Pat Hentgen didn't have to see Carlos Delgado to know the Blue Jays slugging prospect had stepped into the batting cage at his first spring training. Hentgen could hear it.
"I remember when we signed him, he was 16," recalled Hentgen, the former Cy Young winner. "You could turn your back on the field at the minor league complex and you could tell it was him because of the sound. He had special hands and he had special bat speed from the time he was a teenager."
Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez, who covered and managed Delgado in Toronto, also witnessed those early displays. He remembers a player with "unrestricted power."
"He had power that you don't see very often," Martinez said. "The first time we saw him we went 'Oh my God, this is Carlos Delgado.' We had heard about him."
Surely everyone who followed baseball ended up hearing about Delgado, and heard the unmistakable sound of him crushing a baseball. By the time he retired, after a 17-year big league career, he'd become just the fourth player ever to break the 30-homer barrier in 10 straight seasons (two more have since reached the mark). He remains the Blue Jays franchise leader in a myriad of offensive categories.
Had Delgado made enough noise to earn a nod to the hallowed Hall of Fame? Apparently not. In January, he dropped off the ballot for Cooperstown at the first time of asking, failing to get the required five percent of the vote to stay on another year. He needed at least 28 votes from the Hall's 549 voters. He got 21.
ESPN's Jayson Stark subsequently called Delgado "the best player in history to get booted...after his first year," writing that no player in an admittedly deep class of candidates had been a bigger victim of the Hall's "messed-up voting system."
Unless that system changes, Delgado will be waiting a while before being considered for Cooperstown again. The Puerto Rican star, whose career was ended by injuries after 2009, won't be eligible for induction via the Golden Era Committee until 2030, 21 years after his retirement.
This weekend, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ontario, is opening its doors to Delgado, welcoming him in alongside Felipe Alou, Corey Koskie, Matt Stairs, and journalist Bob Elliott. It's a welcome honour, to be sure, but is it less than Delgado deserves? How did such a prolific power hitter become an afterthought for enshrinement?
Delgado's Blue Jays tenure began just as back-to-back World Series champions were starting a slide into mediocrity, ownership inattentiveness and anonymity in the wider baseball world. As Hentgen points out, it was also a time before social media and MLB Network turned baseball into a 24-hour conversation between millions of fans sharing viral videos, GIFs, and tweets. In Toronto, Delgado's prodigious achievements came for a team that never finished higher than third-place in the AL East, out of the spotlight of the US media.
"When the Blue Jays are relevant then everybody pays attention," Martinez said. "In Delgado's time that wasn't the case, so he didn't get the same recognition. I think that probably hurt him."
Just thinking about those barren years hurts Hentgen, Delgado's teammate until the 2000 season.
"It's unfortunate that we couldn't put a championship team together when we were here, because I felt like we were close at times," he said.
After leaving as a free agent, too pricey for GM J.P. Ricciardi's cost-conscious regime, Delgado finished in Florida and New York. He only made the playoffs once, with the Mets in 2006. Still, it was an admirable October: he had four homers, 11 RBIs and an OPS of 1.199 in 10 postseason games, but a Game 7 loss to the Cardinals killed his World Series hopes.
Delgado also had the misfortune of playing at a time when steroid users stained the game and skewed statistical leaderboards, making his numbers seem less significant in comparison. Martinez firmly believes the sins of juiced-up contemporaries dimmed Delgado's power profile.
"Of course it did," Martinez said. "And Carlos has never been mentioned in any of those conversations. He should have a tremendous sense of pride in that because he was playing at a time when there was a lot of abuse going on."
Another of the knocks against Delgado is that his trophy case is mostly bare. He won three Silver Slugger awards and, in 2000, the Hank Aaron Award and The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year, but was never Most Valuable Player. Might his Cooperstown candidacy been viewed differently had he come first, not second to Alex Rodriguez, in the AL MVP race of 2003, when Chicago sportswriter Joe Cowley left Delgado and teammate Vernon Wells off his ballot? Accused of not taking the process seriously enough, Cowley lost his voting privileges for one year. Delgado was the far bigger loser, forever denied a prize that would have added heft to his resume.
Ultimately, however, perhaps no factor dented Delgado's Cooperstown chances more than the cap of 10 players per year on each ballot. Hall voters (who must have 10 years of continuous membership in the Baseball Writers' Association of America to take part) have been faced with a glut of potential candidates in recent years as the stars of the steroid era (chiefly Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens) prove too divisive to reach the election threshold of 75 percent. Voters did reach a surprising level of consensus this year by electing four players, the biggest class since 1955. First-timers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz all got in, while Craig Biggio overcame last year's narrow miss to make the cut.
Voter David Lariviere didn't include Delgado on his ballot, but wrote that he would have if he'd been allowed more than 10 players. Same goes for Toronto-based Shi Davidi, who covered Delgado's Jays career for The Canadian Press. Torn over whether to include Delgado, Davidi eventually filled the final spot on his ballot with Alan Trammell, reasoning that the former Tigers star compared more favourably to other shortstops than Delgado did to fellow first basemen.
"I really struggled with it," Davidi said. "If the ballot wasn't so stuffed, I think Delgado certainly stays on. I thought he deserved to."
Hentgen and Martinez both bristle slightly when the subject of Delgado's Hall shortfall comes up. It's clearly (and understandably) contentious that writers remain the guardians of Cooperstown's gates while broadcasters and major league alumni aren't much involved, if at all.
"It's a shame he didn't get five percent," Hentgen said. "He clearly was an elite hitter in his era. It's sad, really. The Hall of Fame voting probably needs to evolve. Something is wrong with the system if Delgado can't get five percent."
Ian Harrison has covered Major League Baseball in Toronto since 2002. He became a member of the BBWAA in 2007.