The single most joyous home run of this or any other year happened Saturday night in San Diego. It was a home run so majestic, so unlikely, so thoroughly wonderful that even the guy who gave it up, James Shields, was intoxicated by the moment. “I’m happy for him,” Shields told the New York Daily News. In truth, he should be happy for all of us.
Bartolo Colon was not the worst hitter to ever hit a home run. We will get to that in a minute. But he was the oldest — just days shy of his 43rd birthday — to ever hit his first home run. And, yes, he’s Bartolo Colon, Big Bart, Big Sexy, a player who has had one of the most ridiculously fascinating careers in the history of baseball, a player who you can’t take your eyes off of because, well, he’s Bartolo.
Colon was an exciting young pitcher, a fireballer for some great Cleveland Indians teams. He was then traded to Montreal in one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history — the Expos traded Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee AND Grady Sizemore to get him. That’s some haul. The Expos made the trade look even dumber when they traded Colon away to the White Sox six months later for pennies on the dollar.
It should be said: Even though Colon was only with Montreal for six months, he is the last Expo. And that’s something.
Colon pitched one good year with the White Sox and then signed a rather large four-year deal with the then-Anaheim Angels. In his first year, he somehow won 18 games despite a 5.01 ERA. How did he do that? Because on days he was good, he was good — in his 18 victories, Colon had a 2.16 ERA and threw a quality start 16 times. In the rest of his games, his ERA was 9.29 and he gave up an almost-unbelievable 26 homers in 83 innings.
The next year, Colon won the Cy Young. He probably did not DESERVE the Cy Young. That would have been a good year to give the award to Mariano Rivera, who never did win one, or they could have given another Cy Young to Johan Santana, who was considerably better than Colon that year. But those were the dwindling days when win-loss records still won pitchers Cy Youngs, and Colon went 21-8.
Anyway, after he won that Cy Young, he was finished. Colon tore his rotator cuff. He barely pitched for the rest of his Angels contract. He signed a minor-league deal with Boston. He made it back to the big leagues and threw a few innings but then left for the Dominican Republic to tend to personal matters. The Red Sox didn’t seem to miss him. The next year, he went back to the White Sox and blew out his arm again.
And then he was gone, out of baseball for a while. He seemed to be retired.
Then, you will remember, there was that strange stem cell transplant that nobody quite understood. It seemed a bit like the “We can rebuild him” opening scene from the old “Six Million Dollar Man” series. Baseball investigated the surgery — trying to determine if human growth hormone was used — and could not find anything conclusive. Colon came back to pitch for the New York Yankees.
He threw almost nothing but fastballs. He went to Oakland and was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for testosterone. That seemed certain to end the career. Instead, he came back at age 40 and had probably his best season, leading the league with three shutouts, posting a career-low 2.65 ERA (and career-low 3.23 FIP), making the All-Star team and finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting.
Then he signed a deal with the New York Mets. And the story got more absurd and fabulous.
And you have to say it: Nobody else looks quite like Bartolo Colon. I have a 1995 Colon baseball card — he’s listed at 185 pounds on the back. Now, he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 285 pounds. Remember when David Letterman stirred things up by calling Terry Forster a “fat tub of goo” on the old Late Night show? Colon has at least 20 pounds on Forster and he’s four inches shorter. Far be it for me, of all people, to say anything too cutting about Colon’s weight, but let’s face it: I don’t have to put on a baseball uniform. It’s fair to say that Colon is unique.
And watching him hit, yes, it’s a singular joy of baseball.
This is especially true because Bartolo Colon is a terrible hitter. But he’s not the worst to ever hit a home run. Who is? Well, you could argue for Mark Clark. In his career, Clark hit .058 in 280 plate appearances. Going into the game on June 14, 1997, he was hitless in his previous 43 at-bats.
That day, though, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, which was sort of a big deal because this was back when the New York Mets had never thrown a no-no. Every near-no-hitter was treated like Independence Day. Clark’s no-hitter ended in what you might call typical Mets fashion. Boston’s Reggie Jefferson was mistakenly called “Reggie Jackson” by the public address announcer. He promptly lined a single to left.
But in the middle of the game, Clark hit a home run off Tim Wakefield on, what else, a knuckleball that did not knuckle. Clark only had three other extra-base hits in his career, all doubles. Clark was a worse hitter than Colon.
Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm was also probably a worse hitter than Colon. Wilhelm provided one of the most unlikely moments in the history of the game — he homered in his first plate appearance. He cracked it into the lower right-field stands off a pitcher named Dick Hoover. That was 1952, the day Wilhelm got his first victory.
Wilhelm played for another 20 years — 492 more plate appearances — and never hit another home run. In truth, he never came close.
Still, nobody understood the significance of Wilhelm’s homer, and nobody really cared about Clark’s homer. But Colon, yes, everyone stops to watch Bartolo Colon hit. He came up in the second inning and the Mets already had a 2-0 lead. There was a man on second base. Colon in 2016 had come up nine times. He struck out six. The other three: Groundout, foul-out, bunt pop-out. He had not even come close to hitting the ball out of the infield.
Shields did what pitchers tend to do against helpless hitters like Colon. He threw fastballs. The first one missed. The second one was a called strike.
And the third one …
“Bartolo has done it!” Mets announcer Gary Cohen yelled. “The impossible has happened.”
And then: “This is one of the great moments in the history of baseball.”
Yep. He cranked it into the left-field stands, where a longtime Mets fan named Jimmy Zurn happened to be sitting. Zurn caught the ball and returned it happily. Colon’s home run trot took 30.5 seconds, a fairly astonishing time to run 110 meters. That’s longer than the Kirk Gibson home run trot in the World Series, longer than Mike Tyson’s knockout of Marvis Frazier, longer than it took Clint Dempsey to score that World Cup goal against Ghana. The thing is, even in the bruised feelings world of baseball, no one was mad because:
A) This was such a glorious moment for Colon.
B) It’s not entirely clear he would have put up a much better time had he gone full speed.
The Hall of Fame sent someone to collect something from the scene (though they didn’t get the ball or the bat). Topps made a special baseball card featuring Colon hitting a homer. Twitter blew up.
And we’re left to ask: Why did we all love it so much? Well, I think it’s this: He shocked us. And so little shocks us. Giancarlo Stanton hits a 500-foot homer, and it’s amazing, but we’ve seen it. Steph Curry drains another halfcourt shot, and it’s amazing, but we’ve seen it. Adrian Peterson makes a defender grab at air, Alex Ovechkin smashes a shot through a 6-inch crack, Novak Djokovic chases down a backhand and hits a winner from the split position, and it’s amazing. But we’ve seen it.
The Colon homer? We’ve never seen it before. We’ll never see it again.