LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – After Bartolo Colon led New York Mets pitchers in wins and innings last season at the ripe age of 43, most assumed that “Big Sexy,” arguably the biggest — literally and figuratively — cult figure in baseball, would return and finish his career in Queens.
But that was before Colon got a call in early November from his old friend John Hart, the Braves’ president of baseball operations, who’d been the general manager in Cleveland when Colon was a hard-throwing young ace in the late 1990s.
“Bartolo, baby, let’s get together again,” Hart said. Or something like that.
Shortly thereafter, Colon signed a one-year, $12.5 million contract with the Braves just as the free-agency period got underway.
“Speaking to John Hart — he and I had a good relationship with him when he was in Cleveland — and he spoke a lot to me and really kind of enticed me with the opportunity,” Colon said through an interpreter Wednesday after the first workout for Braves pitchers and catchers at ESPN Wide World of Sports. “He mentioned to me that he wanted me to break (Dennis) Martinez’s record here with the Braves, and some of the things that we accomplished together in Cleveland. So John Hart was a big part of it.”
And so, Colon, who turns 44 in May, will wear the tomahawk across his ample chest as he begins his pursuit of the 13 wins he needs to pass Martinez’s 245, the major league career record for a Latin American pitcher. Colon needs 10 wins to match Juan Marichal’s record for Dominican pitchers.
Both marks seem reachable in 2017, considering Colon has averaged more than 15 wins over the past four seasons including at least 14 every year in that period. He was 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA in 191 2/3 innings in an All-Star season for the Mets in 2016, the fourth consecutive season in which he pitched at least 190 innings.
Before totaling 44 wins with 415 strikeouts in 588 2/3 innings for the Mets over the past three seasons, Colon went 18-6 with a sparkling 2.65 ERA in 190 1/3 innings for Oakland in 2013 in his age-40 season, finishing sixth in the American League Cy Young Award balloting.
He’s a pitcher who has morphed from throwing high-90s heat to high-80s fastballs and breaking pitches with pinpoint accuracy, relying on location and change-of-speed to keep hitters off balance in an era of power arms and pitchers with bodies entirely different than his 5-foot-11, 285-pound physique that looks a bit like a refrigerator box on legs.
Despite his girth, Colon still displays plenty of athleticism and fields his position well.
“He’s a big guy. He’s big, solid,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He obviously knows how to get in shape, to log all the innings and the years that he has. I mean, that’s the last thing I’m going to worry about, probably. He’s been there and done that. There’s guys in the major leagues that don’t know major league baseball without him in it, he’s been in the league so long.
“Somebody that’s been around, done it like he has, he knows what he’s doing and how to prepare.”
Of Colon’s potential as a leader in the clubhouse, Snitker said, “You hear that to a man, that he’s probably one of the greatest teammates that they’ve had. So he’s the perfect kind of guy that we need here.”
He’s only signed for one season with the Braves, but Colon isn’t thinking about retiring after 2016. He wants to go at least one more to fulfill a goal he shared with his late mother.
“I always told my mother, God rest her soul, that I always wanted to play till I was 45 years old,” Colon said.
Considering how wildly popular he was in New York, Colon and most Mets fans assumed he’d be asked back for 2017. And maybe the Mets would’ve eventually made him an offer, but it almost certainly wasn’t going to be as much as what the Braves offered, since the Mets had a full rotation already with so many young pitchers including some coming back from injuries. It was those injuries that kept Colon in the Mets rotation in 2016.
“I definitely had the idea that I was probably going to stay with the Mets at the end of the season,” Colon said. “My family’s up there. But it’s a business, and I had to do what’s right for me and my family. That’s how we ended up here.”