On the night when Major League Baseball honored the legacy of Jackie Robinson by having every player, coach and manager wear his iconic No. 42, Carlos Delgado hit the 471st home run of his career.
04/28/2009 1:13 PM ET
Delgado following Clemente's path
Mets first baseman trying to live up to Puerto Rican's standard
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
The next night, he hit No. 472 and pushed his career total past 1,500 runs batted in. That night, however, he was back in his own iconic No. 21, a silent tribute to his hero, Roberto Clemente.
"It is my way of honoring the man and his memory," Delgado said. "Clemente's life and legacy are very important for Puerto Rico."
Some day, Delgado hopes, Clemente's No. 21 will be retired throughout baseball, the way Robinson's No. 42 was in 1997.
"That would be nice, a nice tribute for what he represented, his humanitarian efforts," he said. "He was an ambassador for baseball."
As Delgado's home run and RBI totals climb, he is closing in on some Hall of Famers, behind Mickey Mantle by four RBIs and trailing Stan Musial and Willie Stargell by three home runs. The only active players with more RBIs are Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez. Those four plus Jim Thome are the only active players with more home runs. Delgado has had 11 seasons with 30 or more home runs, trailing only active players Ramirez, Rodriguez and Thome, who each have 12 such seasons.
That's nice company to be in, but they are not the names that drive Delgado. His idol, the man he tries to emulate both on and off the field, is Clemente, Major League Baseball's first great Latin-American player and the first Latin player inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Delgado was born on June 25, 1972, six months before Clemente was killed when the plane he was aboard, loaded with rescue supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua, crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. The death of the island's first baseball hero left a permanent scar on the people of the territory.
"I think I first heard of him in school, definitely when I started playing ball," Delgado said.
He learned that Clemente's decision to go on the New Year's Eve rescue flight was typical of the man, whose last hit three months earlier was the 3,000th of his career.
"People thought he was a good player, but the stuff he did off the field goes beyond the 3,000 hits, the Hall of Fame," Delgado said. "On the island, Clemente's name lives on. There are schools, stadiums and parks named after him. This guy dedicated his life to helping the needy. He gave a lot."
And Delgado has followed his lead. He organized the Extra Bases Foundation to fund charitable organizations committed to helping needy children in Canada, the United States and Puerto Rico. His donations over the years to that and other charities have exceeded $2.5 million, and he has received a number of sports humanitarian awards. The most important came in 2006 when he won Major League Baseball's award for his charitable work. It is named for Roberto Clemente.
Except for the 3,000 hits, Delgado's individual statistics compare favorably to Clemente's. He is well past the Hall of Famer's career total of 240 home runs and 1,305 RBIs. Clemente never hit four home runs in a game the way Delgado did in 2003 against Tampa Bay. Clemente never drove in nine runs in a game, the way Delgado did last June 27 against the New York Yankees.
"Three thousand hits?" he said. "I don't know about that. We'll see."
Delgado has 2,027 hits through Monday's Mets win over Florida. He collected his 2,000th hit as part of a four-hit day in Atlanta last Sept. 21.
Delgado is the all-time leader in home runs and RBIs by a Puerto Rican-born player and one of just four players -- Frank Robinson, Dick Allen and Vladimir Guerrero are the others -- to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in both leagues.
They are notable achievements for a man who remains one of baseball's most feared sluggers, a man who plays in the permanent shadow of the island's greatest player -- his idol, Roberto Clemente.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.