Delgado’s path to the Mets was nearly as fraught as his moment in the political crossfire. He was a free agent after the 2004 season, and the Mets wanted him desperately, but Minaya, newly installed as the general manager, landed Martinez and Beltran first. Delgado signed with the Florida Marlins, who he thought had a better chance of reaching the playoffs, even though the Mets offered more money. But the non-deal left a bitter aftertaste. Delgado’s ferociously protective agent angrily accused the Mets of trying to bully his client; Delgado suggested that Minaya and an assistant, Tony Bernazard, made a mistake during negotiations by emphasizing their common Latino heritage.
One year later, after Florida finished tied for third with the resurgent Mets, the Marlins were hemorrhaging money and started shedding their most expensive players. Delgado was traded to New York. He claims there was no need to kiss and make up with Mets management. “It was trying to get a business deal done, and it didn’t happen,” Delgado says. “You’re offering me a job and money—I’m not going to be upset with you. It was absolutely nothing personal. I’ve never seen a reporter write, ‘Well, they didn’t get this guy, but they got along great!’ That doesn’t make news.”
Married in December 2005, Delgado has embraced city life, renting a Manhattan apartment, unlike most of his teammates, who prefer the suburbs (Delgado already knew the city fairly well from visits to his sister Tamara, who’s taught public school in the Bronx). The only news he’s made so far has been on the field. Last year, the team shuffled seven players through first base, and they hit a collective 21 home runs all season while compiling major-league-worsts in on-base percentage and batting average. Delgado is sure to dwarf those numbers: He’d hit fifteen homers through mid-May. What he’s done behind the scenes may be more important, though. “You see guys talking more about pitchers and what they’re trying to do, how to set guys up,” Randolph says. “That kind of stuff was not talked about last year. To the betterment of our club, it’s been because of Carlos. He’s the thinking man’s ballplayer.”
David Wright is skipping down the first-base line, shouting, “Go, Ball, Go!” apparently, it hears him. the ball sails 400 feet.
To Delgado, it’s a matter of carrying on a legacy. “When I first came up to Toronto in ’93, I was in a clubhouse with Joe Carter, Devon White, Jack Morris, Rickey Henderson. I didn’t say shit. I just sat there and watched those guys go about their business in a professional manner. They cared; they tried to win as many games as they could, but if something didn’t go right, they were able to make an adjustment right away, the next day or the next at-bat, and try to make it work. That’s what good teams do. If you sit there dreading this or dreading that, or bitching about this or complaining about that, you’re gonna be in trouble.”
There are sure to be hurdles ahead. The Atlanta Braves, winners of the NL East fourteen years in a row, have revived after a slow start. The Mets have gotten huge contributions from reserves like Endy Chavez, but the bench is thin. And then there’s the starting pitching. Minaya swears he won’t trade top minor-league prospects Lastings Milledge and Michael Pelfrey. But if the Mets are, say, five games out of first as the July 31 trading deadline approaches and Dontrelle Willis is being dangled, he’ll face the toughest decision of his career: Save for the future or seize the moment?
Delgado, who can be prickly, hasn’t endured anything remotely like the pressure of a New York pennant race. In a thirteen-year big-league career, he has played for only a handful of winners, never sniffing the playoffs. Now he’s leading a Mets team that’s expected to win.
David Wright is skipping down the first-base line, shouting, “Go, ball, go!” Apparently it hears him, because the ball sails 400 feet into the dark night sky, over the head of Johnny Damon, capping a wild comeback as the Mets beat the Yankees on a Friday night. Minutes later, Wright has stripped to his black Under Armour tank top, but his shower sandals barely touch the ground as he moves down the tunnel outside the Mets’ locker room. “In golf, you talk to the ball, trying to will it where you want it to go,” he says giddily. “Guess that’s what I was doing out there!”
The next afternoon, the mood in the Mets clubhouse is grim. Wagner is standing in front of his locker forthrightly repeating, “I sucked.” He’d entered the game in the top of the ninth with a four-run lead, and in an inexplicable display of wildness, handed the Yankees four runs. Two innings later, Jorge Julio surrendered the official game-losing hit.