Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 7, 2020

Moments Large And Small, And The Promise Of More

Whether it’s the live feeds of baseball from the KBO league, shown on ESPN somewhere between the dead of night and very early morning, or the announcement that teams in the Bundesliga will resume playing soccer in empty stadiums throughout Germany the weekend after next, or the NFL issuing guidelines to teams on the steps they must take to begin reopening their facilities, this week has seen concerted movement toward the return of our games. As welcome as that news is to every fan, many obstacles remain, and more than a few of the proposals reported on are still very much in the formative stage. Still, as one watched the NC Dinos wallop the Samsung Lions 8-2 while waiting for the sun to peek over the horizon Thursday morning, it was once again possible to squint just a bit and realistically imagine Aaron Judge in pinstripes at the plate, or Mookie Betts finally patrolling right field wearing Dodger blue in a meaningful game.

It will of course be a profoundly different world in which sports are once again played. Those Korean baseball broadcasts showing hauntingly empty stadiums are powerful reminders of that. Fans have long understood the impact that a loud and loyal home crowd can have on a game, not just on its atmosphere but also on the ebb and flow of play. No matter the sport, as spring gives way to summer and almost assuredly on into the fall, “ghost games,” as matches played in padlocked stadiums are aptly called in some European soccer leagues, will be the new and dispiriting normal to which both players and the absent faithful must adjust.

Yet every game will still have its moments. Even though we may be forced to witness them from afar, seeing only what a camera is available to show, every contest is built on what happens in just a few ticks of the clock, or beats of the heart. Such moments can define a player’s career – light-hitting Bucky Dent lifting a high fly to deep left at Fenway Park, David Tyree pinning a pass from Eli Manning between his hand and his helmet. Others are mostly forgotten by the time we leave the stadium. But the well-turned double play, the high, arcing swish from far beyond the three-point line, the daring three-wood over a water hazard to a heavily bunkered green, such small moments can make all the difference in deciding whether a day ends in deliverance or despair.

With the longest season in sport, the Great Game offers fans a surfeit of moments, and will so again when play resumes, even though the schedule is sure to be shortened. And while some fans lament the focus on home runs in the past few years, many of baseball’s grandest moments involve a single swing of a hitter’s bat and the subsequent hasty exit of the ball over an outfield fence. There is Babe calling his shot in the 1932 World Series. Many Fall Classics later, there is Kirk Gibson’s swing that caused Vin Scully to proclaim, “the impossible has happened.” There is the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” off the bat of Bobby Thomson. And then there is the most unexpected homer in the long history of the Great Game. It is a moment that will live forever, that single swing of the bat the night Big Sexy went deep.

Bartolo Colon is 46 now, and still planning to ply his trade in the Mexican League this year. But for more than two decades, beginning with his 1997 debut in a Cleveland uniform, Colon was an always efficient and often dominant big league pitcher. The right-hander evolved from a power hurler with both a four-seam and two-seam fastball to a finesse pitcher mixing in changeups and sliders. In stints with eleven different teams (including two turns with the White Sox), Colon won 247 games and fanned more than 2,500 batters. He was a four-time All-Star and the American League Cy Young Award winner in 2005.

What he was not was a hitter. The burly Colon, usually listed as weighing just shy of 300 pounds, evinced little interest in contributing at the plate for much of his career, with expected results. He went hitless for entire seasons, and not just in the American League where the designated hitter rule naturally limited his at-bats. His trips to the plate typically featured hapless swings which often led to his batting helmet flying off, and were seen by sportscasters, fans, and even many fellow players as comic interludes. The combination of Colon’s size, cartoonish at-bats and unfailing good humor led fellow Mets starting pitcher Noah Syndegaard to jokingly coin the “Big Sexy” nickname during Colon’s three year stay at Citi Field. But with one swing of the bat on May 7, 2016, Colon earned his moniker for real.

Colon came to the plate in the top of the 2nd inning of the Mets’ game against the San Diego Padres. New York had already staked their starter to a 2-0 lead, and catcher Kevin Plawecki was on second. But with two outs and Colon stepping into the batter’s box, everyone at Petco Park assumed the inning was about to be over. Colon however, clearly had other ideas. He looked at a ball from James Shields, and then like mighty Casey disdaining any pitch he did not regard as perfect, Colon stood and watched strike one pass by.

Then the third offering from Shields, a fastball clocked at 91, wandered over the middle of the plate, and the moment arrived. Colon swung, and the ball shot to deep left. Padres left fielder Melvin Upton Jr. gave chase, but to no avail. The ball sailed into the lower deck, making Colon, then 42 years old, the oldest major leaguer to hit his first home run. Mets radio play-by-play man Howie Rose, surely knowing that listeners would be disbelieving, proclaimed “Home run, Bartolo Colon! Repeating, home run, Bartolo Colon!” On the TV broadcast the announcer chose to recall Scully with “the impossible has happened!” Colon took nearly thirty seconds to round the bases, not because he was showing off but because that was about as fast as he could run. Padres fans, sensing that they were witnesses to one of the Great Game’s seminal moments, came to their feet to cheer Colon as he made his plodding progress.

On its fourth anniversary the moment remains fresh, as surely it will four decades hence. It was, after all, a heavy moment for the ages, or at least one for the heavy and aged. Now there are hopeful signs that sometime in the coming weeks a new season will at last begin. Before a single pitch has been thrown two things about that campaign are already certain. It will be profoundly different in so many important ways, yet it will also offer us countless special moments. Though no one should be surprised if none quite match up to that memorable night when with one swing of his bat Big Sexy became part of the Great Game’s lore.

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