CARLOS DELGADO, DAVID WELLS & CO. DON'T BELIEVE THE YANKEES AND RED SOX OWN THE AL EAST
Carlos Delgado doesn't like caps or helmets or anything else that infiltrates the space between his head and the outside world. His head is a sculptor's dream, perfectly shaped and precisely shaved, and Delgado seems to understand this completely. He takes batting practice bareheaded and takes infield bareheaded and always takes his time putting on his helmet when he stands on deck. When he leads off an inning, he waits until the last moment, until the ball has been tossed around the infield and the umpire is pulling on his mask, before palming his helmet, shoving it on his head and going to work. During night games, the stadium lights shine off that head so brightly you'd swear you could read by it.
So the point is obvious: If you had a head like this, you wouldn't like caps either.
We don't know much about what goes on inside that head, though. We know Delgado from numbers-big, florid numbers like last year's 44 homers and 134 RBI; MVP numbers like the ones he's putting up this year-but events of the past few years have taught us to distrust numbers.
We like the look of them but aren't totally sure what they mean. There are so many like them, it seems impossible to get to the story behind each. Delgado's Blue Jays teammates say our relative ignorance of their leader is due to the exchange rate on hype; word travels slowly out of Toronto, with the hype devalued by an American media committed to fostering and promoting the Red Sox and Yankees. This is how they see it, anyway. As far as baseball theories go, it's a lofty, vaguely conspiratorial one; David Wells can give it to you in several different versions, each more verbally vibrant than the last.
Jays manager Jim Fregosi says, "People need to know this guy. Carlos is very sophisticated. He's mature. Wise beyond his years. Very, very intelligent. He loves the game. He's always in a good mood. He's also close to his family, he saves his money and he's single. The way things are now, being single makes him pretty smart all by itself."
Delgado speaks English, his second language, like a professor of Shakespeare. Backup catcher Charlie Greene, dressing at the locker next to Delgado, interrupted an interview by saying, "Just remember: I taught him everything he knows." It's the standard ballplayer-to-reporter line, but then Greene was asked, in jest, if he taught Delgado to speak English. "No," Greene said. "I taught him to hit a fastball. He taught me English." The 28-year-old Delgado calls teammate Homer Bush "Kid" even though he is Bush's elder by five months. Delgado often goes to plays on his nights off and has cultivated friendships among the owners and chefs of Toronto's best restaurants. "Toronto is a great city, very cosmopolitan," Delgado says. "You can get a lot of mileage out of that city if you know how to do it."
In other words, Delgado owns the world. The world just doesn't know it yet.
The numbers by themselves indicate that Delgado's world is the same one occupied by the game's biggest names: McGwire, Sosa, Belle, Bonds, Griffey. At the All-Star break, he was leading the AL in homers with 28 and in slugging percentage. Increased confidence and patience have lifted his average, consistently in the .270s, into the stratospheric .360 range. His 22-game hitting streak, which lasted through most of June, is the longest in the American League this
"Last year he was a great player; this year, he's 10 times better," says Jays closer Billy Koch. "If I were to face him right now, I don't know how I would pitch him. I honestly don't, because he can hit anything."
Says Bush, "This guy, I've never seen anything like this guy. Even when he doesn't get his hits, he hits so many bullets you walk away thinking he got hits. I can't count the number of times we'll be sitting on the bench, thinking we need a home run, and he comes through. You can't rely on that all season, but I'm telling you, it's working out so far."
The Jays' surprising-to the outside world, anyway-run to the top of the AL East is attributable to several factors. They have one of the best closers in baseball in Koch, whose fastball routinely tops 100 mph. They have two of the game's most unappreciated players in leftfielder Shannon Stewart and third baseman Tony Batista. And in the off-season, general manager Gord Ash managed to pull off that rarest of baseball trades: a salary-dump deal-Shawn Green for Raul Mondesi-that turned out better for the dumping team. And not four years from now. Right now. Immediately.
Still, this team runs on the current generated by two men: Delgado and Wells, the Blue Jays' only consistent starter. Delgado is the conscience of the clubhouse. The team usually doesn't take batting practice on Sundays, but on June 25, Delgado decided it wouldn't be a good idea to face Pedro Martinez without first taking a few swings.
