Legend of Bartolo grows larger with age

On his 43rd birthday, baseball's oldest player more colorful than ever

May 24th, 2016

Baseball's oldest player turns 43 today, and Bartolo Colon's career would be enthralling enough if sheer longevity were his only calling card.

But of course, Big Bart -- or Big Sexy, if you prefer -- has given us so much more. The lost helmets. The belly jiggle. The fascinating fielding prowess. And of course, the shocking shot heard 'round the world.

You combine the longevity with a body atypical for an athlete and the many GIFable moments that have dotted this late stage of his career, and the game's oldest player doubles as its most colorful cult figure.

Not all color is good color, as we've seen. The recent reports about Colon's personal life and his past transgression within baseball's performance-enhancing drug protocol mean his is a career that has come with its share of controversy. And though you certainly wouldn't have known it watching him work seven sharp innings in a win over the Nationals on the eve of his birthday, he'll have the occasional outing that causes people to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the man's magic at the Major League level is finally wearing thin.

• Cut4: 43 reasons to love Bartolo on his birthday

That said, the captivation that surrounds his each and every trip to the mound or the plate is undeniable. And the story of a guy who signed for $3,000 out of the Dominican Republic, became the centerpiece of one of this century's biggest trades, won a Cy Young, retreated into the wilderness and then returned to become a social-media phenomenon is an amazing one.

Which is why -- for his birthday -- we traced it back to the beginning.

Winston Llenas, the Indians scout who signed Colon: Virgilio Veras, an old birdog who worked for us, knew Bartolo and brought him to me. What really stood out for me was the fact that he always threw strikes. Even though he was not muscular at all, he was always ready and eager to pitch. He never showed signs of fatigue or had arm problems. Our field coordinator, Minnie Mendoza, was always looking for arms and was always requesting this young, skinny kid who was always wearing a red shirt. Mendoza kept using him because he really liked his control.

Jim Gabella, Colon's first Minor League manager at rookie-level Burlington: Such a great kid. Always had a smile on his face, and he worked hard. And he was strong as an ox. You put your hand on his shoulder, and it was like you were putting it on a brick wall.

Mark Shapiro, then-Indians farm director: Fernando Montes, our trainer, said his lower back and his legs were as strong as any NFL fullback's. It was clear, from the time he was in the Dominican to the Appalachian League, that the ball out of his hand was just different from anybody else's.

Tony Arnold, Colon's pitching coach at Class A Kinston: I would flip him the ball before each start. He would catch the ball and give me a velocity. He would set a velocity for the game. If he said 92, he would sit at 92. One time, it was 93. The next it might be 94. So one time, he told me 98. He had touched it before, but I was like, "Oh, come on…" But then I realized [general manager] John Hart was coming into town, and Bartolo knew it. He started the game that day, struck out the side in the first inning with one foul ball, and every pitch was 98 mph. Then the first hitter of the second inning, the first pitch was a breaking ball, and then he struck him out on two fastballs. He sat 98. Thank God a storm came up and rained us out so he didn't get to go back out.

Jeff Datz, Colon's manager at Double-A Canton-Akron: There was a hot Sunday day game against the Reading Phillies. Bartolo was dealing, After the Phillies hit in the eighth, I went out to coach third base. Their third baseman, Scott Rolen, says to me, 'That's not fair. Ninety-eight on the black, in the eighth?" He had just struck out. Bartolo was a horse.

Arnold: Any time he was put against somebody else in doing whatever the conditioning was for the day, he would step up and blow them away. People were always amazed at what he had inside of him.

Colon missed some of the 1996 season with a strained elbow ligament and ended that year pitching out of the Triple-A Buffalo bullpen. His big league debut came on April 4, 1997, at Angel Stadium, opposite an Anaheim Angels team managed by none other than Terry Collins. It didn't go particularly well. Colon was roughed up for four runs on six hits with three walks over five innings in an 8-6 loss for the Tribe and spent the season shuttling back and forth from the Minors.

Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr.: He had power, a lot of power, and the secondary was not developed yet. But he liked his secondary. He didn't understand he needed to use his fastball, because it was 100 mph.

With the big fastball came big attention, and Colon didn't always adapt to it well. When he was in the Indians' winter development program in Cleveland, he stayed with Allen Davis, the club's director of community relations, and the two remained close when Colon reached the Majors. Davis has since become the Rev. Abraham Allende, a Lutheran bishop.

Allende: He was very sensitive. He was in a strange country and didn't really understand a lot of the customs here. And he was sensitive to criticism.

Shapiro: He was always an understated guy that kind of gravitated away from the spotlight. Bartolo was a guy you'd always find on the back fields with Minor League players during Spring Training, because that's where he was comfortable.

