Bartolo Colon walks into the visitors clubhouse in Detroit, a towel over his shoulder and flip-flops on his feet, and spots Eduardo Escobar at his locker. Colon taps him on his shoulder, nods as Escobar looks up, and walks on. Ehire Adrianza is nearby, reading his iPhone, and Colon taps him, too. Adrianza smiles, Colon nods his head, and moves along.
He walks up behind Kyle Gibson, who is getting a plate of food in the dining room, and does it again. Then Jorge Polanco. Miguel Sano. Trevor Hildenberger. Colon greets each of them, usually without saying a word.
“Bartolo’s roll call,” Twins manager Paul Molitor says with a laugh. “I see it all the time. He tries to stay connected with everybody out there, even during games when they pass him by in the dugout. He’s got something for everybody, pretty much every day.”
It’s a low-wattage, high-charm approach to baseball, and to life, and it has made the Dominican righthander — and Tuesday night’s starter at Target Field — an extraordinarily popular teammate everywhere he’s gone. “He’s a very happy person,” said Sano, in whom Colon has particularly befriended during his three weeks with the Twins, “and he makes everybody happy.”
Well, not most hitters, at least not lately, as the 44-year-old Colon has defied age and logic to retire hitters like the Bartolo of old. On Aug. 4, he became the oldest AL pitcher to throw a complete-game victory since Nolan Ryan, and five days later he was even better, shutting out the Brewers on five hits over seven innings. Colon has made five starts since joining the Twins on July 18, and each one has been slightly but distinctly better than the last.
“I think he has felt like he’s found something that’s probably a little different than what he featured in Atlanta,” where he was released after three lousy, even career-threatening, months with the Braves, Molitor said. “Whether he’s got his movement back, or he’s got a little extra on his four-seamer, he’s pitched well pretty much in every start. But the last two definitely have gotten your attention.”
Of course, Colon draws attention everywhere he goes, partly for his incredible longevity, partially for his pudgy frame, and also for his joy-riding “Big Sexy” image.
“He has a lot of fun every fifth day,” Molitor said. “I think the other days, he still has a lot of fun, but the fifth day is most enjoyable.”
He’s like a character from folklore, popular among teammates, opponents and fans; Colon received a standing ovation as he left his Twins debut against the Yankees, despite giving up four runs in four innings. His history isn’t spotless — Colon served a 50-game suspension in 2012 after failing a PED test for synthetic testosterone, and he was sued last summer by a woman who asserted he had fathered her two children, unbeknownst to his wife and four sons — but his persona is so engaging, his popularity drowns out those incidents.
He is unusually quiet, Twins teammates say, rarely talks to reporters, and always is willing to offer advice or instruction. “He just has that built-in respect,” Molitor said. “The guys have taken to him really fast around here.”
He’s older than a couple of Twins coaches, and faced his 60-year-old manager in three games during his first two seasons. But he doesn’t seem old, the Twins say.
“Not at all. He’s an incredible teammate. He’s already one of us, like he’s been here for years,” Gibson said. “And he’s a phenomenal pitcher to watch work.”
That’s because Colon appears almost unarmed on the mound. The 100-mph fastball of his youth is gone, and he has long since abandoned curveballs or sliders. A longtime scout, asked before Colon’s tune-up start at Class AAA Rochester last month if he planned to observe the 21-year veteran, said: “I don’t need to. I can tell you what he’s going to throw — 90 fastballs.”
Yeah, that’s part of the lore, too. By the website FanGraphs’ pitch-tracking, 82 percent of Colon’s pitches are fastballs, by far the greatest percentage of any MLB pitcher, and another 10 percent of his pitches are labeled “changeup,” though they are basically Colon throwing the same fastball with a bit less velocity.
“I told him, I don’t even have to put fingers down if you don’t want me to,” said Chris Gimenez, who has caught three of Colon’s five Twins starts. “He’s the easiest pitcher I’ve ever had the opportunity to catch. You look at the stuff, you look at the velocity, and you don’t understand how in an age like today, where everybody’s throwing 98, he gets guys out. Then you watch him and just go ‘wow.’ ”
So how does he do it? “It’s all late movement and location. His ball runs really late — look good, looks good, and then it sort of jolts at the last second,” Gimenez said. “And he knows exactly what he’s doing, where he wants to put the ball. It’s like he’s throwing darts — it’s only a matter of an inch or two sometimes between a good pitch or one that gets crushed, but he puts it right there. Right there.”
On Tuesday, Colon will take the mound to open a critical series against his original team, the Cleveland Indians, whom he helped pitch to the 1997 World Series. Molitor believes Colon relishes that spotlight.
“He enjoys the fact that he’s kind of beating the odds, and maybe that motivates him a little bit. But to me, he’s just out there having a good time,” Molitor said. “The folklore part of it, it’s been that way for a while for him. … I’m glad he’s here, I know that.”