The Jays took BP. The Jays beat Pedro. Wells, with his league-best 15-2 record, provides the backbeat. Or maybe what Wells brings to the clubhouse and the mound can be described more aptly as a background electrical hum-sometimes annoying, sometimes comforting, always necessary.
Delgado, through media negligence or not, still needs an introduction.
Wells, as everyone knows, can speak for himself. Wells: I haven't changed anything. I'm just going out there and hitting my spots. I'm not walking guys, I'm getting ahead in the count and I'm getting incredible defense. It's a pretty simple world, really. Other guys get more attention, and that's fine. I'm not out there for the hoopla. I'm just happy that this time around is a lot better than my first time with the Blue Jays. The last time, that was just pitiful. They didn't care about my pitching, they just wanted me to look good in the lobby. Be a certain weight, do this, do that. I got to the point where I told them to f- off. I said, "I don't need to pitch here if that's what you want me to look like." I got fed up and started talking crap and being rude to them. You can only take it to a certain extent. They fined me and a couple other guys $100 for every pound we were overweight. At some point, it gets ridiculous. Whenever I got to the park, it was to the scales. They'd put the scales right in front of me. Back when I was in the minor leagues, they used to pack the scale around in the equipment bag and weigh me every day. What the hell is that? The best thing that ever happened to me was getting released by Toronto in 1993. This time around, Gord Ash has been great. He said, "We're going to leave you alone. You've been around long enough to know what has to be done." That's the way they treated me in New York, too. Everybody can say what they want about my physique, but I know what I'm doing. Here's the way I look at it: When you're pitching good, you're the skinniest man in the league. When you're pitching bad, you're the fattest.
On Sunday, June 25, in Toronto, after hitting a game-tying, two-run homer off Martinez in the seventh inning, Delgado sat in the dugout and did his best to ignore the commotion circling around him. He heard the shrieking cries and the pleading cheers, and his answer was no. There were 31,022 people in the stands, and the Blue Jays were heading for a series sweep, and still Delgado-who had just hit the ball 427 feet, off the glass wall of Windows restaurant-would not leave the dugout to take a bow. Pedro hadn't allowed a homer with a runner on base in 43 starts, and still the answer was no. The accomplishment, in his mind, did not merit the reward.
But then catcher Alberto Castillo told him to get out there, and Wells stuck his head out of the dugout and waved as if he had done something. Slightly shamed, mostly amused, Delgado gave in. He poked his head out like a frightened gopher, gave a quick wave and went back to his seat.
"Now, don't take me wrong," Delgado says. "I appreciated it, and it was awesome to get the recognition from the fans and my teammates. But let's look at it: All I did was tie the game in the bottom of the seventh inning. It wasn't like we won the World Series or anything like that. Here we are, facing the best pitcher in the game, and all we did was tie the game. We still have work to do. You know, this is June. This is June. We're not talking about
Delgado heads to the batting cage more than three hours before every game, intent on getting 40 or 50 good swings as a way of "getting my routine started." He missed it once this year, before a game against the Red Sox, because he was tired and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was going. (He got a hit.) Patience at the plate has become his greatest virtue. He stands there like an arrogant inspector, confident enough to wait for the one mistake he knows is coming. "I think nobody can get me out," he says. "I've got a pretty good idea of what I want to hit. If I get my pitch, I'm going to get a hack in. And if I don't get you this time, I'll get you next time. I'm not saying I'm better than anybody, but I am saying that nobody is better than me."
At first base, Delgado, a converted minor league catcher, has gone from being a misplaced DH to a respectable fielder. "He's busted his tail to get where he is on defense," Wells says. "He was a box of rocks over there at first base for a few years, and now he's one of the tops in the league. I enjoy going out and seeing him there because he's going to make the plays."
