To some, he’s simply a 43-year-old eyesore who happens to somehow play baseball. To others, he’s a cult hero who happens to somehow play baseball. To all, he’s Bartolo Colón, a 43-year-old cult hero of sorts who continues to defy odds at the game’s highest level.
Colón was born in Altamira, a small town in the Dominican Republic in May of 1973, and according to a JockBio made on his account, lived in a home without electricity, plumbing, or even running water. His family was so poor that he could not afford a baseball or glove, for which they substituted with tightly wounded rags and a milk carton, respectively. He worked 12-hour days on a farm growing up, highly attributed to his deceiving strength.
When he was young, his body image and pitching style most clearly did not represent that of his form today. He was skinny and threw a fastball in the mid-90’s, whereas today his fastest pitch wont go above 89 miles per hour. That led to the Cleveland Indians signing him as an International Free Agent (IFA) in 1993. He excelled in the minor leagues, climaxing with a no hitter while pitching for the Buffalo Bisons (then-AAA affiliate of Cleveland) and was the only pitcher to ever throw a no hitter at Coca-Cola Field, where the Bisons play. That same season, he would make his Major League debut, ending the season at the MLB level with a 4-7 record with a 5.65 ERA (one of his worst numbers). He was left off the Indians’ Postseason roster that year, one that saw the city’s last American League Championship until 2016. In 1997 they lost to the Florida Marlins to give the Fish their first ever World Series championship in their first ever playoff appearance.
As his career progressed, Colón only got better and better. In 2000, he threw a one-hitter against the New York Yankees, who would go on to win the World Series that year against their crosstown-rivals, the New York Mets (Colón would later go on to pitch for both teams.) That same season, he finished allowing 98 walks (career worst), but struck-out 212 batters, by far a career high.
Colón was named to the All-Star Game four times, according to baseballreference.com, in his sophomore season in 1998, his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2005, his 18-win season in 2013, and his 43-year old season this past season. His 2016 nomination is the most notable, as once again, he was 43-years-old. Despite spending all but one season in the National League prior to 2014, Bartolo signed with the Mets in the 2013 offseason on a 2-year, $20 million deal. Many thought that was overpaying for a 39-year old following a 2-year stint in Oakland that brought along a 50-game suspension after testing positive for synthetic testosterone–a PED banned by Major League Baseball–the first year, and success the following year
His career in New York has lamented him as a cult hero by many, and he has by all means deserved the folklore. Through three seasons in New York, he has racked up 44 wins, one of the top numbers in baseball since 2014. He has led the team in wins each of the three seasons as well. But what still seems unsolvable is the way he’s been able to do what he does. Since his debut, Bartolo has gained over one hundred pounds and he is no longer the power pitcher he once was. That said, he has since learned how to better locate his pitches, becoming a strikes-only pitcher. Remember that walk total in 2000 (98)? In three seasons and 98 regular season appearances with the Mets, he only walked a total of 86 batters. He has managed to lose velocity for accuracy, a move that is very undervalued in this age of power pitching in baseball.
Back to his status as a cult hero now. His lack of experience in the National League heading into his Mets career meant that he only had a limited amount of at bats (the American League has a designated hitter rule, allowing for a hitter to hit strictly in the pitcher’s spot in the order). Going into 2014, he hadn’t gotten a hit in nearly a decade (he racked a single in 2005 while with the Angels). His inexperience at the plate led to hilariously funny at bats, ones that resulted in him losing his helmet (multiple times), flailing away at a ball well outside, and even literally leaving the bat on his shoulders for a strikeout. That said, he notched three hits in 2015, and almost tripled that total to 8 hits (and his first four RBIs since 2005) in 2015. In 2016, he accomplished two things at the plate that were major league records. He hit his first home run in May against the San Diego Padres, a moment deemed “one of the greatest moments in baseball history” by Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen. That prompted a social media outbreak, merchandising opportunity, and a National League Pitcher of the Week award. His other major accomplishment? His first Major League walk. Bartolo became the player with the most at bats before his first career walk, and he became the oldest player ever to hit his first career home run. All at 285+ pounds of pure folklore.
If there is anything to learn from Colón’s completely out-of-the-blue story, it’s that nothing is impossible. Referring to Vin Scully’s famous home run call from the 1988 World Series, when Kirk Gibson homered literally on pure will and strength (he was injured with a bad leg and was told he cannot physically play), “in a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” Of course were not talking about one year, but rather the 19+ season career of Bartolo Colón, who has defied the odds over the course of those 19 years, with seemingly no end in sight.
*All stats courtesy of STATS, inc and ESPN
Written by Ryan Feuerstein