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ESPN The Magazine: The Coolest
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The man has a secret, a really good secret. One he'd be glad to share with Junior or Barry or Sheff if he thought they'd want to hear it, which they don't. He'll tell you, though. Carlos Delgado's secret? Fame is awesome.

Oh, he knows it can do strange things to people. All he has to do is check in with his friend from childhood, Juan Gonzalez, to see that. But it can also be sweet. Fame has turned Delgado into a theater buff, a computer geek, a sushi lover, an opera fan. It has turned the slugging first baseman into the man about town in Toronto, hooked on yoga, fine restaurants and jazz clubs.

"I can't play baseball 24 hours a day," he says. "If I did, I'd go crazy."

You want crazy? Delgado pedals his mountain bike to the ballpark on game days. When people recognize him and stop him to ask for his autograph, he likes it. Feels like it connects him to the community.

And he likes his community. Most ballplayers would rather go through a slump than live and play in Canada. Delgado loves Toronto. Thinks it's good for him. "Good theater and restaurants and a good cultural mix," he says. "Taking all that in can only make you a better person. If I'm lucky, I'll play baseball for 15 years. Then, I'm 35. What am I gonna do, be a dumb jock?"

A Caribbean cross between Denzel and DiMaggio, Delgado is the current It Guy of sports -- the coolest guy in the game as much for what he is as what he isn't. "Carlos enjoys life," says Toronto shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who has known Delgado since both were in A-ball. "He doesn't worry about people recognizing him." Teammates marvel at the way Delgado embraces his celebrity. They call him the happiest man in baseball. He chats up umpires, baserunners and fans as if he were on the campaign trail.

And why not? Delgado has the life he dreamed of when he was signed as a 16-year-old nondrafted free agent off a shoddy field in his native Puerto Rico. Then, all he had was a big swing, a big grin, a small understanding of English and this mantra, handed down from Mel Queen, a roving instructor for the Blue Jays when Delgado was 17: Do things right, even when nobody is watching. Fast forward a decade, and he has blossomed into the backbone of the Blue Jays franchise.

Last season the 6'3", 235-pound first baseman made one of baseball's best runs at a Triple Crown in 33 years, finishing with PlayStation-type stats: a .344 batting average, 41 homers and 137 RBIs. Teams are so afraid of him -- and his (by today's standards) Bunyanesque 34-ounce bat -- that the scouting report on the Blue Jays is known simply as ABC: Anybody But Carlos. Delgado, though, is more than just the Blue Jays' cleanup hitter. Whether he's talking fringe players like Homer Bush out of slumps, or taking enigmatic Dodgers castoff Raul Mondesi under his wing, Delgado is the team's spokesman and conscience. "He cares about the club in all facets," says Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez. "How the players handle themselves, the image of the organization. He makes time for everyone. He is everything you could ask for."

It is 11:45 on a gray Friday morning. Carlos Delgado III strides through the lobby of the Boston Sheraton. He is impeccably styled in charcoal slacks and a black cotton turtleneck. Like zombies, the people in the lobby turn on cue when Delgado brushes by. He feels their stares and he smiles, a man at ease with himself.

"He's got this aura," Martinez says. "People, whether they're baseball fans or not, see him and think, 'That's somebody special. I gotta find out who that is.'"

This is what we learn from watching Delgado in the lobby of the Boston Sheraton: The man thoroughly enjoys being Carlos Delgado. And people -- even complete strangers -- enjoy being around him. Delgado, 29, lives life like it's one big amusement park, and he wants to explore all the rides. He'll be the first to admit being a single guy with a $68 million contract has more than its share of perks. Two years ago, he toured Europe with Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green, one of his closest friends. Last winter, he went to Japan and Australia. Still, Delgado doesn't get caught up in the excess that can come with celebrity. He has one car (a BMW 340 IL) and has fathered no children. Everything in his world, whether it's the Blue Jays clubhouse or travel plans for his next vacation, is in his control. Just the way he wants it. "Carlos is one of the smartest guys I know," says Green. "And not just in baseball." Though both are about the same age, Green, the former Toronto All-Star, says Delgado is like his big brother. "What separates him from other superstars," Green says, "is that he doesn't have the big ego. Baseball really isn't his life. If he had to quit tomorrow, I know he'd find something else as challenging, and he'd be a big success at it."

Delgado grew up in Aguadilla, a quiet seaport town of 60,000, about two hours northwest of San Juan. He continues to live there in the off-season, in a home just 10 minutes from his parents' place. Down there, people still think of him as Little Carlos, because when your old man stands 6'4", 340 pounds, and his name is Carlos, you will always be Little Carlos. Big Carlos is a retired drug and alcohol counselor and beloved local baseball coach. Delgado's mom, Carmen, who still works as a medical technician, thought her boy would someday grow up to be governor of Puerto Rico. Don't laugh -- being a Delgado in Aguadilla is like being a Kennedy in Boston. Little Carlos' grandfather, Carlos Delgado I, came there from the tuna-canning hub of Mayaguez. He became a local hero for his prodigious power as a free-swinging first baseman and as a noted cockfighter. Fifty years later, many of the same locals marveled at how his grandson, Carlos III, bashed mammoth home runs over the concrete fence in rightfield at Parque Colon, 421 feet from home plate. Little Carlos was 14 at the time.