Wells: You look at the way baseball is going, with all these guys bodybuilding, taking all these supplements, getting stronger and in better shape. It's working for some guys, and for other guys it's not working at all. But hey, they look good in the lobby. They've got a great body. You know what? Screw that. I'm living proof you don't have to lift a weight, you don't even have to run or ride a damn bike. Just go out there and pitch. I can get in shape when I'm out of the game, but for now, why mess with something that works? I get ready in my own way. I do my conditioning, both mentally and physically. Look at my innings. I do what I have to do on the field. Forget the rest. People may think I'm some sort of wild man, but I respect this game. I don't think there's a guy in the game who loves it more than I do. They might say they do, but they don't. I'm a big collector; I love the history of the game. I wish I could have played back in the old days, because I think I fit that mold better than I do this one. I'm not a stats guy. I just want to win. I want to go to the playoffs and World Series-that's where the fun is. It's a shame, because I'd say 75% of this game is playing for the money and not for the game. There are a lot of individualists out there, and I've played with a lot of them. You can't have that. When I'm out there, I'm out there fighting. I'm an SOB. I don't care about anything but keeping the team in the game. I get caught up in it. It looks like I'm out of control, cursing and yelling. I'm very vocal. It doesn't sound good and it doesn't look good, but hey-that's my approach and I'm sticking to my guns. I don't really care what anyone thinks of it.
Homer Bush owes his spot in the Jays lineup to Delgado. He readily concedes this, laughing as he does. Bush, a .320 hitter a year ago, is hitting below .200. With each passing day, he gets more frustrated, confused and angry. "I can't understand it," he says. "What's going on? This isn't me. This can't be me."
The low point came June 29 in Tampa. Bush grounded out in the second inning, making him hitless in his last 12 at-bats. Between innings, he stood near second base, staring into nowhere and cursing his fate. Delgado approached Bush and did something unusual: He gave his teammate a hug.
"It's going to be okay," Delgado told him. "I love you. We love you. You've just got to get loose and start doing your thing."
"I felt like the ship was sinking again," Bush says. "This guy doesn't have to worry about me. But that's how he is. He has a feel for what's happening with everybody. Hey, without him hitting the way he is, they might pull the plug on me."
Bush got three hits in his next four at-bats that night, his first three-hit game of the year. Coincidence?
"Carlos is a great leader-a leader by example and every other way," Wells says. "We're going to have tension and our little squabbles here and there. But when it happens, Carlos and I are right in the middle of it, making sure it stays under control."
Delgado and Shawn Green came up together, step by step, through the Jays organization. They went to lunch every day on the road, most days at home. They took vacations together-Europe two winters ago, Arizona last year. They still talk two or three times a week. It's a sign of Delgado's maturity that he sees the Green trade for what it was: a business decision, maybe even a good one. Mondesi, known as a player who enjoyed a good time and a lavish lifestyle, worked his way out of the Dodgers' favor last season by unleashing a tirade against general manager Kevin Malone and manager Davey Johnson.
"Shawn is an awesome player, and he's hard to replace, but Raul brings something to the team that isn't tangible, a fire that we sometimes lacked," Delgado says. "Raul is a guy with an unbelievable intensity level. He'll run through a wall, steal third, anything. All that stuff we heard about him in L.A.? I haven't seen any of it. This guy is very generous, doesn't trouble anybody. He's just a big kid who wants to have fun and play hard."
Says Mondesi, "Teammates ask me, 'How come everybody said those things about you?'"
Before the season, Delgado signed a three-year, $36 million contract that includes a clause allowing him to demand a trade after this season. Asked if he plans to use that leverage, he says, "Right now, I can't think of a reason why. At the end of the season, I'll have to look at it, but I like this team and I love the city. If you asked, I bet half the people wouldn't know who Tony Batista is, and that's sad. It's sad that people don't know who Shannon Stewart is. We've got a great team and people don't know we're in first place. That's okay, though. We don't have any pressure except to play the game the way it's supposed to be played."
Wells: "Put it this way: Even if we're in first place, everybody still seems to think we have to beat Boston and the Yankees. It's kind of funny to hear all these commentators on TV since we've been in first place-they think it's a joke. We're not supposed to be here? Fine, let them think that. They're idiots. Right now everybody knows us. But nobody wants to give the Toronto Blue Jays any recognition. For what reason, I don't know. But let's keep it that way. Keep talking about those other teams. We'll just go out there, do our jobs and be happy. There's a bunch of clowns in here; that's the way we want it. We talk crap all the time, just ragging each other. It's the best. It's the only way to win. I see something coming together here that reminds me of when I was with the Yankees. But I forgot-nobody wants to hear that. They just want to keep talking about those other teams. Idiots. That's fine. We'll just go out there, do our jobs and be happy. Let 'em all keep talking. We'll keep playing."
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