Few in baseball inspire more suspension of reality than the Mets’ improbable All-Star, Bartolo Colon. For all of his guile on the mound, his greatest strength may be his ability to foster an image.
Colon, 43, is not without his warts. In an era in which baseball and performance-enhancing drugs have been inextricably linked, he is among those marked by that stain. Not long after he drew scrutiny for the experimental stem-cell surgery that revived his flailing career, Colon was suspended in 2012 for the use of synthetic testosterone.
It was an odd juxtaposition, the owner of baseball’s pudgiest body punished for a crime that often leads to rippling physiques.
Yet in two separate stints in New York, first with the Yankees and now with the Mets, Colon has built a cult of personality, one that seemingly has blotted out some of the darker spots on his record. He is to many the great, big, fun-loving, jovial, ageless strike-throwing savant in residence.
So when manager Terry Collins named Colon as a replacement for Madison Bumgarner on the National League All-Star team, the news brought about a level of giddiness.
“I thank God for this opportunity, for being allowed to be a part of this,” said Colon, who is 7-4 with a 3.28 ERA and has logged more innings (98 2⁄3) than any Mets starter but Noah Syndergaard.
Whether by choice or by nature, Colon has done little to dissuade the various characteristics that have been ascribed to him based on appearance alone. He rarely grants extended interviews, but he also has shown that he’s not beyond embracing some of those perceptions.
When the most ironic of ironic T-shirts began springing up around the city — it featured a stylized photo of the pitcher with the phrase “Big Sexy” — Colon had it trademarked.
However, with Colon, image reshaping hasn’t been born out of only convenient shrewdness. There also is authenticity in the pure joy he derives from playing the game — something that shouldn’t simply be assumed.
It is another suspension of reality, of course, to pretend that life in the big leagues is all fun and games. But Colon might come closest to actually achieving that ideal.
“That’s something that’s really admirable,” said Syndergaard, who at a sculpted 6-6 is Colon’s precise opposite. “He reminds you each and every day that it’s a game. From the second that he walks into the clubhouse, he’s got a smile on his face.”
After signing with the Mets in 2014, Colon has moved comfortably into his role as a wise elder statesman of sorts, an unlikely mentor to a young starting rotation loaded with promise. If they are a fleet of hard-charging Maseratis, then Colon is the weathered old pickup truck with the odometer creaking past 3,079 1⁄3 innings pitched.
“Everybody’s excited and happy, especially for what he’s doing at that age,” Mets closer Jeurys Familia said. “He deserves it. He’s had a good year. For me, I’m excited for him because I know how hard he works in spring training.”
Colon has pitched 19 seasons in the big leagues, easily more than the rest of his rotationmates combined. He was an All-Star and Cy Young Award winner (in 2005) before any of them had graduated from high school.
Yet Colon’s love for the game remains fresh.
“There’s a reason he’s been here 20 years and still pitching at 86-92, or whatever he’s throwing, and still be successful and still be one of the five guys we have throwing out there,” Matt Harvey said earlier this season. “His appreciation for the game is what we learn from him.”
During his time in Flushing, Colon has taken delight in startling teammates and visitors to the clubhouse by slamming foam exercise rollers into nearby coffee tables. In the dugout, he’s been known to stomp on Gatorade cups, hoping to catch his teammates off-guard.
“Whether he’s popping the cups in the dugout or slamming something down to scare everybody, he keeps it light, just things like that,” Jacob deGrom said. “He keeps the mood in the clubhouse good. He’s a great guy to have around. He does all kinds of different things to keep us laughing.”
The same applies in the stands.
On May 8, Colon homered for the first time in his career, turning himself into a sensation. Even in road parks, he has since been serenaded by cheers, with highlights of his Ruthian home run swing and Ortizian home run trot becoming a staple of opposing team broadcasts.
“Everybody’s enamored by it,” said Collins, who acknowledged an eager media’s role in creating some of Colon’s allure. “He’s a guy who really doesn’t like to hit, and he’s going out there, hat falling off, wild swings, great big guy, I think people relate to him. He looks like the common guy when he’s playing. And he loves to do it.”
Indeed, a common guy who has earned $95.7 million in his career (and recently drew tabloid headlines for an alleged extramarital relationship). Of course, in the same way he left his PED suspension in the past, Colon has managed to forge ahead. He does so by blocking out the distractions, and appreciating the joy of the game, a lesson he’s gone out of his way to pass along to his teammates.
“It’s the important thing to keep in mind about this sport: We’re supposed to be having fun with it,” Colon said through a translator earlier this season. “And they get to watch me out there doing that.”