact, he had none. So he did what you do when you've decided the run on second is too important to waste and the runner on second is too slow to count on. You insert a pitcher to run.
At that development, Carlos Delgado did not evince amusement.
John Maine, whose speed remains the best-kept secret in Metsopotamia, trotted out to second. Delgado turned to trot to the dugout. I've seen pinch-runners trot to bases forever. I've never not seen the runners they're replacing not give them a courtesy slap of the hand. That's the spot when we're all in this together, we're all a team, we all want to win this thing right now — godspeed fleet o' feet substitute…and run! Run like the wind! Make us all winners!
There was none of that standard bonhomie from Carlos Delgado for John Maine. Delgado wore an expression of he's taking me out for a bleeping pitcher? You've GOT to be kidding me. I couldn't tell whether Maine offered his hand only to have it rejected, but I could see Delgado proffer a pat on the back. If a pat on the back could be characterized as condescending, this one could.
Nothing came of the switch. The inning ended on a flyout. Three innings later, the game ended on Fernando Tatis' double. Most of the Mets mobbed their freshly minted hero of a teammate. How could you wear a Mets uniform and not be thrilled at what Fernando Tatis had just done? How could you not be thrilled for Fernando Tatis? What else do you play baseball for, besides an enormous paycheck, if not for twelfth-inning, double-comeback, walkoff wins?
I'm told Carlos Delgado was not spotted in the dogpile. I have to admit I wasn't looking for him. At that moment, I was in the warmest Mets frame of mind I'd been all season. Maybe it was just coincidence that Carlos Delgado was nowhere in the picture.
Delgado used to make me happy, or at least the idea of him did. The 38 homers and 114 runs batted in with which he introduced himself helped not a little, but the concept of Carlos Delgado charmed me as much. He was what we lacked in one shiny-pated package: the big bat, the cool head, the burning desire, the thoughtful slugger, the leader for this new generation of Mets. His first April was prolific and promising: 9 HR, 20 RBI, one of the best team starts the Mets had ever experienced. Coincidence or Carlos? I was intoxicated by what Chris Smith wrote late in the spring of 2006 in New York Magazine:
Martinez is the most compelling personality and the Mets’ one indispensable player. But Delgado is the connective tissue. His arrival has relaxed his old pal Beltran and matured the endearingly spacey Reyes (Delgado has also choreographed an elbow-bumping post-homer dance routine with the 22-year-old shortstop). “There are some guys who carry the load, guys that lead the group,” Delgado says. “And most of the time, the media has it wrong. Because you don’t have to hit .300 to be that guy. I don’t get caught up with that bullshit, about what makes a great leader. Because if you have to ask, you just don't know.”
Wright is a human run-on sentence. Delgado is a meticulously edited series of bullet points. Yet the two men instantly gravitated toward one another, meeting for the first time as teammates during a midwinter Mets promotional appearance.
“The middle of January, guys are normally taking vacations,” Wright says. “But we’re in suits at a team dinner in New York and Carlos has about half the team huddled around him and he’s talking hitting, he’s talking different pitchers, he’s talking who he likes to face, who he doesn’t like to face. In the middle of January! I must have talked to him, from the beginning of spring training until now, like, hours, just what he thinks about. ’Cause he’s a run producer, he’s an RBI machine.”
Good god, Carlos Delgado could hit and he could talk and he scribbled notes in a notebook after sending baseballs far over fences and he was revered and the Mets were in first place from the third game on and the opposition twisted itself into shifts to stop him but Delgado didn't get caught up with that bullshift either. His average was down from prior years, but his power was present. He hit in spurts more than he did steadily, but the stats piled up handsomely and the wins followed. On the night the Mets clinched the division title, I spied some giddy rookie type dumping beer on the head of Reyes or Wright out on the field during an interview. Was that Anderson Hernandez? No, the culprit here had no hair. Was that Michael Tucker? No, Michael Tucker's head isn't as big as the one I saw.
Hey, that was Carlos Delgado! That was Carlos Delgado romping around like a September callup, caught up in the magic of a team celebration! When it came to going to postseason, Carlos Delgado really was a giddy rookie.
A few big hits notwithstanding since 2006, there's been little giddy or joyful about Carlos Delgado. Not his play, not watching it. His team became a leaderless, rudderless vessel. You might not have to hit .300 to be That Guy, but how would have Delgado known prior to 2006? The dude had hit over .300 three times, .301 in 2005. In 2007, it took him 'til the middle of July to crack .250. He never rose much above it. His pop went poof. And on the final, gruesome day of the season, a season when a wrist, a hip, a knee and an elbow all required some kind of attention, he took a Dontrelle Willis pitch off his left hand. The hand, like 2007, was fractured.
