SURPRISE, Ariz. — Before Bartolo Colon took the mound Thursday for the first pitch of a potential 21st season in the big leagues, the official start of the something that could be incredible, new teammate Edinson Volquez shouted across the Texas Rangers clubhouse.
“Bartolo!” he said. “Señor.”
When Colon looked up, Volquez bowed. Other players hooted and hollered. Colon, who will turn 45 in May, is part baseball dignitary and part folk-hero at this point in his career. He’s revered by his teammates but also turned into the type of Internet gag that leaves you wondering if Twitter is laughing with him or laughing at him when he jiggles his belly or when his helmet comes flying off.
People call him an “ageless wonder.” And you don’t even really need to use his surname anymore. Bartolo will do. Everybody who follows baseball knows Bartolo. Some people chuckle at his portly physique (though if you’ve seen him train, you know he works hard) but baseball people applaud his resiliency and his ability to keep throwing strikes, even after all these years.
“Look,” says Rangers manager Jeff Banister. “There are a lot of Christmas gifts or birthday gifts you unwrap that maybe the packaging doesn’t look great, but inside there’s a tremendous gift waiting to be opened.”
If he was more chiseled and didn’t have a PED suspension in his past and had a well-marketed meal plan, maybe more people would be comparing him to Tom Brady. OK, maybe not with that ERA, but still — it’s incredible to think that he’s still pitching all these years later. Heck, the San Diego Padres, whom he faced Thursday had seven players on their roster who weren’t born when Barolo made his minor-league debut back in 1994.
He smiles and jokes that he’s happy to be in the American League these days. Why? Because he doesn’t have to run and hit, of course. Ask him about being respected by his teammates and he says they have to like him because he’s old.
But he’s also serious about why he’s still playing baseball — he’s chasing a record that’s meaningful to him. The all-time win record for Latin pitchers. He needs three more to tie Juan Marichal and six to pass Dennis Martinez for No. 1 all-time. Whether he gets there is a tricky question. Because now the ageless wonder is facing his toughest challenge yet.
Colon signed a minor-league deal with the Rangers in February. He’s a non-roster invitee in camp, which means he’s not guaranteed a spot on Texas’ team. Last year, he wasn’t great. He had a 7-14 record with a 6.48 ERA for the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins. The Rangers are casting a wide net to fill their rotation. The offseason acquisitions include Volquez, Matt Moore, Doug Fister, Mike Minor — all of whom are younger than Colon by at least 10 years. They’ve got Cole Hamels and Martin Perez atop the rotation. Even if they go with a six-man rotation, not everybody has a place.
Bartolo’s odds of making the Rangers roster aren’t stellar. The odds of getting six more wins in the big leagues are even longer. But this is also a team that is signing Tim Lincecum, so the Rangers believe in a good story.
“The decision is up to them,” Colon said, adding that he’ll just keep working hard.
Thursday’s start was vintage “Bartolo: The Later Years.” He threw 23 strikes in 32 pitches across two innings, the typical abbreviated first spring outing. He allowed a homer to Wil Myers, struck a guy out, and was throwing mostly between 80 and 89 mph. Old friend Noah Syndergaaard, he is not. Colon relies on deception and location rather than having incredible stuff like he did in his younger, Cy Young-winning days. Hey, it worked for Jamie Moyer, right? If the Rangers need a guy who can eat innings, throw strikes and get some outs, Colon has a track record of doing that.
“With guys like this, I cherish every second they go out there,” Banister says. “It’s phenomenal. Just to want to do it at that age, and to be good enough to continue to do it, is incredible.”
Consider this: Bartolo faced Delino DeShields 22 games between 1997 and 2001 and now he’s teammates with Delino DeShields Jr.
“He’s a fun guy to be around,” says the younger DeShields, who is 19 years younger than Colon.
“I’m sure,” Banister says, “all the football and basketball and hockey people will want to jump on this and say that’s it’s not that tough. Let me tell you something, as much as we like to think we prepare to endure 162, what these guys go through socially, emotionally and physically, to play this game, it’s absolutely incredible. For a guy like that, that number of years — ’95 or ’96 was the first time I saw Bartolo in uniform pitching and now it’s 2018.”
Nobody outlasts time, so the ageless wonder might not be all that ageless by April or May or June. But he’s still trying, still hoping for those last few wins, still attempting to defy baseball convention.
So it’s fitting that someone bowed.
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