TORONTO -- Carlos Delgado assumed his rightful place on The Level of Excellence when the Blue Jays honored their all-time great prior to Sunday afternoon's game against the Rays.
Delgado became the 10th person to have his name placed on the facing of the upper deck at Rogers Centre following a memorable career that included 12 seasons in Toronto.
It was a foregone conclusion that Delgado would eventually receive the prestigious recognition, but it still caught the franchise's best homegrown power hitter off-guard when he received the phone call from president Paul Beeston late last year.
"This was a surprise," Delgado told a group of reporters the day before his ceremony. "I would say that I played the game to try to win, to go out there and do the best that I can with my abilities. I was not into awards or recognition. Having said that, I can say that when I got that phone call from Mr. Beeston, I was super excited.
"I look up at that Level of Excellence, and you see some great names, some great ball players and some great icons of the Toronto Blue Jays' history. So I'm completely honored and flattered."
Delgado joins an impressive group on The Level of Excellence, including: Dave Stieb, George Bell, Joe Carter, Cito Gaston, Tony Fernandez, Pat Gillick, Tom Cheek, Roberto Alomar and Beeston.
It's a well-deserved honour for a player who still is the franchise leader in virtually every major statistical category. Delgado is first in home runs (336), RBIs (1058), OPS (.949), runs (889) extra-base hits (690) and walks (827).
Delgado also ranks second in on-base percentage (.392) and third in hits (1,413), while playing the second most games of any Blue Jays player with 1,423. He's a two-time All-Star and received MVP votes after seven of his 17 big league seasons, including 2003, when he finished second to Texas' Alex Rodriguez.
The final results are more than impressive, but it wasn't always easy for the former slugger. He made his Major League debut in 1993, and made the team out of Spring Training the following season, but it wasn't until 1996 that he became a regular in the big leagues.
Perhaps the biggest key to his success was the work Delgado put in off the field. He kept a book with information on all of the pitchers he faced, and was notorious for taking meticulous notes on his opposition after every game. The talent was always there, but it was the mental side of the game that took him to the next level.
"I had some potential, but I kind of taught myself how to hit and how to make adjustments, and I think that's a big thing in this game," said Delgado, who singled out his former manager, Gaston, as one of his biggest mentors. "I learned that the hard way in 1994 when I got sent down. I put a lot of time and effort into figuring out what I was good at, how the teams were pitching me, how they were trying to get me out and how can I maximize my swing and my approach to try and be the best player that I could.
"I can tell you right now, every time I swung at high fastballs I probably hit .200, I was a low-ball hitter. But it's one thing knowing it, and actually executing and making it happen consistently."
If there's one regret from Delgado's career, it was how his playing days came to an end. He last played for the Mets in 2009 when a hip injury cost him the rest of the season. The intention was to come back and play, but a supposed minor surgery turned into two procedures, and then three.
It was degenerative condition and one that would prohibit him from ever playing again. As recently as eight months ago, Delgado was forced to get hip replacement surgery and the fact that his career came to a premature conclusion meant he finished just 27 homers shy of 500.
That likely will have a negative impact in his bid for the Hall of Fame, but in the mind of Delgado things could have been a lot worse.
"Every athlete would like to walk out on their own terms," Delgado said. "Unfortunately the hip injury was a big deal. I didn't think it was going to be.
"I wanted to get back, I wanted to get 500 home runs. I figured I had a chance, but unfortunately it didn't work out. It was easier to swallow because I just couldn't play. Even if I wanted to play, physically I couldn't play. I couldn't perform at this level. I think it would have been a lot harder if I rehabbed, was good to go and didn't get a job. That would have been devastating."
Delgado's moment of glory came on Sunday in front of a near-capacity crowd at Rogers Centre. The first 20,000 fans in attendance received a commemorative Carlos Delgado baseball to honour the occasion and were treated to a pregame ceremony which included the likes of Alomar, Fernandez, Bell, Gillick and Gaston.
But things weren't always this rosy between Delgado and the Blue Jays. When he departed as a free agent following the 2004 season, Delgado left town without what he deemed a fair offer from the club.
Toronto was in the midst of trying to rebuild its roster and no longer had a spot for a high salary player still in the prime of his career. The war of words has long since been forgotten, and only the positive memories remain for Delgado. There was the four-homer game in 2003, life-long friendships with the likes of Shawn Green, his big league debut and all of the Opening Days which now overshadow everything else.
"Toronto gave me a chance ... and when I say Toronto gave me a chance, that doesn't mean they just gave me a chance to sign professionally and actually make it to the big leagues," Delgado said. "They were patient enough to put me through the Minor League system -- from catching, I went to left field, from left field I went to DH, from DH I went to first base.
"I really had to put in my time, I got sent down a couple of times, so everything that the organization did for me I'm very grateful for that, and was very grateful for that time. I'll always remember that. It's not going to be forgotten."