Delgado honored with Clemente Award

Delgado receives Clemente Award

ST. LOUIS -- Nine days earlier, Carlos Delgado was in the same interview room at Busch Stadium to talk about the two home runs he had just hit for the Mets to even the National League Championship Series at two wins apiece.

He was back there on Tuesday for a very different reason. Out on the field, the Cardinals, and not the Mets, were taking batting practice before Game 3 of the World Series against Detroit. In this room, Delgado was receiving the Roberto Clemente Award in recognition of the player who in 2006 best exemplified sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to his team.

"It is a weird feeling," he said Tuesday. "But this is very special. It's a totally different context. I think we were the best team in the National League. We just didn't win the series we needed to win. At the end of the day, St. Louis is going to say they won it, and we congratulate them, but in my mind we were the best in the National League."

That remarkable Game 7 last Thursday in New York meant that Delgado would not be at the World Series in quite the capacity he had wanted as a player, but no one could argue that he was deserving of the honor he was presented by Commissioner Bud Selig and Vera Clemente, widow of the award's legendary namesake.

Major League Baseball has presented the award annually, beginning in 1971 when it was named The Commissioner's Award, to recognize the player who best exemplified sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to his team. The award was renamed in 1973 in honor of Clemente, the former Pirates outfielder and Puerto Rican legend who died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, while attempting to transport relief supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua.

There were 30 nominees for this year's presentation, one from each MLB club, and Delgado was chosen as the third Mets recipient -- following Gary Carter in 1989 and Al Leiter in 2001. A panel of dignitaries, including Selig and Vera Clemente, made the selection.

"We found out last week and really had a hard time not telling everybody [at the NLCS], because it means so much," Delgado said. "This is a great honor, really special. Thirty-four years after Roberto has passed, his legacy is still very much alive. I don't know what else you can say about someone who has been gone for 34 years. He's an icon. I'm a fan. I would say, 'When I grow up, I want to be like that.'"

Delgado grew up in Clemente's homeland of Puerto Rico, and he grew up wearing No. 21 as a ballplayer to emulate his idol. Delgado said "everybody" on that island wants to wear that uniform number, which he regained in 2006 as a new member of the Mets.

"When I got to the Blue Jays, I was 21 until a guy you've probably heard of came aboard and wore No. 21," Delgado said, referring to Roger Clemens, who had joined Toronto from Boston. "So I took 25 at the time. When I went to the Mets this season, I switched back. I wore uniform No. 21 this year in his memory.

"Roberto's legacy to me is that it's an athlete's obligation to give back. That's what I have tried to do throughout my career."

Delgado is one of the game's biggest stars, and he takes the obligation to community seriously in that role, with a primary focus on children in his native country. He raises funds through his foundation, Extra Bases, a non-profit, Puerto Rico-based charity he founded in 2001 to assist underprivileged and deserving children. Delgado is in the process of expanding the foundation to serve the New York area as well.

Funds for the Extra Bases program are raised in part through the sale of bracelets at Shea Stadium -- the bracelets are inscribed with "Follow your dreams" and cost $3. Delgado's homers also raise money as he and corporate sponsors contribute $2,400 for each home run he hits. His slugging produced $91,200 in 2006 (38 homers) and more than $1 million over the last five years.

The foundation also stages yearly pre-Thanksgiving feasts for hundreds of homeless, underprivileged and disabled children in Delgado's hometown, Aguadilla. Delgado is on hand to help prepare and serve the food. In addition, he travels to various toy stores annually around Christmas and purchases gifts that he personally delivers to hundreds of children in Puerto Rico.

Delgado reinforces the importance of education, as well. This year, as he did last year, he is sponsoring two four-year college scholarships. In addition, he sponsors trips to New York for the top students in Puerto Rico. Recently, more than 35 students enjoyed a five-day tour of the Big Apple that was capped off with a lunch at Shea Stadium with Delgado, who inspired the children with a passionate speech about following their dreams.

Delgado also helped launch the Mets' "School Is Amazing" week in May by discussing the importance of getting a good education with the students of I.S. 145 in the Jackson Heights area of New York.

"Roberto Clemente's contributions as a person transcend time and continue to have an impact today," Selig said in making the announcement. "On behalf of the entire baseball family, I am thrilled to present Carlos with this award that celebrates his commitment to the community. His work with youth in Puerto Rico and New York are wonderful examples of the positive influence the game can have on the lives of others."

"My congratulations to Carlos Delgado on his selection as the recipient of the 2006 Roberto Clemente Award," Vera Clemente said at the table, with sons Luis and Roberto Clemente Jr. in attendance. "His performance on the field and dedication and commitment to the community truly embody the spirit of this award."

Delgado clearly was touched by the personal news last week that he had won this award. He asked that people visit for a "list of centers we work with, coming events, and to make a donation." But beyond that, in typical fashion, he was low-key in discussing his own charitable work.

"I'm not expecting any recognition, but this is special. There's a big group of players who make important contributions every day," Delgado said. "I'm blessed with health and energy and passion for the game of baseball, and I believe in children. They are the future. If we can put them in a position to make them more successful, then we have done our jobs."

Delgado would have liked to still be doing his job as a player right here in this setting. He appeared in two games as a rookie for Toronto in the club's repeat-championship season of 1993, but he was not on the postseason roster -- and then he never reached another postseason until this year.

The slugger took advantage of the grand stage in 2006, going 13-for-37 with four homers and 11 RBIs in the combined series against the Dodgers and Cardinals. Unfortunately for Delgado and the Mets, the road ended when he was left on deck in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the NLCS on Thursday against the Cardinals.

Delgado underwent a surgical procedure on Monday on his right wrist for carpal tunnel syndrome, and it was wrapped in a bandage during the Roberto Clemente Award ceremony. When Selig stood to shake his hand, Delgado had to offer his left hand instead.

"It feels good," Delgado said of the hand. "The operation took 10 minutes, and [it'll be] about two weeks before the wound closes, then I'm back to normal."

He actually was between surgical procedures here, because he is scheduled to undergo surgery on Monday for what the Mets described as "tennis elbow." Delgado said it is the same condition that kept him out of the starting lineup for Puerto Rico during the World Baseball Classic last March.

"We were able to manage the symptoms during the season," he said, "but you've got to get it done. I'll be all set next spring."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.