You don't often see a Braves player get a standing ovation from Mets fans; Chipper Jones more or less poisoned that well by torturing Queens for the better part of a decade, and Freddie Freeman isn't helping. But on the night of April 5, as each Atlanta player was greeted in his trip to the plate by scattered boos or studied indifference, one man brought the Citi Field faithful to their feet as he took his turn at bat.
It's unusual for a 44-year-old journeyman get the kind of standing ovation usually reserved for World Series heroes or all-time franchise greats, but there's been nothing normal about the late-stage brilliance of Bartolo Colón, the one-man GIF factory who has been in MLB nearly as long as some of its players have been alive. But unfortunately, one of the game's great comeback stories may have reached its final chapter. On Thursday afternoon, the Braves announced that they were designating Colón for assignment—a sudden and ignominious end after Atlanta signed him to a one-year, $12.5 million deal this off-season.
The final blow came last night after Colón's first turn since going on the disabled list roughly three weeks earlier. Facing the light-hitting Padres, Colón was lit up for six runs on eight hits and three walks in four innings—his sixth start this season in which he gave up six or more runs. It was par for the course in a completely lost year for the roly-poly veteran, who had compiled a wretched 8.14 ERA across 63 innings; had completed the sixth inning just three times in 13 tries; and was posting his worst walk and home-run rates since 2009.
Still a strike-throwing machine, it seems as if the years and the thousands of innings—3,235 1/3, to be exact—have finally caught up to Colón. His fastball hasn't lost any of its late-career velocity, still humming in at 87.9 mph, but hitters are tattooing it to the tune of a .327 average and a .612 slugging percentage. Things have been even worse with regards to his sinker, which opposing batters are hitting a ridiculous .358 against. Add it all up, and you have a pitcher whom the Braves couldn't keep rolling out every fifth day, no matter how venerable and lovable he is.
And that's what Colón has been in this unexpected second life of his career. This was a man who burst onto the scene 20 (!) years ago as a rookie with the Indians and became an integral part of that franchise's late-1990s excellence, including a complete-game victory in the 1998 ALCS against the 116-win juggernaut Yankees. A 200-inning workhorse with Cleveland, he was heavily pursued at the trade deadline in 2002 and was sent to Montreal—then contending as its time wound down—for a package of prospects (Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips) that would lead the Indians to their next golden era; unable to afford him any further, the Expos sent Colón to the White Sox that off-season.
A free agent after the 2003 season, Colón joined the Angels and won the Cy Young in '05, but his career was derailed after that by a torn labrum. He missed almost the entirety of the 2006 season, struggled through a final bad year with Anaheim and one with Boston (on whom he more or less quit toward the end of the season), then looked all but finished after an injury-interrupted 2009 with the White Sox in which he managed just 62 1/3 innings—his fourth straight year with 100 or fewer innings pitched.
Out of the game for all of 2010 due to shoulder problems, Colón underwent a controversial stem-cell procedure to repair his arm, then announced a comeback for 2011. He signed with the Yankees and shocked baseball by pitching decently, if not well, and kickstarted a resilient second half of his career. He spent two years in Oakland before joining the Mets, with whom he became a cult superstar and a veteran presence on a young rotation. Despite his sub-90s fastball and David Wells-on-a-bender physique, Colón stymied hitters with perfect fastball placement and movement, displaying the kind of pitching wiles that made him a valued mentor for young hurlers across the league.
Colón was the perfect player for the new age of GIFs and social media, too. His sudden and unexpected athleticism always made for a fun highlight, as did his woeful attempts at bat as a National League pitcher. No less than Commissioner Rob Manfred pointed to Colón's endless hitting foibles as a reason to keep the designated hitter out of the NL. The peak of Bartolo-Mania (as it were) came last May, when he stepped to the plate against the Padres' James Shields in San Diego and did the impossible: He homered.
With that solo shot, the then-42-year-old Colón became the oldest player in MLB history to hit his first career homer—the kind of record that seemed fitting for a man whose career felt like one endless curio, an out-of-nowhere silliness that makes this game so much fun.
It's hard to imagine Colón will find any suitors, given how bad he's been. The Mets are a possibility, given their ruined rotation, but Colón hasn't shown anything this season to suggest that he'd be any solution for anyone. But if this is the end, he leaves as living history. He was the oldest player in the game, the last active major leaguer who played for the Expos and one of the last players left who was born in the 1970s. He was second all-time in wins by a Dominican starting pitcher, trailing only Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. He has pitched in 44 different stadiums, including his home field this year, the brand-new Suntrust Park. In his final start, he faced Manuel Margot, who was born the year after Colón signed with the Indians.
Baseball is hard—so unbelievably, idiotically hard—but here was a man in his 40s who looked like a boulder and couldn't throw hard but still threw nothing but his fastball, and he made the game look so simple. More importantly, he made it look fun. In an era full of ludicrously talented athletes who came out of the womb able to hit balls to the moon and throw 200 mph, Colon was a gentle, goofy giant who snuck up on the league. His comeback and success felt like a magic trick, and like any good illusionist, he never shared his secrets. He just kept on going, and for a while, it seemed like he might never stop—like his career would end only when he got tired of making men half his age look silly by swinging through 88-mph heat.
Hopefully this isn't the end. Hopefully there'll be more innings, more terrible swings, more standing ovations. And while Colón won't make the Hall of Fame or have his number retired whenever his career comes to a close, he'll be remembered. He made it back against all odds and made behind-the-back flips and lost his helmet on swings and jiggled his belly in the dugout. If this is it for Big Bart, he'll be sorely missed, though we should be thankful he ever made it back in the first place.