The Boys of Spring

Carlos Delgado on deck against the Phillies.Photo: Benjamin Lowy

Hang on tight. The Mets are turning yet another game into a blindfolded ride on the Cyclone. And it’s only the first inning.

In some ways, this is a relief. The Mets have won three of the past four games in ludicrously dramatic style. Friday night, they fell behind the Yankees and Randy Johnson 4-0 in the top of the first, rallied to tie the game in the third inning and then again in the fifth, and finally won it in the bottom of the ninth. Saturday afternoon brought a shocking, vomit-bag loss, with prized $43 million closer Billy Wagner coughing up a 4-0 advantage in the ninth. Sunday night, another early lead for the Yankees, another comeback Mets win on back-to-back homers. Monday was for sleep—luckily, because Tuesday night, the Mets spotted Philadelphia a four-run lead, tied the game on a two-run Jose Reyes homer in the eighth, and then, after nearly five and a half hours, won the marathon in the bottom of the sixteenth on a blast by Carlos Beltran.

Today, all that’s on the line is the lifelong dream of a Cuban émigré and the future of the Mets’ starting rotation. Alay Soler escaped Castro on a harrowing boat ride, then spent nearly two years trapped in bureaucratic visa hell. In the past six weeks, Soler has been on a vertigo-inducing rise from the minors to Shea Stadium. He’s today’s starting pitcher against the Phillies because the Mets, despite being in first place in the National League East, are desperate for someone competent to follow the geniuses Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine and give the brilliant-but-overworked bullpen a rest. The team’s success is as fragile as the chronically sore sesamoid bones in Martinez’s right big toe. And now the 26-year-old Soler appears to be on the verge of a heart attack. He’s walked the first three batters he’s faced in the big leagues.

Twenty years ago, Mets pitcher Jesse Orosco was seriously rattled. It was the sixteenth inning of an epic, playoff-series-turning battle with Houston. The Astros were teeing off on Orosco’s fastball and had the winning run on base when the emotional leader of the 1986 Mets, first-baseman Keith Hernandez, went to the mound. “Throw another fastball and I’m knocking you on your ass,” Hernandez said. Orosco threw six straight sliders to strike out Kevin Bass. Soon the Mets were spraying World Series champagne.

Today, Mets first-baseman Carlos Delgado goes to the mound. The Mets traded three prospects to the Florida Marlins for Delgado, eager to install the two-time All-Star power hitter in the middle of their batting order. And Delgado has delivered huge hits. But of equal value has been his leadership.

Now Delgado stands talking with Soler. The stakes aren’t nearly as high as they were in October 1986. But it is small moments like this, scattered throughout a long season, that build the camaraderie that is both overly mythologized and utterly necessary.

Delgado returns to first base. Soler climbs the hill. And the strikes start coming. Soler gives up a single and one run, then coaxes what should be an inning-ending double-play grounder—except that the ball skips between the legs of second-baseman Chris Woodward. But Soler has found some calm, and a groove: He retires the next three Phillies, striking out the last hitter on a wicked slider. The Mets charge back to win, 5-4.

“I told him, ‘This is no different than what you’ve done before. Relax,’ ” Delgado says later. Has he ever threatened a pitcher who was blowing a game? “I don’t think,” he says, his brown eyes steady and intense, “that the mound is the place to do it.”

What a great start. For much of April, the Mets owned the best record in the majors. The team has held first place in the National League East for all but one day of the season. The Mets have shown amazing resilience, dropping six of nine games on a recent road trip only to return home and snatch those two thrill-ride wins from the Yankees, then take two of three from the second-place Phillies. The winter acquisitions of Delgado, Wagner, and catcher Paul Lo Duca have largely lived up to the hype, adding to the momentum from the 2005 signings of Martinez and Beltran.

The 2006 Mets aren’t just good, they’re highly entertaining. But they’re playing a dangerous game. Of the Mets’ first 28 wins, twelve were come-from-behind victories, eight came in the Mets’ final at-bat, and six were walk-off stunners. This is the most talented Mets team in two decades, but it’s not a dominant team.

The other reason for the torture is that these are the Mets. This franchise never does things the easy way, which is part of its charm. Now, though, the Mets have picked the perfect time in New York sportsworld to get good: The Yankees are impersonal, the Knicks are a joke, and while the Nets, Giants, and Jets aren’t bad, they’re in Jersey.

