The boos came cascading down in Yankee Stadium on July 21, 2004, whenever Carlos Delgado, then the Toronto Blue Jays’ star slugging first baseman, stepped to the plate. After he smacked a line drive out in the top of the seventh inning, chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” were added to the mix.
Between innings, the fans participated in a then-recent baseball tradition, particularly in the Bronx: standing, hand on heart during the seventh-inning stretch as Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” played. The players all rose as well, save for one: Delgado, who instead remained in the dugout.
This is why Delgado heard the loudest jeers of his career, he said, and was turned into New York’s public enemy No. 1. Close to a decade before a generation of athletes began to rediscover their voice, the Puerto Rican-born Delgado refused to participate in the pro-war jingoism that pervaded not just baseball, but the entire national zeitgeist. And he did so at the apex of the War on Terror, when an athlete or any public figure who made their objections known were putting their careers at risk.
The protest was not a new one. He’d started at the beginning of the 2004 season, but toiling in relative obscurity for a last-place Canadian team in all likelihood kept Delgado’s actions out of the spotlight. In early July, a reporter for the Toronto Star finally got around to asking why.
“I don’t [stand] because I don’t believe it’s right,” Delgado said. “I don’t believe in the war.” He explained that the events of Sept. 11 were a “terrible thing.” Equally terrible, according to Delgado, were the senseless loss of life in the Middle East and the ongoing occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan. The ostensible justification—a yearlong and ultimately futile quest to locate weapons of mass destruction—didn’t make any sense to him, either.
“Who are you fighting against?” he asked, a few months after Blackwater mercenaries were found hanged from a bridge in Fallujah and the first photos of torture victims at Abu Ghraib were reported by Seymour Hersh for The New Yorker and 60 Minutes. “You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war.”
In the run-up to and on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, there have been remembrances of what happened in Washington, D.C., and in lower Manhattan in 2001. Baseball is no exception. On Saturday, the Yankees and New York Mets wore the first responder caps similar to the ones they donned in September 2001, when the games returned after a 10-day absence.
But it’s also worth remembering Delgado’s protest, especially now that public opinion has finally swung to his way of seeing things: that the wars caused the senseless death of millions, civilians and soldiers alike, ruined the health of countless first responders, and frittered away billions of dollars. Or as Delgado correctly summed up the folly of this American interventionism: “I think it’s the stupidest war ever.”
Delgado was given the space to express his discontent thanks to then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. In 2001, Selig insisted that “God Bless America” should supplant “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as the seventh-inning stretch’s anthem of choice. (Most teams abandoned the practice in short order; the Yankees kept it going until 2019.) It was far from the only way in which the sport—and the Yankees in particular—marketed itself as something other than a game. It’s not hard to see how both baseball and its fans arrived at this point. Who wouldn’t want to take all that horror, trauma, grief, and uncertainty, and funnel it into something less complicated, like an unquestioning swell of certainty that America would not and could not be cowed, let alone defeated.
Baseball leapt into that breach, all-too ready to provide the easy metaphors. Most famously, then-President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks. If he’d hucked one in the dirt, it meant the terrorists had won, according to the commander-in-chief.
“I probably knew, instinctively, that a bounce would kind of reduce the defiance—the act of defiance toward the enemy,” Bush said in a 2015 ESPN documentary. As Deadspin noted, odds are al Qaeda wasn’t using the ceremonial heave as a barometer for America’s war footing.
When Mets catcher Mike Piazza smacked a titanic homer to give the Mets the lead on the first day back, ”It enabled us to see the significance of baseball in the lexicon of what America is,” long-time Mets radio voice Howie Rose said in a recent SNY documentary short. During this past Friday night’s Mets-Yankees broadcast, Bobby Valentine, the Mets manager in 2001, went a step further: Watching Piazza’s high-arcing blast sail out of Shea Stadium two decades ago, Valentine said he thought it would “land in Baghdad.”
No politician tried to wed baseball and a sense of preordained righteousness more than former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now the focus of federal investigations for his late-period stint as Trump’s bag man. Considering Giuliani had made being a Yankee fan a central part of his political identity—even to the point of allegedly being gifted pricey World Series rings and violating ethics laws, the late, great Wayne Barrett reported—this is no small feat. (Giuliani has repeatedly denied the charges.) In the months that followed Sept. 11, he spent nearly double the number of hours going to postseason games as he did at Ground Zero, per Salon. If the Yankees were popping champagne bottles, time and time again Giuliani could be found in the thick of the celebration.
Spencer Ackerman is the author of Reign of Terror: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. The Daily Beast contributing editor is also a devout Yankees fan. At the time, “It was particularly excruciating to see how readily the organization and the fan base leapt to the beat of the martial drum,” said Ackerman, and became “complicit in the exploitation of the trauma we felt on 9/11.”
He continued: “It is a stain on American culture generally. It is a stain on baseball specifically, it is a stain on the Yankees, specifically, and it is a very typical one… You do not have to be a particular expert in the history of American sports to see just how deeply jingoism is and has always been present.”
Prior to the July 21 game, baseball figures stressed that while sure, free speech was a fine and noble thing, maybe this wasn’t the best time nor place for Delgado to express himself.
