It was a quiet morning during the slog of spring training, too far from the start of camp to still feel the glow of baseball’s return from the winter, and too far from Opening Day to be excited for the upcoming pageantry. For the players, this is a time to get through the grind.
The Mets had just won the National League pennant, so their team in 2016 brought the kind of expectations that had largely been foreign. The focus had been on the team’s ferocious young arms led by Matt Harvey and a mercurial slugger named Yoenis Céspedes. And briefly, it was on a rotund pitcher in the batter’s box and an omen: a snapped tree branch well beyond the fence in left field.
As Bartolo Colón took batting practice along with the rest of the pitchers, the session warranted some attention. Because in the long, long history of pitchers being lousy at hitting, few were as lousy as Colón.
By that spring, the righthander had been in the game long enough to endure a metamorphosis. He had once been a young power pitcher with a bright future. He won a Cy Young Award. Then he battled injuries, underwent controversial medical treatments, returned to effectiveness with the Yankees in 2011 by becoming a master of command; all before he wound up popped for performance-enhancing drugs.
Colón had packed three careers’ worth of experiences into one by the time he dragged all that baggage with him to the Mets, where against all odds, he won hearts and minds and 15 games a year during his three seasons with the franchise, two of which coincided with appearances in the postseason. That journey continued on Sunday, when Colón returned to Citi Field where he could officially retire as a member of the Mets.
But the one constant through it all had been Colón’s incompetence with the bat.
In 237 plate appearances, he had never homered. Even then, it was common for BP swings to be captured on video or on a phone. But on this morning, it was just Colón, meatballs thrown by hitting coach Kevin Long, and soon, an unbelievable sight.
Colón swung hard at a cookie delivered by Long and the ball took off for the trees behind the left-field fence. Following the boom of the bat there was silence, most certainly brought on by disbelief. Then came the crack of a tree branch snapping, and the thud as it hit the ground. The sound traveled 340 feet back to home plate, where Colón smiled wide and Long flashed a look of delight. For a few days after that, the players took to calling Colon “lumberjack.”
Arguably the worst hitting pitcher of all time had felled a tree. In all his years of playing, aside from launching bombs during offseason softball games back home in the Dominican Republic, Colón had never homered in an actual game. Surely this was a sign.
Could this be the year?
Fifty-four days later, during a regular season game in San Diego, the world got its answer. The pitch was a 90 mph fastball from James Shields and upon contact the unmistakable sound of a barrelled baseball rang out at Petco Park. The arc of the ball only confirmed the boom: this one was headed for the seats.
“Any time I see a fastball, I swing hard because I’m not a curveball hitter,” Colón said that night. “Once I hit it, I knew it was gone.”
Colon finished his major-league career with a .084 average, and one lonesome homer.
Throughout his unlikely rise as a cult hero, the line had always been blurred. Were people laughing at him? Were people laughing with him? Sometimes it was hard to tell. Even the moniker he picked up, and later embraced as the title of his autobiography, left room for interpretation: “Big Sexy.”
The hope, though, is that he was also in on the fun, none of which would be possible if he hadn’t fulfilled his first prerequisite. It shouldn’t be forgotten: the man could really pitch.
Yeah, he was heavy. But to stop there was to miss what made Colón’s time with the Mets so memorable. He was also an athlete. At the time, the backfields at the team’s spring training complex were encircled by fences about 6-feet high. Colón’s warmup stretching consisted of anchoring one foot to the ground while the other foot touched the top of the fence.
He also bounced off the pitcher’s mound like a cat, deftly fielded his position and mastered the subtle skills of his craft. He paid attention to holding runners and passed on trade secrets to younger players in his orbit. Late in his career, he found success by leveraging that athleticism to turn himself into a human metronome, pounding the strike zone time and time again. It is a skill that can sometimes elude even the most talented pitchers. Colón harnessed it and made it look easy. He could even be flashy, as he was the time that he made a perfect behind-the-back toss to Daniel Murphy.
What was more impossible than the home run, though, was the reaction that it had spurred. With one swing, 30 fanbases were united. They could marvel, collectively, at the absurdity of the accomplishment.
“This is probably the biggest moment in my career,” Colón said after that game. Even for those standing right in front of him, he sounded serious, which was an odd sentiment given that he’d won a Cy Young Award. But it was true in the sense that there wouldn’t be many more signature moments. He’d catch on a few more places, then fade away.
Of course, time comes for everyone. Colón is 50. His first big-league team (Cleveland) has since changed its name. His second (Montreal) has changed its name and city. And his signature moment is now virtually impossible. Barring Shohei Ohtani, pitchers no longer hit for themselves.
By the end, Colón pitched in 21 big-league seasons, only three of them with the Mets from 2014 to 2016. But it was with that franchise that he found belonging, hence his return to Citi Field. When you think about it, none of it adds up. But good luck telling that to the folks who turned out on Sunday, which was a perfect moment to consider the accidental lumberjack’s most obvious legacy.
Bartolo Colón made you want to suspend reality, and in sports is there anything more precious than that?
(Top photo of Bartolo Colon’s only career home run: Denis Poroy / Getty Images)