TORONTO – Watching Carlos Delgado stomp around the Rogers Centre infield once again, even in a suit and tie during a ceremony adding his name to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence on Sunday, offered those who remember his peak years a reminder of what a dynamic presence he was.
With an engaging smile and thundering swing, the Puerto Rican slugger was always in the middle of things during an impressive 17-year playing career, and his selection as the sixth player in team history to be thusly recognized was an obvious and well-deserved one.
You can debate his Hall of Fame credentials, perhaps, but not his place in the franchise hierarchy.
Thinking back to all those great seasons he put up – at least 30 home runs and 91 RBIs from 1997 through 2004, numbers that peaked at 44 and 145 during that stretch – what a shame it is that the Blue Jays didn’t do more to capitalize on them during his time here.
Probably the lasting memory for Blue Jays from Delgado’s days here is his four home run game, but while that is a timeless accomplishment, the other players up on the wall all invoke images of the post-season.
Say George Bell and you think of him catching the fly ball in short left that clinched the franchise’s first AL East crown in 1985, dropping to his knees in ecstasy as Tony Fernandez, also on the level, running in to join him.
The first memory of Dave Stieb is probably that of his no-hitter and maybe all the near misses, but the boss outing he delivered in Game 1 of the ’85 ALCS against the Kansas City Royals can’t be far behind.
Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter are synonymous with their unforgettable post-season home runs, the second baseman for his pivotal drive off Dennis Eckersley in the ’92 ALCS and the outfielder, of course, for his blast winning the ’93 World Series.
Delgado, while at the centre of some very talented cores that at various points included Shawn Green, Shannon Stewart, Roger Clemens, Pat Hentgen and Chris Carpenter from 1998-2000, and Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells in 2003 and ’04, through no fault of his own never got that chance.
The New York Yankees, winners of three straight World Series titles, were partly responsible for that, but so too were the Blue Jays, who were both unwilling to spend and unable to provide the supporting cast needed around him.
Just as they did with Roy Halladay, likely the next player added to the Level of Excellence, the Blue Jays squandered many of Delgado’s best years.
“It was always tough, but I want to believe you play it out on the field,” Delgado said of chasing the post-season. “We played against some of the great Yankees’ teams in the late-90s, early-2000s. Boston always had great teams. We had our chances. We didn’t have the deep pockets that they had. If you look at it on paper they probably had better squads than us, but I believe this is about execution … sometimes we made a push and fell short at the end. …
“We knew we had a tough task in front of us, but we were willing to play it out and we were willing to go to battle.”
The best season the Blue Jays had with Delgado came in 1998, when they were 88-74 but still finished third in the AL East, a ridiculous 26 games behind the Yankees.
They finished four games back of the Red Sox for the wild card that season, the closest he came to the playoffs with the Blue Jays. In 2000, they ended up 4½ games back of the Yankees for the division.
“Those teams from ’98, ’99, 2000 were probably the teams with the most opportunity to win,” says Delgado. “We had good pitching, good enough, had a couple of Cy Youngs mixed in there, Greenie had great years, we had some good ball clubs. It was pretty tough competition.
“It was kind of sad, you don’t like to lose, ever, but it happened that way.”
It is sad, part of a disappointing history since Carter, Alomar and Co., handed the reins to a new generation, and maintained by each new group that’s followed since.
This season was supposed to change that, but instead the Blue Jays playoff drought looks headed for a 20th consecutive year.
Still, while last winter’s buildup may not be paying immediate dividends, the principle is sound, as the Blue Jays don’t want to squander the best years Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Co. have to offer.
“I usually don’t but I’m going to give them some advice,” says Delgado. “Second half, just take it one game at a time. Don’t start looking at the standings. Don’t start trying to figure out how many games you need to win to make it to the playoffs. Just go out, have fun. But they have to play it out.
“Obviously they’ve found out that good players on paper don’t win championships. You have to figure out a way to gel. You have to figure out a way to pick each other up. You have to figure out a way to go out there and win even when guys are hurt, even when guys are struggling, even when you’re best players aren’t playing great. Right now they’re looking for a hero.”
To the Blue Jays’ great regret they had one in Delgado and didn’t make the most of his time here. He’s a part of many great memories from his time with Toronto, but ultimately not the kind everybody wanted most.