Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 9, 2018

Ageless Bartolo Colon Has Reason To Smile

A NOTE TO READERS:  The next post will be Monday, one day later than usual.  Thanks as always for your support.

It was a pleasantly cool spring evening in Anaheim that first Friday in April, twenty-one years ago. The Cleveland nine was in town for a three-game weekend series against the Angels, after splitting a pair of games up the California coast in Oakland to open the new season. The visitors’ starting pitcher was a 23-year-old rookie making his major league debut. Bartolo Colon faced twenty-two batters over five innings that night. He allowed two runs in the 1st inning and another pair in the 2nd. But the youngster settled down, retiring ten of the last thirteen men he faced, even as his teammates rallied to tie the game at 4-4.

The game stretched on long after Colon’s work was done. Eventually Cleveland broke the tie when Tony Fernandez sent a drive into the gap in right center in the top of the 11th inning, plating Chad Curtis and Sandy Alomar. But reliever Paul Shuey couldn’t put the Angels away in the bottom of the frame, failing to record an out as the home side rallied to win 8-6 on a walk-off grand slam by Tim Salmon.

A five inning no-decision by a burly young right-hander would scarcely be remembered more than two decades later, save for one remarkable fact. The Angels’ hero of the night, the home run belting Salmon, retired at the end of the 2006 season. He’s now an analyst for the Angels’ regional television network. The unfortunate Shuey threw his last pitch from a major league mound one year later, and can now be found competing in professional bass fishing tournaments. Alomar is now Cleveland’s first base coach, Curtis is in prison, and Fernandez is retired. Every player on both teams, in fact every player on a big league roster in 1997, has played his last game, most quite some time ago, except for Bartolo Colon.

The right-hander with a blazing four-seam fastball that occasionally touched 100 miles per hour shuttled back and forth between Cleveland and the team’s AAA affiliate in Buffalo during 1997, eventually making ten starts in the minors and seventeen plus a couple of relief appearances for the major league club. Colon’s record at the end of his first season in the bigs was an unprepossessing 4-7, his ERA+ of 83 worse than league average. But he showed flashes of the promise that had led Cleveland to sign the native of the Dominican Republic to an international free agent contract four years earlier. The following season he justified that decision by going 14-9 with six complete games, including two shutouts, and being named to the AL All-Star team.

Those days by Lake Erie, where Colon spent the first five and a half years of his major league career, are now a fading memory. This year the 45-year-old works at the back end of the rotation for the Texas Rangers. His current uniform is the eleventh different one he has worn. From Cleveland Colon’s major league journey has taken him to Montreal, Chicago’s South Side, Anaheim, Boston, back to the White Sox, the Bronx, Oakland, Queens, Atlanta, and the Twin Cities before he signed a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training with the Rangers last February. Along the way he has tacked on more than 3,500 additional innings pitched in both the regular and postseason to those now distant first five.

With his rotund build, ready smile, and “Big Sexy” nickname, Colon in the twilight of a phenomenally long career can easily be made into a caricature. That was certainly true during his three seasons with the Mets, from 2014 through 2016, especially when it came to the pitcher who had spent most of his career in the American League, with its designated hitter rule, having to take his turn at the plate. More than sixty percent of Colon’s 326 career plate appearances came as a Met, with often slapstick results. Online one can readily find video of Colon twisting himself into a pretzel and losing his batting helmet while striking out, Colon holding on to the stem of a broken bat, as if not quite sure what to do with it, as he jogs to first on an infield grounder, and Colon again losing his helmet while swinging yet somehow managing to poke a liner into short right field to drive in a run. There is also Colon, just shy of his 43rd birthday, becoming the oldest player to hit his first major league home run when he launched a ball that cleared the left field wall at San Diego’s Petco Park in May 2016. His teammates celebrated the moment by quickly exiting the dugout for the clubhouse, so there was no one to greet him when he finished his trip around the bases.

But if Big Sexy with a bat in his hands is the stuff of farce, over the years Colon on the mound has been anything but. Starting with his second season he produced double-digit wins for eight straight years, a run that culminated with a 21-8 record and a Cy Young Award with the Angels in 2005. As age took miles off his fastball, he remade himself into a control pitcher, pounding the strike zone with pitch after pitch. In both 2015 and 2016 he was the league leader in fewest walks per nine innings. His four All-Star nods are evenly split between the two ends of his career.

As he nears the end of his time in the majors, Colon is finding his place in the Great Game’s record books. In June he scattered nine hits over six innings and got the win as the Rangers beat the Royals 6-3. With the victory Colon moved past Hall of Famer Juan Marichal to become the winningest pitcher from the Dominican Republic. Then on Tuesday before a home crowd his Texas teammates jumped on Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, giving Colon a cushion as he worked his way through the Mariners lineup across seven frames. The 11-4 win was Colon’s 246th, one more than the career total of Dennis Martinez, the first Nicaraguan to play in the major leagues, making Colon the record-holder for wins by a Latin American native.

His 94th and final pitch of the night, as seen here, was a slider to Dee Gordon with one man on and two out in the 7th. The Seattle second baseman ripped a low liner right back at Colon, who squatted and speared the ball with his glove. Despite the force of the drive and his ungainly position, the rotund Colon somehow managed to keep his balance, though it was a near thing. As he came to his feet and walked off the mound, Colon allowed himself a little smile. It was one more amusing moment in a long career that has produced many. But as has so often been the case for more than two decades, the last laugh belonged to Bartolo.

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Responses

  1. Great and entertaining piece – thank you!

    • Thanks Don. I’ve always liked Bartolo, in no small part because winning or losing he always looks like he’s having fun.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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