“I think at times we can get a little careless. We’ve got so much talent I think sometimes we get bored.”
Carlos Delgado could have said any number of things last September. He chose about the worst words he could have imagined to explain away a team sliding quickly into infamy. As inspirational diatribes go, “sometimes we get bored” fell well short of “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets.” The Mets didn't fight in the fields. The Mets surrendered. Carlos Delgado may have been flattened at the very end by an onrushing D-Train fastball, but he wasn't exactly leaving the impression that he and the Mets were to be mistaken for a herd of Dashing Dans.
The 2008 Mets had been running way more than six minutes late through Monday. Those were Carlos Delgado's Mets as much as anybody's. Carlos Delgado was morphing fast, from connective tissue to careless, bored, used Kleenex. His production had sunk to George Foster rhythms; he couldn't do much, but the occasional longball allowed you to rationalize he could still swing it now and then. Winning without him in the lineup and then seeing him trudge to the plate as a miscast pinch-hitter in the ninth made you squint at the specter of the last days of Dave Kingman, Kong rendered obsolete and ever grumpier by the acquisition of Keith Hernandez. Alas, there is no Mex in the hopper to take over first, Damion Easley's versatility and classy professionalism notwithstanding. Now you just hoped you weren't watching a heretofore quality human being and baseball player sulk himself into a 1999 model Bobby Bonilla lummox. In business, you can manage a brand in decline. You can stick the six-packs of Royal Crown Cola on the lowest shelf and give its space to an energy drink that sells better. RC won't stew on the bench, grumble in the clubhouse, suggest to Jon Heyman that they are on the cusp of an old-fashioned West Virginia ass-off. That's not a contest anybody wants to contemplate.
Two nights benched, save for a cameo snit. Two wins without him…the opposite of what Branch Rickey said to Ralph Kiner where last place was concerned. We could go to pieces with Carlos Delgado or we could begin to get it together without him.
Maybe Carlos Delgado, head cleared and inserted again at first, finally figured that out. Because Carlos Delgado, he dove for
Jeff Kent's liner Andre Ethier's bullet of a grounder in the sixth fourth last night. Even with the bases empty, a tenuous 2-0 lead, built on Wright power and awaiting the benefit of opposing catcher's interference, needed all the help it could get to keep Claudio Vargas' goose from being prematurely cooked and to keep the newest era of Met good feeling from dying at the tender age of two days (as eventually we'd be positioned, per usual, to fall victim to the status Kuo).
But Carlos Delgado dove. And Carlos Delgado
caught Kent's liner nabbed Ethier's grounder and hoofed it to first for the forceout. And Carlos Delgado got his uniform dirty in the effort. It grew only grimier as he attempted and just failed to beat Russell Martin to the bag for the double play on a liner off the bat of Jeff Kent — among the oldest and sharpest of Shea thorns, dating back to his appearance amidst the primordial ooze of 1992 — in the sixth. That he rolled through the muck to try as hard as he did felt like a moral victory, nearly as satisfying as the actual one that proceeded from there. SNY picked up Willie Randolph gesticulating like Bobby Valentine, as alive as I've seen him in his four years as manager of the New York Mets. “I like it when he gets dirty,” Delgado's manager said after the game. “His uniform has been pretty clean lately.”
Yeah, I'd noticed. Everybody noticed. Howie Rose remarked a week or two ago how he hadn't seen Carlos Delgado leave his feet all year. Pretty clean uniform he's got there, Wayne Hagin concurred. Delgado owns nine pages in the Mets media guide. None of them are devoted to exploits of fielding or running, but it's safe to assume you don't compile nine media guide pages and endure into your sixteenth big league season without at some point giving it your all, without caring like crazy, without getting your gosh darn uniform dirty once in a while.
We're aware that you were brought here for your bat if no longer so much for your intangibles. We're aware that one joint or another has given you trouble on and/or off for three seasons. We know that you'll be 36 in less than a month. We sympathize, to a point, that pride goeth before accepting a platoon. And we understand plenty that bending over gets more difficult with age, that diving for the sake of diving is often tantamount to show.
But Carlos, yes — sometimes we do want you to dive for it.