Alomar: Bartolo had to ride the pink bike one spring. That was Fernando Montas' thing. A lot of guys who were overweight used it. It was a bike without a saddle. And you had to ride it around the complex and embarrass yourself a little bit. That's why you had to maintain yourself the right way. The thing is, you look at Bartolo's body then? I'd take that body now [laughs]. That's how bizarre that is. He wasn't huge, but Fernando wanted guys at a certain weight for a certain height and stuff.

As he learned how to trust in and succeed with his fastball, Colon soon gave people plenty to talk about. Known to his Tribe teammates as "Boogie" (Charlie Manuel was the one who first called him "Boogie Bear"), he was an All-Star in his sophomore season of 1998. And from '98 through 2001, he had the sixth-best ERA (3.91) and fourth-most strikeouts (732) in the American League.

But Boogie's rise coincided with the Indians' fall from grace. With a rough start to 2002, the club began to encounter the unsustainability of its mid-1990s run to two AL pennants. Shapiro, who had now taken over for Hart as general manager, began looking for trade options involving Colon to add young prospects to the system. The Expos became an ideal fit.

Then-Expos GM Omar Minaya: We were in a situation where [we thought we might] be contracted. But we were contending. He had another year of control. So for us to be there for maybe one more year, who was the guy who was going to help us? It took a while for me and Mark to work it out, over a month. But Mark was in another situation and he was kind of trying to take apart his team.

The trade was consummated June 27, 2002. It was labeled in the media as "The Trade of the Decade." Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel bemoaned the loss of "the next Bob Feller."

Minaya: The key player in that trade was Brandon Phillips. That was the No. 1 guy. Cliff Lee was the second one that we talked about. And then the third guy was Grady Sizemore, who was in A-ball. But the key to the trade for us, we couldn't add dollars. So we were basically getting one of the top five pitchers in the game and getting him for free, basically, but we had to give up the talent to do so.

Allende: That was really, really devastating for [Bartolo]. He really wanted to stay in Cleveland.

Phillips: I wasn't the type of person to keep up with baseball then, the way I do now. But I did know Colon was one of the best pitchers in baseball. We were all surprised by the trade but happy to be on the same team again.

Though the Expos didn't reach the playoffs, Colon was good for them (3.31 ERA in 17 starts). What no one could have suspected was that Colon, who was 29 at the time, and Phillips, who was 21, would be the only players from the trade still active in the Majors in the year 2016.

Shapiro: Just the fact that any one of those guys from our late-'90s teams would be pitching or even just playing today? Bartolo would not be the guy I'd point to.

Former pitcher Paul Byrd, Colon's teammate with the Angels in 2005: When I got to Anaheim in '05, everybody's like, 'Hey, we don't know about this guy. He had a high ERA last year. He had a good record, but he gave up a ton of runs [5.01 ERA in 2004]. He may be at the end of his career."

Then-Angels pitching coach Bud Black: I noticed on road trips, I would see him up and about in the morning, working. Whether it was the hotel gym, on the bike, on the treadmill, exercising in the morning. You know, 10 or 12 years ago, that was sort of rare. So he was gifted with a strong body, but he enhanced that as he got into his career.

Byrd: He'd get to the field and be throwing sand-filled shotputs before each start, under the tunnel. It was really weird, man. I remember watching this guy and thinking, "He's going to blow his shoulder out."

Black: That 2005 year, what comes to mind is how he finished the whole season off. You could tell when he got into the summer that he could sort of smell the finish line. I think he sort of smelled the Cy Young. At this time, he was still throwing the ball with velocity. You could tell at certain parts of games that he would go back to being a young Bartolo Colon, just blowing the ball by hitters and pitching with the four-seam fastball and just really turning it loose with velocity. Even at 32, he was pitching like I saw him as a young pitcher in Cleveland. Other times, he knew when to sink the ball, who to pitch around in certain situations, what guys he had to get out in certain situations. So the pitching instincts were kind of heightened.

Byrd: "He may be done." That's what everybody was telling me in Spring Training. And he won the Cy Young that year.

Colon went 21-8 with a 3.48 ERA in that '05 season, becoming the first Angels pitcher to win the Cy since Dean Chance in 1964. But he took the loss to the Yankees in the Division Series opener and then, in Game 5, left after two innings with what turned out to be a partially torn rotator cuff.