Toronto signed Delgado for a $90,000 bonus in 1988, at the start of his senior year of high school and months before Puerto Rico came under the MLB draft umbrella. (He graduated the following June.) Then-Jays GM Pat Gillick immediately began touting his new find as having more power than Toronto first baseman Fred McGriff, who had blasted 34 dingers that season. Others in the organization say they didn't have to see the burly teen swing a bat to know he was special. "He had an air about him," recalls Martinez, then an announcer for the organization. "He was just a teenager, but you knew one day he was going to be a super baseball player."

It didn't happen overnight. Delgado made the Jays as a free-swinging catcher in 1994 and came out blazing, ripping a major league-best eight homers in Toronto's first 14 games that season (including two enormous blasts that banged off SkyDome's Hard Rock Cafe in the upper deck in right). But he managed only one more before being sent to the minors, with a .215 average, less than two months into the season. The experience humbled a guy who admits he wasn't ready to be thrown into the lineup of the defending World Series champs or even for the big leagues. One year later, though, Delgado returned and began establishing himself as a budding superstar. Since coming back from Triple-A Syracuse, Delgado has emerged as one of the league's most fearsome power hitters. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) since 1997 reads like this: .878, .977, .948, 1.134 and, through June 20 this season, .944. At the same time, his glovework around first base has gotten better and better.

Delgado is making a run at a home run title (he was tied for second in the AL with 20 as of June 20) again this year, although his batting average has tailed off, down to .268. Martinez says there's a good explanation for Delgado's slow start: "Nobody wants to pitch to him." Martinez points to Delgado's 53 walks, tied for third in the league, as proof. Delgado admits his patience is being tested, but says he and Toronto have the talent to overtake the Yankees and Red Sox. "If we can execute, we'll kick anybody's tail. It doesn't matter who we're playing." But that's just talk, and Delgado knows as well as anybody that actions are more important than words.

***

Vieques is a tiny tropical island 12 miles off the southeastern tip of Puerto Rico, accessible only by small plane or a ferry that makes three trips a day. Unemployment runs near 50% on the island and, unlike virtually every other Caribbean hotspot, it has no tourism business to speak of. The bombing doesn't help. Ask Delgado about it, and suddenly the dazzling smile vanishes.

The U.S. Navy began bombing exercises on Vieques in 1938. Many of the island's 9,400 residents blame the bombings and the toxic air particles they leave behind for what they claim are startlingly high incidences of cancer and other serious illnesses among the population.

Delgado has visited Vieques several times, donating money, meeting with schoolchildren and speaking out against the bombings. His stance against U.S. policy has been well-chronicled in Puerto Rico, but had received little coverage in Canada and the States. That changed this April, however, when Delgado, along with singer Ricky Martin and boxer Felix Trinidad, joined a group of prominent Puerto Rican celebrities who took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and The Washington Post, urging the Navy not to resume the bombing. "If someone was using your backyard as a practice range, dropping bombs, how would you feel?" Delgado asks. "The stats are there: Vieques has no economy and the highest cancer rate in Puerto Rico. It is wrong. In the States, people think it's not a big deal. They've been doing it for 60 years, and no one seemed to worry about it until a man got killed accidentally. But it was no accident; you're bombing a small island. I will be vocal about that."

Delgado's stance is uncommon for athletes today. Which other athletes have the guts to jeopardize potential endorsement deals by speaking out like that? Even though Delgado pitches for adidas, Franklin, Rawlings, Radio Shack and Hebrew National hot dogs, he says he couldn't care less if speaking out costs him: "If you don't want to give me an endorsement because I say that the government is wrong, I don't give a s--."

Old-school Latin major leaguers say Delgado carries on the legacy of baseball legend Roberto Clemente, the Hall of Famer who was killed in an airplane crash on New Year's Eve 1972 while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. "Carlos has the same stature as Roberto," says Toronto coach Cookie Rojas, who was a friend of Clemente. "Roberto always tried to help the Latin players and people, and wanted to leave something behind. He wanted to make people better. Carlos has all that same dignity and that same pride."

Is it surprising, then, that Delgado is fiercely protective of the game's heritage and works overtime to shepherd its image? Every time an athlete winds up on the police blotter, whines about his contract or complains about not having personal space, Delgado winces. "It's all about perception," he says. "It's like, 'Okay, here we go, more ammunition to generalize about baseball players.'"

This year his organization, Carlos' Kids, which helps underprivileged kids in Toronto, donated $75,000 to build inner-city baseball diamonds in the area. "These are the people who will be running the world in 10 years, and none of them were lucky enough to have the upbringing that I had," he says. "I'm very fortunate to be where I am. The way I look at it is, if you're in a position where you can make a difference, you have to."

And you have to like a guy with style, substance and one sweet stroke.

This article appears in the July 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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