Delgado and David Wright. This year's Mets are uncharacteristically unified.Photo: Corbis

The Mets are likable, and the recent turbulence never disturbed the team’s core personality trait, its exuberance. If the Mets don’t have the happiest clubhouse in the bigs, doctors need to start testing other teams for something besides steroids. The morning after a painful loss, the Mets’ locker room echoes with the shouts from the resumption of a raucous, season-long dominoes tournament—a scene and a mood you’ll never see in the oppressively serious Yankees’ locker room, win or lose. “We don’t know each other 100 percent yet,” Martinez says. “But there’s great harmony.”

Harmony is easy when you’re in first place. Maintaining the vibe will grow tougher as October approaches. There are whimsical Dominicans, sarcastic African-Americans, an implacable Japanese, goofball white guys, and taciturn white guys on the roster. The best reason for hope, though, is that the Mets are assuming the temperament of a single outwardly tranquilo, internally complex, metronome-steady Puerto Rican.

It is one hour before the first pitch and four days before Mother’s Day. David Wright and Carlos Delgado are in the Mets’ dugout, awaiting their turn in the batting cage. Wright, 23, is bursting with puppyish energy. He never stops moving. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. He flips his batting helmet from hand to hand. He wipes his face on his uniform sleeves. He taps his bat against the toes of his sneakers. He bounces up the dugout steps to wave to fans, then hops back down.

“There’s that charity thing on Sunday, for Mother’s Day and breast cancer!” Wright says to Delgado. “They’re gonna get us pink bats for the game! You gonna use one?”

Delgado is built like a vertical cinder block with legs. Even sitting down, as he is now, he’s a formidable presence. At 33, he has dozens of gray flecks in his sharply trimmed goatee. He is dark-skinned with a level, unwavering gaze. But Delgado’s solidity is more than cosmetic. He laughs as hard as anyone, but Delgado oozes seriousness of purpose. After every at-bat, he returns to the dugout and charts each pitch he saw in a notebook. “Sure, I’ll use the pink bat,” Delgado says quietly.

“Even if it’s a lousy bat?” Wright chirps.

“Sure,” Delgado replies, then ponders and calculates. “But maybe not for more than one at-bat.” Pause. “Sunday,” he says. “Milwaukee. Who’s pitching?”

Guys talk more about the game, says Willie Randolph. “That’s because of Carlos. He’s the thinking man’sballplayer.”

Wright shrugs and stretches his legs.

“They’ve got Capuano going tonight. Which means Hendrickson tomorrow. So we should get Davis Sunday.” He is, of course, correct about the Milwaukee pitching rotation, and when Mother’s Day rolls around, Wright and Delgado use their good-cause lumber the entire game, collecting one hit apiece, though the Mets lose, 6-5.

In 2005, with the gifted Wright and Reyes playing their first full seasons, the Mets won twelve more games than they did the previous year and stayed in the playoff hunt until an ugly September losing streak. Omar Minaya, in his second winter as general manager, fortified the bullpen by acquiring Duaner Sanchez and refusing to parole Aaron Heilman. He added major talents in three key roles: first-baseman (Delgado), closer (the redneck lefty Wagner), and catcher (the sly, fiery Lo Duca). Yet Minaya and manager Willie Randolph were also intent on filling a leadership void. Mike Piazza was the face of the Mets for eight seasons and a terrific hitter for most of that time, but he was more interested in being laid-back than being The Man; no Mets official tried to stop Piazza from signing a free-agent deal with San Diego. That left center-fielder Carlos Beltran as the highest-paid Met. But the shy, deeply religious Beltran is uncomfortable in the spotlight.

Minaya has all the same arcane, computerized OBPS and WHIP charts as his rivals. Yet he’s assembled the Mets as much by instinct as by spreadsheet. The 2006 team is a rebuke to both the spare-no-expense monsters (the Mets’ payroll is $93.5 million lower than the Yankees’) and the stat-head, chemistry-doesn’t-matter new wave of thinking. “We want great players,” Minaya says, “but we want them to be great character guys, too.”

The dynamics of baseball teams are intricate and shifting, so anointing one leader is silly, and the Mets are blessed with multiple bold personalities, including Martinez, Wagner, Lo Duca, and left-fielder Cliff Floyd. They added the 47-year-old Julio Franco because he’s not only a canny pinch hitter but also a revered dugout sage. “What’s special is everyone here is hungry, everyone’s on the same path,” Franco says. “The guys who I would have been worried about playing with are no longer here.”

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.”

