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SO FL SUN-SENTINEL
An Angel Stands Watch
Carlos Delgado's monster numbers on the field pale in comparison to his charitable works in Puerto Rico.
BY JUAN C. RODRIGUEZ
February 16, 2005
AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico · The lyrics are engraved around the base of a fountain in the town square. On the opposite end of the lamppost-lined plaza is a statue of the man who wrote them.
Rafael Hernandez, an Aguadilla native and central figure in Puerto Rican music history, composed the bolero Campanitas de Cristal almost 70 years ago. For many Puerto Ricans, the soothing din of little crystal bells remains audible.
A silk-handed angel still intones an uplifting jingle. It resonates from the coastal city of Aguadilla, to the bustling capital of San Juan, to the valiant isle of Vieques. The unceasing ring heralds comfort and hope.
It comes from Carlos Delgado.
When the Marlins lured Delgado with a four-year, $52 million contract to be their first baseman last month, they got a two-time All-Star. They got one of baseball's premier left-handed sluggers. They got one of the 15 players in major league history
to hit four home runs in a game.
Whatever else Delgado, 32, accomplishes on the field, chances are it won't
compare to what he's done beyond the bases.
Delgado has touched more lives with time, money and conviction than he ever could hitting fastballs over fences. His patronage ranges from the simplicity of donating baseball equipment to the complexity of supporting the cleanup and development of Vieques. A tiny island off the southeastern Puerto Rican coast used for U.S. Navy bombing maneuvers until 2003, Vieques has come to relish Delgado's backing.
"I consider him a reincarnation of Roberto Clemente," said Aixa Romero, 18, one of the many Vieques natives Delgado has assisted.
A plaque at Aguadilla's Parque Colón (Columbus Park) commemorates the stadium as the site of Clemente's final baseball clinic Dec. 27, 1972. Four days later, Clemente died when his Nicaragua-bound plane carrying earthquake relief supplies crashed shortly after takeoff. Delgado was six months old.
Like many athletes, Delgado has a charitable organization and presents countless checks. After Christmas, his Extra Bases Foundation delivered donations totaling $175,000 to 12 groups ranging from children's hospitals and shelters to the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School. In 2004, Extra Bases distributed more than $225,000.
"It was probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever done," Delgado said, of the $175,000 he apportioned. "People get caught up. They think, athletes, all they do is hang out in South Beach in beautiful apartments and great cars. There's another side to life and that keeps me real. ... It keeps me in touch with what's going on."
Not only does Delgado sign the checks, he reviews every proposal, invoice and request the foundation receives. In addition, Extra Bases conducts follow-up evaluations to make sure funds are properly allocated and needs are met.
"He's very methodical and he'll give to an institution, but he wants to make sure the money is being used well," said Carmen Delgado, Carlos' mother.
That's just what Delgado wanted to ascertain when he first called Romero. Then a 15-year-old high school student, Romero wrote about 50 letters to corporations, athletes and prominent Puerto Ricans. She hoped to secure financial assistance for a school biology trip to Florida.
"The only person who replied was Carlos Delgado," said Romero, now a student at Sacred Heart University in Santurce. "He called me and asked what the program was about. I told him and he donated $1,000."
It didn't end there. The two forged a friendship and communicate regularly by telephone and the Internet.
"God put him here with that purpose, so he could help people," said Roberto "Pito" Vargas, an Aguadilla resident and longtime Delgado family friend. "What can I tell you? There's nothing I can pay him with for what he's done for me."
HEART OF GOLD
Carmen Delgado described Roberto "Beto" Vargas, Pito's son, as feliz, gordito y colorado (happy, chubby and red-faced). Carlos' younger brother, Yasser, remembered how Beto would latch on to the older kids.
"I saw him grow up," Yasser, 30, said.
He also saw him die. Five years ago at age 20, Beto was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach and pelvic cancer. He spent his final three years receiving treatment in New York while family members resided at the Ronald McDonald House.
