Colon is the 40-year-old ace of theOakland Athletics, the only All-Star on the team leading the American League West. Few players are older or seemingly in worse shape than Colon, who is 5 feet 11 inches and every bit of his listed weight of 267 pounds.
And yet, after a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on Monday, Colon was 12-3 with a 2.69 earned run average, pitching with enough confidence and precision to be the league leader in fewest walks per nine innings.
“I believe this is my best year,” Colon said through an interpreter after the game. “I never imagined, I never had any idea from the beginning of the season, that I’m going to have the kind of numbers I have right now.”
Derek Norris, the A’s catcher, said Colon had far exceeded expectations. The team got him mainly to log innings, Norris said, “but I also think that not a whole lot of people realized what he still had in the tank.”
Who knew what to make of Colon last August, when he was suspended after testing positive for testosterone? He was 10-9 with a 3.43 E.R.A. when he was caught, after already pushing the system’s boundaries with the Yankees in 2011.
Colon, whose career was sputtering because of injuries, had never told the Yankees that he was treated by a doctor who used Colon’s fat and bone marrow stem cells and injected them back into his elbow and shoulder. The doctor had used human growth hormone in similar procedures, but said he did not do so with Colon.
It sounded shady enough, and the positive test, plus Colon’s subsequent link to the Biogenesis investigation, seemed to confirm that his renaissance was a mirage, too good to be true. Surely his cheating explained his success, and Colon, without the drugs, would decline.
The A’s thought otherwise, as they often do, and brought him back for one year and $3 million, more than he had made in 2012.
“Our organization thought he would be very similar based on what they saw in winter ball,” Manager Bob Melvin said. “He was throwing with the same velocity he does right now, the same movement. It was an easy sign for us and we did it very quickly, based on what everybody thought he would be like, and certainly he’s been that and more.”
As a player with the San Francisco Giants, Melvin caught Rick Reuschel, another rotund right-hander who pounded the strike zone and thrived at 40. Players who carry so much weight and still succeed tend to be extraordinary athletes, and Melvin said Colon was a lot like Reuschel.
Colon is a slick fielder: quick off the mound, good at holding runners, deft at fielding bunts and flinging sidearm strikes to first. On the mound, he aims his sinker at a left-hander’s hip and it bends over the plate. Against right-handers, he starts it outside and it clips the corner. Other times, he simply throws heat at 96 miles per hour.
“He’s always had a great lower half,” said Omar Minaya, who traded for Colon as the Montreal Expos’ general manager in 2002. “Those pitchers that get their legs into it and drive like that, they put less stress on their arm and they can last a long time.”
The A’s could have used Colon last October, when they lost a division series to Detroit, three games to two. He was gone by then, but his teammates did not hold it against him. They were thrilled to have him back this season.
“He just makes everyone loose,” starter A. J. Griffin said. “Everyone loves him. You always want a guy like that on your team, regardless of things that happened. If he had a bad attitude, it would be a different story, I’m sure. But he’s just always happy.”
Colon has eccentricities. For every game he wins, The San Francisco Chronicle learned, he decorates a game ball in brightly colored markers, with intricate designs, and gives them to the trainers as gifts. His music of choice before games: Adele.
Colon has a tattoo of Jesus on his left arm, and he is generally unobtrusive in the clubhouse. Yet he will sometimes rattle teammates by smashing a piece of equipment on a table, just for laughs. Coco Crisp, the veteran outfielder who saved Monday’s game with a diving catch, said nothing ever seemed to bother Colon.
“Going back to last year, before everything happened, if you would have picked one guy in the locker room that you would think would get a 50-game suspension for the drug policy, nobody would have picked Bartolo,” Norris said. “He’s so quiet, and he’s such a good guy.
“It is what it is. It happened. But we didn’t feel any sort of abandonment. It was a suspension and it’s part of baseball. A lot of teams have had to go through it. What makes our club so great is the fact that we pick each other up.”
Norris called Colon a “great role model” for the younger pitchers, and praised him for handling himself with class. That sounds like a stretch, given Colon’s drug offense. But Colon apologized when he reported to spring training, and the Oakland players, who are used to unorthodox characters, gain nothing from judging him. They recognize the good and ignore the sins.
“He’s just always cool when he’s out there, like it’s not a big deal,” Griffin said. “He just always has a plan.”
If the plan was to cheat his way back to the majors, get caught, get a raise, and then become an All-Star while presumably staying clean, it was a strange playbook to follow. But Colon, in so many ways, is not like anyone else.