MLB: New York Mets at San Diego Padres

Bartolo Colon: The Most Unlikely Met

When Bartolo Colon hit a majestic home run into the San Diego night on Saturday, my immediate reaction was to scream in joy. Then I texted everyone I knew that could possibly care. Then I watched the replay several dozen times. Eventually, I started reflecting on how Bartolo came to be a beloved 2016 Met. It’s been quite an unlikely journey.

Bartolo Colon, flamethrowing ace of the Cleveland Indians in the late-90s and early-aughts, was traded to the Montreal Expos near the deadline in 2002. Colon was dealt for three top prospects that all became major league stars: Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips. Sizemore and Lee are probably done playing in the majors, their whole careers having occurred during just a part of Colon’s. The Montreal Expos no longer exist.

After being dealt again as a rental to the Chicago White Sox, Bartolo Colon signed a huge-for-the-time free agent contract with the Anaheim Angels in 2004, four years and $51 million. The next year, the team changed their name to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and Bartolo Colon won the Cy Young Award at age 32. Six other pitchers received votes that year, and none are still active. Battling frequent arm injuries, Colon only threw 155.7 ineffective innings the next two years combined. The Mets were reportedly close to a free agent deal for Colon after the season, but backed out due to concerns over his health.

Bartolo Colon would ultimately sign a minor league deal with the Red Sox for 2008. After pitching his way back to the majors, Colon missed much of the season with a back injury suffered while hitting in an interleague game. “I think I hurt it on that swing where my helmet came off,” Colon said at the time. Bartolo would land back with the White Sox in 2009 and injure his elbow again. He did not participate in organized baseball in 2010.

Colon’s next appearance in the baseball narrative is in the Dominican Winter League in the 2010-11 offseason. He was noted by Enrique Rojas of ESPN as struggling in winter ball, yet the Yankees saw enough to bring him to camp as a non-roster invitee. This is the beginning of the Colon redemption narrative: reborn as an elite command/control artist working off a middling fastball and not much else, he pitched his way onto the Yankees roster and ultimately the rotation, and pitched well. At the time, the recovery of Colon from elbow problems that looked career-ending from was largely credited to controversial stem cell treatment. The Oakland Athletics signed him to a one-year major league deal for 2012.

Here’s where our redemption narrative detours a bit: in the middle of another solid season in 2012, Bartolo Colon tested positive for steroids. After re-signing with the A’s, Colon would be named as part of the Biogenesis ring—but he also made the 2013 American League All-Star team, finished sixth in Cy Young voting, and pitched to the second lowest ERA in the league. One of the strangest free agency cases in years loomed. Meanwhile, Matt Harvey suffered a torn UCL and the Mets suddenly needed a starting pitcher for 2014.

Bartolo Colon agreed to terms with the Mets on December 11, 2013. The price—just two years and $20 million for a pitcher coming off one of the best seasons in baseball—was surely cheapened by Colon’s ties to PEDs, his injury history, and just being 40 years old. Yet Colon quickly emerged as a quality workhorse for the 2014 Mets, pitching 200 innings for the first time since his Cy Young season of 2005. Quickly, you began to hear stories about Colon’s positive influence in the Mets clubhouse. Just as quickly, Colon’s plate appearances became circuses, as he was completely overmatched by his first regular looks at major league pitching as a batter. Sometimes, it was tough to tell whether fans were laughing with him, at him, or both.

The Mets, of course, didn’t contend for much of anything in 2014, and made Colon available for the July trade deadline. Nobody bit. The Mets placed Colon on revocable waivers, and he cleared, making him available for August trades. Nobody bit. The Mets entered 2015 with six major league starters and Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz not far behind in Triple-A, so they tried trading Colon again. Nobody bit. Bartolo Colon: still a Met.

With plenty of choices on his plate, Terry Collins surprisingly named Bartolo Colon his 2015 Opening Day starter, a nod to his long career and veteran presence. Colon hung around the rotation all summer as Dillon Gee pitched his way to Vegas and the younger starters rotated in and out around injuries, six-man rotation schedules, and innings limits. Perhaps the most notable part of the bulk of Bartolo’s 2015 was his vastly improved hitting, the result of hard work with hitting coaches Kevin Long and Pat Roessler. Unfortunately, his ERA hovered in the mid-to-high fours from May until late-August, and as the Mets heated up and started looking towards October, Colon looked like a man on the outside looking in. It wasn’t hard to wonder if the end was near.

Then? The clock turned back again. Starting on August 26th, Colon fired off starts of seven, eight, and nine shutout innings consecutively. From that date on, Colon threw 49.7 innings and put up an ERA of just 1.99. Although this was not enough to pitch Colon back into a playoff rotation featuring four young stars, he made the playoff roster as a reliever. Thus was born “Fireman Bart,” playoff relief sensation–striking out Kris Bryant in a key spot here, soaking up medium-leverage long relief innings there–as the Mets made a World Series run.

Yet for all his playoff exploits, Bartolo Colon looked like he would be on his way elsewhere for the 2016 season. The Mets had five legitimate major league starters under contract, and a sixth in Zack Wheeler scheduled for a midseason return. But sometimes things come together how your heart wants them to: the Mets cleared a space for Bartolo by trading Jon Niese to the Pirates. Colon, reborn at age 42 into a rotation workhorse, clubhouse wizard, and something of a pop culture icon, rebuffed higher offers and chose to remain a Met on a one-year, $7.25 million contract—with a $50,000 bonus if Colon won the 2016 Silver Slugger.

Bartolo Colon started the 2016 season much the same way he ended 2015: 38.7 IP, 2.82 ERA, 33 strikeouts to only four walks. His spring training batting practices were a running legend of an otherwise dull spring training. A scorched foul ball during his 220th career win was a notable major news story.

On a 1-1 pitch on a Saturday night, the unlikely 2016 Met became the oldest player to ever hit his first home run, and the last Montreal Expo to hit a home run. I’ll let Gary Cohen take it home from here:

“Colon looking for his first hit of the year. He drives one, deep to left field. Back goes Upton, back near the wall. It’s outta here! Bartolo has done it! The impossible has happened. The team vacates the dugout as Bartolo takes the long trot, his first career home run. And there’ll be nobody in the dugout to greet him. This is one of the great moments in the history of baseball.”

Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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