"Carlos doesn't like for me to tell this anywhere, but I have to tell people because I'm eternally grateful," said Vargas, speaking via phone from El Tiburon, an Aguadilla social club Delgado frequents to play dominos. "When he comes in, everybody wants to give him their chair. He says, `No, no, finish your game. After you play, I'll play.'"
Vargas recalled how Delgado gave him $10,000 for Beto's initial trip to New York. To help raise additional funds, Delgado collaborated with the owner of the El Meson fast-food chain, who also is an Aguadilla native. They produced special soft drink cups with Delgado's picture and donated $1 from each sale to help defray the Vargas' medical bills. The project raised $52,000.
Only Delgado knows how much he donated.
"Every time we had to pay expenses and stuff like that a mysterious hand would appear and pay it," Vargas, 45, said. "I know it was him, but he has never wanted to talk to me about it. Right up to [Beto's] death, Carlos was never far from us."
The money was important, but Delgado's greatest contribution was far less tangible. He was a regular visitor and would call often while Beto was in New York. Before spring training in 2001, Delgado flew up and treated him to a birthday dinner.
Beto asked for pizza.
When Beto died in 2003, Delgado covered the cost of transporting the body back to Puerto Rico. Vargas estimated more than 10,000 paid their respects.
"Whenever he was down, I don't know how but he'd get a call from Carlos," Vargas said. "He'd call and tell me, `Papa, Carlos called me.' I still talk about it and my heart breaks. There's a purpose to life. My son is gone, but I can also say maybe God wanted people to know there was a person like Carlos Delgado out there."
The thud of aluminum bats striking yellow, pocked practice balls commingles with the crash of waves hitting the seawall across the street. Inside Parque Colón, the former home of the Class AA Tiburones (Sharks), Aguadilla's amateur team, teenagers in the local RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) program take turns hitting.
Delgado was at most 16 when he last played on this field. According to his father, Carlos Sr., among his son's biggest baseball regrets is never hitting a ball over the right-field wall, which stands 396 feet away down the line and 415 to right-center.
At those same points, Dolphins Stadium is 345 feet and 385, respectively.
"You saw a lot of triples there," said Carlos Sr., who won two league titles during his six years managing the Tiburones, a club he still runs.
A mountain of a man at 6 feet 4 and more than 300 pounds, Delgado's father was his primary coach. A satellite dish provides a bounty of major league games, all of which he manages from his family room sofa.
When he was in the dugout directing the Tiburones, it wasn't odd for Carlos Sr. to put on a suicide squeeze play with two strikes on the batter.
"That's just craziness," the younger Delgado said, as he peeled a grapefruit in his parents' kitchen and listened to his father boast about his managerial unpredictability.
When it came to raising their kids, Carlos and Carmen took a more by-the-book approach. Both are retired, Carlos from a career as a social worker and drug and alcohol counselor, and Carmen as a laboratory technician. She was the proprietor of her own clinical lab, a business she sold five years ago.
"I could have retired earlier, but we wanted to keep things more or less like they were," said Carmen, whose son's baseball earnings will have surpassed $138 million by the end of his current contract. "He's talked to us about moving, but we're fine here. He comes here a lot and so do the other kids, and the neighborhood is good."
Carlos and Carmen have spent 20 years in the same four-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac in the Reparto Ramos, a middle class residential community. Their oldest daughter, Tania, and third child, Yasser, live in Aguadilla. Tamara, the youngest of the four children, resides in New York with her husband and 3-year-old son, one of Delgado's two nephews.
Single and without kids, Delgado doesn't splurge on himself either. He owns two cars, one a Toyota Tundra pickup. He is renovating a house in Aguadilla and plans to move in next year. At 6,000 square feet, it's hardly a shack, but well smaller than what he can afford.
"I think that's huge," said Delgado, between bites of empanadas, and ham and cheese slices. "I live well. I just don't need the 10,000 square foot house for myself. I can only drive one car at a time, so why do I need 10 different cars? I'm very practical."
Back at Parque Colón, Hiram Martinez, 12, is playing third base wearing a long-sleeve Mike Piazza Mets T-shirt. His most prized baseball possession is at his nearby Aguada home.