Wright grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, the oldest of four sons of a policeman, but his looks and outlook are classic midwestern farm boy. He’s pale, muscular but not chiseled, with large brown eyes, a toothy smile. Off the field, the unmarried Wright wears an upscale mall wardrobe—Tommy Bahama short-sleeve shirts with Bermuda shorts—that makes him the butt of jokes by his older, hipper teammates. “Hey, Clark Kent,” teases Cliff Floyd, a soulful Chicagoan. “Nice white-leather watchband.”

Delgado was raised in Aguadilla, a small town on Puerto Rico’s west coast, the second of four children. His mother worked as a medical technician and his father as a drug-and-alcohol counselor. They taught their son to be conscious of poverty and politics, and Delgado has raised and donated money for numerous charities. He’s spoken out against the use of Vieques as a testing ground for American bombs. But he’d certainly been no radical; most of his efforts were as subtle as the tiny Puerto Rican flag stitched into the flap of his baseball spikes.

The small number of pro athletes with the guts to voice their political opinions are right-wingers; even fewer are progressives willing to act on their principles. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, Delgado decided he wouldn’t stand on the field with his Toronto teammates during daily renditions of “God Bless America.” He disagreed with the war, but he also disliked the way baseball was being used for political purposes. Delgado didn’t call any press conferences to announce his boycott—just as he never publicized donating $100,000 to an FDNY widows and children’s fund several days after September 11—and no one noticed his well-timed absences until July 2004, when a story in the Toronto Star detailed Delgado’s political opinions. Boos and death threats rained. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig harrumphed that he wanted to meet to discuss the situation. Delgado rolls his eyes when asked if Selig followed through. “No,” he says. “What’s he gonna tell me?”

He has no regrets—“You can’t make everybody happy. We live in a so-called democracy”—but as he read stories that misrepresented his beliefs and branded him as unpatriotic, he learned a powerful lesson. “It’s amazing how the media can get a story out there and people will believe it,” Delgado says. “Blind. They just take it to the bank like their payroll check. More than ever, I realized we as a society need to educate ourselves and come to our own conclusions before believing what somebody else will say.”

Does he feel vindicated by the increased unpopularity of the war? “No, no,” Delgado says. “If the war had become popular, would that mean I’m wrong? You believe what you believe, and you stick by your guns, and that’s it.” While nothing has changed to alter Delgado’s ranking of Iraq as “the stupidest war ever,” he continues to support the soldiers sent to wage the fight, especially those he knows firsthand. A son of Delgado’s friend and business associate Robert Rodriguez is in Iraq with the U.S. Army, and Delgado keeps in touch by e-mail. “I think he’s in Baghdad right now,” Delgado says. “Physically, he’s been okay. But it’s still scary. It’s not fun.”

Pro athletes are considered intellectuals if they read books without pictures. Lately Delgado has been devouring Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, a nonfiction best seller by John Perkins. “He goes into some countries that have a lot of resources, and he says, ‘Wow, we can really develop your country, blah, blah, blah,’ and they paint a pretty picture—‘We can build you a huge airport, a huge electric plant, whatever, we’ll get you financing’—and the next thing you know, it’s a big scam. Now that country’s in debt to the United States, and the United States goes in and says, ‘You’re in debt to us, can we get some of your oil, some of your power, some of your resources?’ It’s pretty interesting.”

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 downthe first-base line, shouting,“Go, Ball, Go!”apparently, it hears him. theball 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.

Delgado slings a blue leather tote bag across his torso, college-student style, and exits the clubhouse. “Yeah, it sucks at the moment that we lost a game we had a good opportunity to win,” he says, hefting some souvenir bats over his shoulder, gifts for visiting friends. “The best thing is to have short-term memory. If you don’t, the next thing you know, it all compounds. Turn the page, learn from what happened today, come back the next game.”

Platitudes? Sure. Until Delgado steps into the batter’s box in the fourth inning on Sunday, with two runners on base and the Yankees up, 2-0. A fastball arrives belt-high, and Delgado crushes it over the right-field fence. The celebratory fireworks smoke hasn’t cleared when Wright, up next, smacks an even longer shot over the wall in left. Later, Wagner seals the win with a scoreless ninth inning.

If the Mets win the pennant, Delgado’s homer will be cited as one turning point in the season. “You can talk all you want in here,” he says in front of his locker, rubbing lotion on his shaven scalp. “But if you don’t get it done on the field, it doesn’t matter.” If the Mets are going to reach October, they’re going to need Carlos Delgado to keep doing both.

The Boys of Spring