Bartolo Colón: Portly, sexy, leader among men

By Roberto Salvador Klapisch

Early September, 2016: The Mets were in a desperate hunt for a wild-card berth. Logic said they should’ve been sweating — almost their entire starting rotation was injured and a two-game losing streak threatened to mushroom into a code-red disaster during a weekend series with the Nationals.

The Mets needed victories — but more than anything, they needed a leader. David Wright, the team captain, was injured and out for the season. Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ best pitcher, had just turned 24 and was too young to help. Terry Collins, the manager, was busy making out lineups in his office. And besides, the clubhouse was the players’ domain, not his.

That’s not to say the Mets were unprepared for the showdown against the Nationals or that they weren’t loose. All you had to do was see (and hear) the commotion in the corner of the clubhouse, where Bartolo Colón had gathered a group of Spanish-speaking players. He was telling a joke so rich the laughter could be heard as far away as the tunnel leading to the dugout.

A high-ranking team official who witnessed the scene from across the room nodded in approval. “You know what’s crazy?” he asked. “That’s our leader right there.”

He was talking about Colón, the 43-year-old Dominican who, compared to his millennial teammates, might as well be an alien. Colón is as round and soft as the 20-somethings are hard-bodied. He’s a soft-tosser in an era when velocity and radar-gun readings rule. And Colón is as low-key as Matt Harvey, New York’s Dark Knight, is brooding.

No wonder why Colón was nicknamed “Big Sexy” in New York and why the Atlanta Braves awarded him a one-year, $12.5 million contract for 2017. It’s precisely because Colón is different on and off the field that others are compelled to respect him. Colón has no ego. He has no agenda, no bling. He leads without even trying. As Braves GM John Coppolella told the New York Post recently, “If I were a young pitcher and I’d see Bartolo Colón at (43), I’d start to think to myself, ‘What do I need to do to be like (him)?’”

There are two unforgettable moments from Colón’s time in New York. The first was that home run he blasted last season about two weeks’ shy of his 43rd birthday — the oldest player to ever go deep for the first time. There was something beautiful and innocent and utterly unembarrassed about the way Colón swung a bat. He didn’t care what he looked like; he wasn’t wired for self-consciousness.

Indeed, Colón struck out in 40 of his 65 plate appearances last year and was overmatched most of the time. Yet, he stopped the world when he took James Shields over the wall on May 7. As comedian Jimmy Fallon would later say on The Tonight Show, “You could tell it was (Colón’s) first home run because at each base, he stopped and asked for directions to the next one.”

And then there was the legendary, behind-the-back flip to first base in 2015 — a move so graceful it must’ve been borrowed from Nureyev. No pitcher could improvise like that without athletic genes. Colón, heavy as he is, was an advertisement for flexibility and range of motion in a sport that overvalues muscles.

Born in Altamira and raised in Puerto Plata without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, Colón has always been proud of his roots, the elder statesman among the Mets’ Latino players. He is a genial and loveable veteran who overcame humble beginnings, bad teams and bad years, elbow and shoulder injuries that cost him the 2010 season and a 50-game suspension in August 2012 for testing positive for testosterone. In short, flawed but genuine. Colón immediately owned up to his use of PEDs.

“I apologize to the fans, to my teammates and to the Oakland A’s,” Colón said in a statement at the time. “I accept responsibility for my actions and I will serve my suspension as required by the joint drug program.”

Such candor goes a long way in explaining why Colón’s appeal cut across all age groups and demographics on the team: The Venezuelans Wílmer Flores and Asdrúbal Cabrera loved him, as did the Puerto Rican René Rivera and, of course, the Cuban Yoenis Céspedes. The Mets’ Dominican players, José Reyes, Juan Lagares and Hansel Robles would’ve elected Colón president if they could. That’s how popular he was.

“Bartolo was friends with everyone, that’s why we will miss him,” Céspedes said during spring training. “He was always a happy person, never angry. All he cared about was winning.”

The Mets’ pitchers revered Colón, too, although their bond had less to do with culture than his baseball IQ. Colón is a four-time All-Star who won the Cy Young Award in 2005 when he led the American League with 21 wins. None other than Syndergaard, whose fastball has been clocked over 100 mph, said he wanted to acquire Colón’s feathery touch on the mound.

“I’d watch his bullpen when he was warming up before games last year,” Syndergaard said. “Where he would land, there would essentially be no footmark because he would land so soft. And that’s something I want to get to.’’

Colón’s fastball, which used to reach into the mid-90s, averaged 89 mph last year. His repertoire features three speeds: Slow, slower and cartoon-slowest.

Yet, Colón led the National League in BB/9 the last two seasons and won 44 games for the Mets between 2014-16. His career total stands at 233, second all-time among Dominican-born pitchers behind only Hall of Famer Juan Marichal’s 243. The only Latin American ahead of them is Nicaragua’s Dennis Martínez, at 245.

You better believe Colón is now aiming to be No. 1 on this exclusive list. A leader, you might say. It’s why he left the Mets this winter, despite the close ties. Big Sexy knew there was no room in the rotation, not with Harvey and Jacob deGrom returning from surgery. The Braves’ starters, on the other hand, were second-to-last in the National League last year with a 4.87 ERA. Their relievers set a franchise record, throwing 567.1 innings.

The Braves’ need for Colón compelled them to write a check big enough to make the decision a no-brainer. As much as he loved the Mets, Colón said, “it was business” that convinced him to leave Flushing. “I had to do what was right for me and my family.”

It goes without saying Colón will be missed in New York. And don’t think he hasn’t already turned into a cult hero: The Braves have designated June 9 as Bartolo Colón Bobblehead Day. Their opponent? The Mets, who will see Colón landing softly off the mound, throwing slow and slower, and keeping everyone loose in the dugout. Leading by example.

Featured Image: Joe Robbins / Getty Images Sport