“I don’t think that will be received too well,” Yankees manager Joe Torre told reporters prior to the game. Fans applaud, after all, when venerated announcer Bob Shepard asks them to rise. “If you do call attention to that,” he said, “it won’t be popular.” It certainly wouldn’t be in Yankee Stadium, a venue that had been turned into a “paean to patriotism,” as The New York Times described it in 2004. Asked about the protest by the paper, Commissioner Selig said it was news to him, but hopefully he’d be able to corner Delgado in the near future and have a nice chat.
The ostentatious displays of patriotism were everywhere in sports. “All you had to do was look at the NFL,” said Ackerman. The league was paid millions by the Department of Defense to promote the armed forces, and huge, field-spanning American flags became the norm after Sept. 11. “All of the iconography was so martial,” he said, and little room for dissent was allowed. From sports stars to entertainers of any stripe, “If you were anti-war, you felt the consequences of that,” Ackerman said. Prior to the first bombs being dropped on Baghdad in 2003, Steve Nash, the dazzling Phoenix Suns point guard, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “No War. Shoot for Peace” at the All-Star Game. Sports columnists told him to shut up and dribble.
Delgado, too, was largely treated as a pariah. One 2006 column from The Spectator haughtily grumbled that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was being criticized for calling a Chicago columnist a “fag.” This is just the natural, gruff language of locker rooms, they wrote, whereas Delgado (who by then was two years removed from protesting) had committed a far graver offense: disrespecting the troops.
According to Dave Zirin, the sports editor of The Nation and author of The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World, “The U.S. sports press around this time was at an absolute nadir in terms of being open to alternative ideas from athletes speaking out.” Though there were some exceptions. Social media was still in its infancy then which proved both a blessing and a boon to Delgado. Without that megaphone, Zirin explained, the coverage was left to the major newspapers and that old bastion of right-wing sloganeering: sports talk radio. WFAN’s Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo spent the days following Sept. 11 ditching sports altogether and instead offering a full-throated endorsement of a military response.
Fans echoed those sentiments, both when calling in to WFAN et al. and in person, many of which centered around the amount of money Delgado was being paid—and not even for a U.S.-based team. Where was the gratitude for the brave soldiers defending Delgado’s freedoms and the very right to earn an eight-figure salary, they howled, along with all the implicit and explicit intimations that he wasn’t a real American. “I heard from others who wanted to rip my head off, saying, ‘Go back to Puerto Rico.’” Delgado said in 2016.
By 2006, Delgado had been traded to the New York Mets. At the press conference announcing the acquisition, CEO Jeff Wilpon made it clear that the seventh inning protests violated team policy, and therefore would not continue. ‘He’s going to have his own personal views, which he’s going to keep to himself,” Wilpon, who went on to settle a discrimination lawsuit and whose family has since sold the team, told reporters
What most of the press surrounding Delgado left out (or reduced to a sentence) was what he told the Star back in July 2004. His disinterest in standing for “God Bless America”' wasn't wholly rooted in the war itself. Rather, the bulk of the story was devoted to a different atrocity, one Delgado had been working tirelessly to rectify. Namely, the damage wrought on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by the United States government. For six decades, the Navy had dropped bombs on Vieques to test their capabilities, including weapons containing Agent Orange and depleted uranium. The devastating impact, particularly on the health of the residents, who’ve seen a major spike in cancer cases, has not abated.
Delgado was at the forefront of demonstrations, including a notable one in 1999 when a security guard was killed by a wayward bomb. (The Navy ascribed his death to pilot error.) Among his many charitable efforts, both in Vieques and throughout Puerto Rico, Delgado contributed millions to the island, held baseball camps, enlisted celebrities like the Dalai Lama and Martin Sheen to the cause, and worked with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party.
The bombings ended in 2003, and the Navy pulled up stakes and left in May 2003, leaving Puerto Ricans in the lurch. Unsurprisingly, not much attention was being paid.
“You’re dealing with health, with poverty, with the roots of an entire community, both economically and environmentally,” Delgado told the Star. “This is way bigger than just a political or military issue. Because the military left last year and they haven’t cleaned the place up yet.” Of course, Vieques and Baghdad do share one common if brutal thread: the “shock and awe” bombings that were the hallmark of Operation Iraqi Freedom made use of munitions initially tested on the island.
Those concerns invariably were subsumed by the question of whether Delgado stood during a song, which is possibly the most American response imaginable. Colin Kaepernick, whose protests Delgado has praised, can certainly relate. When Kaepernick began kneeling, Delgado drew a straight line between the two, citing Kaepernick’s expressed belief that America was not living up to its ideals.
Statheads may differ, but it’s hard to imagine Delgado’s protests haven’t played some part in keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. He’s OK with that, Delgado said. If he’d lost a few endorsements or a certain segment of the population loathed him, that’s fine too. The struggle to make a better world ranked of greater importance.
“There will be people who support you and those who will hate you,” he told ESPN. At the time, he was describing Kaepernick, but it works just as well as a self-portrait.
“The most important thing is to stay true to your values and your principles,” he said.