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Bartolo Colon, Opening Day, and the Truth

Most teams start their best pitchers on Opening Day. The Mets, for their own weird reasons, are starting 42-year-old Bartolo Colon, who is great in a stranger way.

by Robert O'Connell
Apr 6 2015, 2:25pm

Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is for aces. Teams across baseball will send their best pitchers out amid the bunting and under the flyovers, hoping for a good first result. Masahiro Tanaka makes his return to the Yankees' rotation, James Shields debuts for the Padres at Dodger Stadium against Clayton Kershaw, and Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez face off in Seattle. Defending AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber takes the mound in the evening in Houston; World Series tall tale Madison Bumgarner caps the night out west. This is how it works.

And then there is Bartolo Colon, the eggplant-shaped fortysomething that the New York Mets have tabbed to make their season's first start in Washington against the Nationals. There were more obvious candidates in the team's rotation. Four of them, in fact: freshly mended flamethrower Matt Harvey, reigning rookie of the year Jacob deGrom, 2013 Opening Day starter Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee, who did the honors last year. But, perhaps owing to a desire to get those first two in front of the New York ticket-buyers as soon as possible—the Opening Day starter will pitch again on the afternoon before the Mets' home opener and so won't make his CitiField debut until after the first series in New York—the team opted to get creative. Which is one way to describe handing the ball to the near-42-year-old who compiled the highest ERA of any Mets starter last season on the first day of this one.

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The decision is unusual, probably a little cynical, and, in the long run, almost certainly inconsequential. "I know it's a big deal to a lot of people," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "To me, it's not. It's one of 32 starts." Colon, the most fantastically chilled-out pitcher of his time and many others, doesn't seem likely to stress out over it; Monday's will be the 437th start of his career.

In its way, though, this breach of etiquette is also welcome. Opening Day presents baseball at its spruced-up best—special designs cut into outfield grass, sellouts in stadiums that will be mostly empty by July, the biggest names on the mound. But imperfect baseball, the sleepy high-summer stuff, is pretty damn good, too. And no player is a better reminder of that than Colon.

Om mani padme hum baby. Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Colon has had what amounts to two distinct careers. The first began in the final few seasons of the twentieth century, when he was the hard-throwing ace of the Cleveland Indians, and culminated when he won a Cy Young Award with the Angels in 2005. The second started in 2011, when—after a string of injury-addled years with the Angels, White Sox, and Red Sox and a shoulder surgery that forced him to sit out the entire 2010 season—he re-emerged as an unlikely but viable member of the Yankees' rotation. That year provided the first glimpse of a reconfigured pitcher, one with softer stuff and a condensed repertoire matching a radically simplified approach.

This is how Colon has been in the three years since, two with the A's, last season with the Mets. He is an old and jowly man; throwing, he looks like one. His stride toward the plate is half the length it was at his more svelte (but still portly) peak. He lacks the ornate or efficient wind-ups of the new scientists, instead pulling the ball up behind his ear like a shot-putter before lurching forward. A pitch in the middle of the fourth inning looks like the day's first warm-up toss, an illusion enhanced by his between-batter comportment: a wiggle of the belt, a shrug of the shoulders, a glove held unhurriedly up. He has a habit of tossing the ball in the air to himself on the mound, catching it with his glove cupped against his belly.

Once they leave his hand, though, Colon's pitches have a particular type of magic. They are almost all fastballs, interrupted by the odd change-up, and they are almost always strikes. They sit in the high 80s and low 90s and sometimes tail in on right-handed hitters. They come in stupefying non-patterns: belt-high and on the inner half of the plate or catching the outside corner or swerving dangerously right into the heart of the strike zone, where any hitter not mesmerized by the metronomic nature of it all could belt them 400 feet. And that is it. Colon throws a fastball that is a little slower than the big league average, and he throws it more than 85 percent of the time—much more frequently than any starting pitcher in baseball throws any pitch.

Those diminished fastballs have worked to impressive but diminishing effect. After a pair of fine seasons in Oakland, the latter of which gave him his first All-Star appearance in eight years, Colon pitched to an ERA over four during his first campaign with the Mets. This is more or less what the Mets are paying him to do every five days, but what is inspiring about it has less to do with results than process, and the sublime cookout-cool with which he works. He just keeps sending in that slow, tailing beauty, which suckers cleanup hitters into tapping dribblers down the third base line, or sits up for some middle-infielder to shoot into the seats. His response is the same either way.

Sometimes great athletes are also shaped like heirloom yams. Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Colon is, from moment to moment, anachronistic, washed-up, and enlightened. Every day he pitches, he gives off the appearance of having overslept and underprepared; it is as if he has shown up to a triathlon in a Hawaiian shirt and Skechers. He seems to get by on pure guile, or on something a little more profound. No longer able to dominate the game as he could on occasion during his younger years, he has decided instead to embody it, in all of its inherent difficulty. If he cannot make it as hard on hitters as he once did, he can at least avoid ever making it easy.

Last July, Colon carried a perfect game into the seventh inning against the Mariners before Robinson Cano snapped a 2-2 pitch the other way for a single. Until that point, the performance had seemed like an elaborate and impressively straight-faced prank, as if Colon were throwing painted papier-mâché clumps that spun funnily and died on contact instead of actual baseballs. His pitches knocked into bats' ends and handles or slipped into the zone at the last instant. Change-ups, when they came, turned to vapor just in front of the plate.

Cano's late hit—the first of a few, as it turned out; Colon would surrender a pair of runs before leaving the game with one out in the eighth—produced the requisite disappointment, but it also brought relief to those who find comfort in order. Colon has sacrificed the possibility of excellence for the endurance of adequacy; a perfecto would have been an affront to type.

Washington ace Max Scherzer will be Colon's opponent on Monday afternoon, and is as likely as any pitcher alive to start the season with a glimpse of the spectacular. Colon, in his casual way, will show us something truer—the plain joy of the game, the same dull and wonderful thing over and over again.

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