Even as he was slugging his way into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, left-handed batting legend Carlos Delgado was paying close attention to the social injustice in his native Puerto Rico.
Growing up in the city of Aguadilla, across the island from the capital, San Juan, “I noticed how a lot of the institutions outside of San Juan, they weren’t getting the same help or the same resources or the same money,” he recalled.
That’s not to say that people living in the capital didn’t need help, he clarified. “But everyone needed more.”
As a public figure, Delgado was frequently approached with requests to provide aid to the island. “Once you go into professional sports, everyone knows what you make,” he said.
While Delgado was happy to help raise awareness – and even offer his own funds – he wanted to make sure he was giving strategically to help the cause nearest his heart: giving Puerto Rican children and teenagers greater access to health and education.
“We decided that we wanted to identify and help institutions that were already in place, that dealt with kids on an everyday basis. They were the experts,” he said. “We were facilitators: We tried to raise money and promote people to volunteer.”
Building Extra Bases
That “we” is Extra Bases, a foundation and nonprofit organization that Delgado founded in 2000 to improve the lives of children in Puerto Rico. Extra Bases – named after a hit that gets a batter past first base – does everything from providing after-school programs to funding surgeries and specialized medical equipment for needy kids.
“Two things are very important to me: health and education. If you’re healthy, you’re better. From the athlete’s point of view, you perform better when you feel better,” Delgado said.
“But also, if you can take better care of yourself, if you can make better decisions just because you know more things, by default you’re going to be healthier and a better human being, so that’s what we try to do.”
Delgado remembered the complicated process of coordinating a Cochlear implant surgery for a boy whose deafness meant that he had never learned to speak.
“About two years later, I was at an event in Aguadilla, in my [home]town…and he spoke to me. Look, I’ve got goosebumps,” Delgado said, pointing to an arm. “That was the kid that could not speak because he could not hear.”
For Delgado, the experience was transformative. “You take for granted that you can speak, that you can listen, that you can see, but sometimes life’s so fragile, and having the opportunity to make an impact like that is life-changing for me. For them, maybe, but for me, for sure,” he said.
Accessing Health Care in Puerto Rico
Currently, Extra Bases and Direct Relief are joining forces to establish a fund for Puerto Rican children and teenagers with specialized medical needs.
The money will pay for everything from specialized physical therapy for children living with microcephaly to a simple, often overlooked expense that can make healthcare access virtually impossible for many: transportation to and from medical appointments.
For many living with serious medical conditions on the island, access to medical care can be an extraordinary luxury. The median household income in Puerto Rico is a little more than $19,000 per year, compared to about $60,000 in the mainland United States.
While more than 90% of the island has at least some form of health insurance, plans often aren’t as comprehensive as those on the mainland.
Public transportation is limited outside the metro areas, and many rural Puerto Ricans don’t have cars, which means that accessing quality care can be tremendously difficult. (Puerto Rico’s Medicaid doesn’t cover non-emergency transportation.)
The mother of one child who will benefit from the new fund described moving to San Juan simply because it was so difficult to manage her child’s care outside the city limits.
Delgado is laser-focused on increasing access. “A lot of the kids and the institutions we work with…they’re probably at the lower tier of the socioeconomic spectrum, and access is complicated,” he said. “There’s a lot more need in Puerto Rico than we like to admit.”
Rolling Up His Sleeves
But for Delgado, access isn’t just about healthcare. He’s currently sponsoring 11 athletes who just completed the Pan American games in Lima and have their sights set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Several come from low-income backgrounds.
“These people are top athletes, probably the top athletes in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I grew up with sports; I think it’s a good thing. I also think it’s important for our country, just because it brings us together.”
He may be a baseball legend, but Delgado carries his fame lightly, and he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and jump in. On a recent medical mission to Haiti, he helped five surgeons and an anesthesiologist perform 62 surgeries over the course of five days – cleaning rooms, helping patients move around, and fetching families.
All in all, Delgado said, he works more now than he ever did as a major league player. But there’s a reason he’s so absorbed in the work he does:
“If we can help one person, if we can save one life, if we can give one kid a great education, I think it’s mission accomplished,” he said. “But the thing is, it’s addicting. You do one and say, ‘Man, it’s so satisfying.’”