The injury would force Colon to spend the majority of 2006 on the shelf, and he would miss all or parts of the next four seasons. In the offseason before 2011, Colon pitched for Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League, posting a 1.93 ERA in seven appearances. On Nov. 14, 2010, Yanks scout Joe Caro filed a report recommending Colon as a non-roster invite to Spring Training. "He still knows how to pitch," the report said.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman: My first response was, "No freaking way. This guy's been around long enough, and he's on the back end of his career. It's clearly time to go." But then I took a step back, because that's an emotional reaction. And with us being desperate for help and out of respect for Joe, we offered him a non-roster invite with very low expectations. And he came into camp and won a job.

Colon began the season in the Yanks' bullpen before joining the rotation on April 20. He had a surprising 3.81 ERA as a starter when, on May 11, the New York Times reported that Colon had revived his career thanks to a stem-cell procedure in which fat and bone marrow stem cells were collected and injected into his right elbow and shoulder. The revelation was controversial because the doctor who performed the procedure had used human-growth hormones in similar procedures on other people and because it was performed in the Dominican Republic, where HGH and steroids could be obtained legally.

Cashman: I remember thinking, "Oh. Now I get it. Now I know why he's throwing so well."

MLB investigated Colon's procedure and questioned the doctor, Joseph Purita, who performed it, but no wrongdoing was proven. Colon finished his bounceback year with the Yankees and then signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Oakland A's, for whom he went 10-9 with a 3.43 ERA through 24 starts of 2012.

A's manager Bob Melvin: It was amazing. I thought, at that point in time, it was probably the end of his career. He was one of the best I ever had in the clubhouse, whether going through a tough period or a good period, he was the same all the time.

The A's took the bad with the good. On Aug. 22, 2012, MLB announced that Colon had tested positive for testosterone and suspended him for 50 games, ending his 2012 season, lending credence to the skepticism surrounding his comeback and creating adversity for an Oakland team that was trying to complete a surprise surge up the standings that season.

And yet, the A's (who reached the playoffs in '12) had no qualms about re-signing Colon to another one-year deal at year's end. And he rewarded their faith with an even better season, going 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA and the third All-Star nod of his career. Oakland advanced to October again.

Melvin: He was very impactful here, with some of the young pitchers that we had at that time. I greatly value the time that I got to spend with him. I've never heard of a teammate that did not like Bartolo Colon.

The clubhouse reputation and the numbers were strong enough that when Colon parlayed his A's ascent into a two-year, $20 million contract with the Mets -- assuring Colon of his largest salary since his Angels days -- it was billed not as a risky investment, but the cost of "stability and credibility." Colon delivered by supplying 397 innings over those two seasons and serving as a strike-throwing mentor, of sorts, for an otherwise young and developing rotation that helped get the Mets back to the World Serires.

Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson: He's someone that is dependable and will motivate those around him.

Mets manager Terry Collins: I'm amazed when he goes out there every fifth day and just goes through it. Nothing seems to faze him. He's truly an amazing guy. He deserves all the wins he's had.

Catcher Kevin Plawecki: He's one of the most athletic people in here. You might not believe it, but he fields his position very well. It's pretty impressive, especially to do it so well at the age he's doing it at. You can't even tell. You don't even know.

Hitting coach Pat Roessler: He works his butt off. Out of his five-day cycle, he probably hits three out of the five days, and probably takes 40 to 50 swings a day. He's a strong guy. He's got tremendous hand strength. When he squares it up, it goes. So we're not surprised he hit a home run. We're surprised he hit it in a game.

Pitcher Jacob deGrom: That [home run] was the greatest thing I've ever seen.

Colon captivated the sports world with his two-run shot off James Shields on May 7 at Petco Park. As he made the slow, slow trot around the bases, his teammates erupted in the dugout, and one Mets fan in attendance held aloft a giant cardboard cutout of Colon's face. It was, instantly and perhaps ironically, the signature moment of Colon's long career, which has seen him compile the most wins and shutouts and the second-most innings, complete games and strikeouts of any active pitcher in the big leagues.

And it had some old friends reflecting on what a long, strange trip this has been.

Arnold: I got a big kick out of the home run. It's perfect for him. His reaction was like a kid's reaction.

Gabella: When I see highlights of him, no matter what he does, it just puts a smile on his face.

Byrd: I don't mean to pick on him at all, but he's somebody you expect to see in the back of your favorite bar, drinking beer. He gives people hope. When he gets on TV and grabs his stomach and shakes it back and forth, you're seeing his personality. You're seeing a 43-year-old kid who still loves playing the game, loves having fun and doesn't take himself too seriously.

Alomar: He always had the best mechanics. You never saw him recoiling. He followed through and his head was always on the target. You could see the guy could be healthy for a long period of time. But I didn't know it would be this long.

Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia: He's won the Cy Young, he's won 20 games a couple of times, he's had a great career. He hit a home run. He's complete.