New York Mets officials insisted as the winter meetings opened in December 2013 that they were unprepared to offer two years to any free-agent starting pitcher, much less one who already had turned 40 years old.
Then, with agent Adam Katz lobbying hard on Bartolo Colon's behalf, general manager Sandy Alderson, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, assistant general manager John Ricco and other Mets staffers bumped into Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane while heading to dinner in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Beane, exiting the same establishment, heartily endorsed Colon to Mets officials.
Shortly thereafter, the Mets had a two-year, $20 million deal completed with Colon, who subsequently acknowledged the club was the only one to make him a multiyear offer.
The signing has worked out splendidly.
Now in the second season of that contract, Colon leads the National League with six wins as he takes the mound Friday night against the Milwaukee Brewers at Citi Field. He also has been durable, making 38 starts since the beginning of the 2014 season.
Colon, who turns 42 on May 24, is the third pitcher 40 or older to win at least six of his first seven starts of a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The others: Houston’s Roger Clemens in 2004 (7-0) and Pittsburgh’s Babe Adams in 1923 (6-1).
“The main thing is I’ve got confidence in what I’m doing,” Colon says in Spanish, with bullpen coach Ricky Bones translating. “But, at my age, I even surprise myself that I’m pitching as well as I’m pitching right now.”
How old is Colon? He debuted with the Cleveland Indians on April 4, 1997, against the Terry Collins-managed Angels. He is one of three remaining active major leaguers to have appeared for the Montreal Expos, joining Bruce Chen and Maicer Izturis. He is nearly double the age of Mets second baseman Dilson Herrera, who is the youngest player in the majors at 21 years, 73 days.
Colon became the oldest Opening Day starter in Mets history on April 6. Despite Collins, the Mets manager, getting skewered on talk radio for selecting him over a young gun such as reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom or returning ace Matt Harvey, Colon limited the Washington Nationals to one run and three hits in six innings in a 3-1 win.
Colon issued a sixth-inning walk to Bryce Harper that day. It is the only walk Colon has issued this season. He currently is riding a streak of 40⅓ innings without issuing a walk. Bret Saberhagen owns the franchise record, having gone 47⅔ innings without a walk in 1994.
Colon has reinvented himself at this stage of his career. His fastball averages a career-low 88.4 mph this season.
“When I was in the American League as a coach, I saw Bartolo and Jaret Wright throw 100 mph against us back-to-back days,” pitching coach Dan Warthen says.
Colon essentially was out of baseball in 2010, so he tried a Hail Mary. With his fastball languishing in the mid-80s, a doctor took bone marrow stem cells and fat from elsewhere in Colon’s body and injected it into his shoulder and elbow. He credits the procedure for reviving his career.
He now is third among Dominican-born pitchers in career wins with 210, trailing only Hall of Famers Juan Marichal (243) and Pedro Martinez (219).
“I thought my career was over,” Colon says. “That’s why I allowed the doctor[s] to experiment with what they did. But, in my heart, I thought it was over.”
Colon uses a fastball 84.3 percent of the time, although that statistic is misleading because he throws three different types, with wide-ranging velocities.
"I thought my career was over. That's why I allowed the doctor[s] to experiment with what they did. But, in my heart, I thought it was over."Bartolo Colon, on a 2010 procedure in which bone marrow stem cells and fat, taken from elsewhere in his body, was ejected into his shoulder and elbow.
“He’s got a sinker, a four-seam and a little cutter. And he changes speeds with them all the time,” says Anthony Recker, who caught Colon on Sunday in Philadelphia, when Colon improved to 6-1, albeit with his ERA rising to 3.30. “The sinker, he’ll throw it at 89 mph, he’ll throw it at 83 mph. The cutter and the four-seam for the most part he throws pretty consistently. But it’s definitely not one pitch.”
Opposing batters marvel at the movement.
“I hear them wonder how in the world some of his pitches come back to the plate the way they do,” Recker says. “He’s got that really good backdoor/back-whip fastball -- whatever you want to call it. Greg Maddux, I know, used to call it a back-whip fastball. It starts well off the plate, looks like it has no chance, and then pretty late it dives back onto the corner.
“He’s mastered not just throwing strikes, but really hitting spots with that thing. Then he’ll throw it away from lefties and have them fish for it. He’ll throw it in to righties and get jams. They’ll hit like a little, dinky groundball and stuff.”
Sunday’s win in Philadelphia was particularly meaningful to Colon because it came on Mother’s Day. His mother, Adriana, died last August at age 63 after a long battle with breast cancer.
“I know that every time I take the mound, my mom is there with me,” Colon says. “To pitch that day and get a win is like the ultimate.”
Colon beams while volunteering that he also is lined up to pitch on his mother’s birthday, May 25. Mother’s Day is celebrated in the Dominican Republic on the final Sunday of this month. He is lined up for that start, too.
Colon does not often open up to the media. Although he has lived in New Jersey for two decades and speaks English, he typically only does interviews immediately after his starts, with Bones translating from Spanish. Otherwise, he prefers privacy.
"My English is fine. And I understand everything that’s being asked,” Colon says. “I just want to make sure I relay the message the right way.”
Born in the Dominican Republic, Colon became a U.S. citizen in September.
“Now I feel like I’m a free man,” he says. “My wife and kids live in New Jersey. They’re American citizens. So being around them and equal with them is a lot easier.”
He was suspended 50 games in August 2012 for a positive test for excessive levels of testosterone. When Mets closer Jenrry Mejia was suspended for a positive PED test last month, Colon indicated he did not want to revisit his own transgression, citing embarrassment. He insists he is clean now.
“I actually feel embarrassed in how people see it, and how they see Mejia now. Kids are going to see us and that we made a mistake and that we did something wrong,” Colon says. “But, at this point, I have no regret because I’m clean and I have nothing to worry about. I just want people to forgot about that situation, all those mistakes. The most important part is there’s a family to back you up and stay in your corner with you, and that motivates you to keep going and pursue the life.”
He also has a sense of humor. When new hitting coach Kevin Long asked him in spring training about doubling last season’s hit total (from two to four), Colon negotiated it down to three. Colon’s pregame ritual on pitching days typically includes taking a foam roller and bashing into against a hard surface in the clubhouse, startling anyone unprepared for the ensuing wall of sound.
Colon is listed at 5-foot-11, 283 pounds, but his athleticism is stellar. He adeptly fields his position, although his hitting -- while improved -- can prove comedic.
“I knew he was a good athlete,” Warthen says. “There’s been several across time. David Wells was that way, and he got a little heavier. Rick Reuschel was always an extremely good athlete. I’m surprised he’s not a better offensive player. It’s probably because he hasn’t done it. But he is such a good athlete and he does things so well, we think that he can be even a better batter.”
Colon plans for his career to continue beyond 2015, although it is likely to be elsewhere given the stable of young pitching the Mets have amassed.
“First of all, I’ve got to finish this year,” Colon says. “Second of all, I’m going to take it day by day. But I’m going to pitch and play as long as somebody offers me an opportunity.”