Delgado's signature is on the back of a Roberto Clemente pullover. Martinez has long since outgrown the shirt. That doesn't stop him from wearing it.
"I always use it because it gives me more energy," said Martinez, who in 2003 attended a Delgado baseball clinic at Canena Marquez Stadium, the Tiburones' current home. "It's up to here [pointing at his belly button]. I use it anyway, even if I have to wear my pants [higher]."
LITTLE BIT ABOUT EVERYTHING
Sitting on a wicker couch in her front patio, Carmen recalled how former Blue Jays General Manager Pat Gillick came to the house in 1988 and signed her son for a $90,000 bonus, money used to open an IRA and purchase bonds. He was 16 and baseball rules precluded him from beginning a professional career until he completed high school or turned 18.
Delgado graduated in two years and departed for St. Catherines of the New York-Penn League as a 17-year-old.
In addition to daily phone calls and periodic visits, Delgado's parents eased their son's transition with care packages. His father provided a steady supply of books.
"All kinds," Carmen said. "Self-help, literature, baseball books, everything. ... He had a great capacity to adapt, to learn."
That hasn't changed. When he's not devouring a paperback, he might be looking over the shoulder of a computer technician, auto mechanic, or landscaper doing work for him to "figure out why."
"I'll say, `Why do you put that in there? Why does this work like this?'" said Delgado, who's currently reading Angels & Demons and a 900-page biography of author Gabriel García Márquez. "I'm a streaky hitter and a streaky reader. Sometimes if I pick up a couple of books that I like I can't put them down. Sometimes a couple of months go by and I don't read anything. I can't go to college while I'm playing baseball, but I can pick up a book on something I'm interested in and read about it."
Ask Delgado what he's passionate about outside the game and his answer is immediate: "Dominos." He's a bike rider. He's a scuba diver. He's a computer geek.
He's a movie buff. He's a theatergoer. He's a food connoisseur.
"He's the type of person that you mention something, NASA, whatever, and he'll know something about it," brother Yasser said. "He knows a little bit about everything."
SUPPORTER OF VIEQUES
A self-proclaimed spreadsheet master, Carlos Delgado knows plenty of medical terms from proposals his foundation receives. Two years ago, he committed $250,000 to a telecommunications system that allows stateside doctors to assist with surgeries performed in Puerto Rico.
He also knows the terminology of war. Delgado is unified with Vieques residents in their quest to regain land and achieve a better socio-economic future. Though the U.S. Navy stopped its 56-year stretch of bombing runs and other military maneuvers there in May 2003, exploded and unexploded munitions have contaminated the island. Almost two-thirds of Vieques is under U.S. Department of
Fishing and Wildlife control, unavailable for development.
"Vieques was a victim and still is a victim of the military presence here for more than half a century," said Robert Rabin, a director of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, adding that the island has the greatest incidence of cancer per capita in Puerto Rico. "We hope to keep counting on Carlos' support. He's conscious of the fact that achieving peace is more than ceasing the bombing. ... His solidarity comes from a perspective of great sensibility. Vieques is Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico is Vieques. As a Puerto Rican, Carlos clearly knows the reality of the suffering in this community."
Delgado makes annual visits there for the Three Kings Day festival. Money he's donated has been earmarked for everything from athletics to school projects to health programs. He was among the handful of prominent Puerto Ricans and others named on full-page ads in The New York Times and Washington Post to raise awareness about Vieques in 2001.
Rabin, whose committee opposes militarism of any kind, was proud to learn about Delgado's anti-war stance. To demonstrate his opposition to the war in Iraq, Delgado does not stand for God Bless America, which is played at major league ballparks during the seventh-inning stretch on Sundays.
The Marlins do not have a team policy regarding the song, so Delgado will continue his silent protest to the intermingling of 9-11, the Iraq war, and baseball.
"[Vieques] has great love for Carlos, for his support and his solidarity, for his honesty, for his commitment to achieving peace," Rabin said.
Added Romero, the Vieques youth Delgado befriended: "The community receives him like one of the family."
Wherever he is received, the sound of little crystal bells is sure to follow.