Mets pitcher has skills, durability that belie his 42 years
By Terence Moore
The older I get, the more I love older baseball players.
So imagine my joy this week when the Mets showed brilliance by bringing back Bartolo Colon for another season. He and his right arm will turn 43 in May, and if you're into oddities, stand by a moment. I'm checking MLB.com for something involving the Mets' 40-man roster.
Yep, just as I figured. Colon really is old. When he spent his early teenage years helping his family survive in the Dominican Republic by picking fruits and vegetables, 33 players on the Mets' roster weren't even born.
The more I think about it, I've always cherished players more prone to turning the volume down on the music in their clubhouse than up, especially if they still could hit, pitch, field or run a little.
Satchel Paige retired at 59, and Minnie Minoso did the same at 57, but they were before my time. Such wasn't the case for Willie Stargell, the 39-year-old baseball icon who became "Pops" for the Pirates during their miracle run in 1979 to a World Series championship. There also was Darrell Evans, a line-drive hitter with the Giants in the early 1980s, when I worked in San Francisco. In 1985 he evolved into a slugger out of nowhere with the Tigers at 38. He led the Major Leagues with 40 home runs that season, and he ripped 96 more over the next four seasons before retiring.
This Peter Pan thing in baseball is mostly about pitchers, though. Remember how Nolan Ryan kept throwing smoke when he was closer to qualifying for Social Security than the legal drinking age in his native Texas?
Still, Phil Niekro is my all-time favorite veteran pitcher. Not only did he baffle hitters with his knuckleballs in his late 40s, along the way to the Hall of Fame, but he was considered a sage by his teammates.
"I was the old goat, the guy who was older than dirt and Moses and all of that stuff, but that was all in jest by my younger teammates," said Niekro, 76, who still looks as if he can get out a batter or three.
He lives in Atlanta, where he pitched 21 of his 24 seasons in the Major Leagues. He eventually flung his last official knuckleball with the Braves in 1987.
He was 48 at the time, and when he talked, they listened.
Well, most of them did.
"I would hope so," Niekro said. "They say experience is the best teacher, and the older guys always had a little more experience behind them. But I also talked to the younger guys, because you could learn from them, too. I never got to the point where I thought I knew everything there was to know about baseball. So I probably talked to hitters more than I talked to pitchers, just to see what the hitters' perspective was on a knuckleball.
"As for younger players seeking my advice, I'd tell them, 'I hope you can play as long as I have and be as successful as I have and experience the things I have during my career.' Whether they understood what I was saying or even believed what I was saying, that was their choice. But whatever was the case, I think the older players were always out there trying to help the younger."
That hasn't changed much. Take the one-year free-agent deal Torii Hunter signed in December 2014 to finish his Major League career of nearly two decades with the Twins, his original team. He wanted to end his playing days in Minnesota by serving as a 39-year-old mentor for his final group of teammates. He did so with his glove, bat and arm, as well as with his tongue.
Now comes Colon as one of the game's definitive Old Guys. His pitching peers on the Mets are nearly as young as they come in the Major Leagues, with a starting rotation of Noah Syndergaard (23), Steven Matz (24), Zack Wheeler (25) and Jacob deGrom (27). Courtesy of a healing arm, due to Tommy John surgery in March, Wheeler won't return to active duty until early summer.
No worries around Flushing, where fans hope the Mets will repeat their trip to the World Series -- but win it this time. They know the Mets have the seemingly indestructible Colon as Wheeler's replacement, and here's the thing: Colon is the most unlikely looking person you'll ever see as a poster child for durability, but that's what Colon is. Even though he wraps no less than 285 pounds around his 5-foot-11 frame, he still remains flexible in so many ways.
On defense, Colon charged from the mound last season against the Marlins to field a dribbler down the first-base line. While heading into foul territory, he casually flipped a behind-the-back throw to first base for an out that made highlight reels everywhere. At the plate, well, it's the Bartolo Colon Show, with everything from that screwy look on his face, to his batting helmet always tumbling (or nearly tumbling) to the ground, to the surprising productivity he had on offense last season.
Colon finished with eight hits in 58 at bats (.138), and there also were his four RBIs, two runs scored and double.
Nothing shows Colon's durability more than his desire to keep pitching and pitching some more. He threw 194 2/3 innings during the 2015 regular season and 8 2/3 in the postseason. In fact, since he turned 40 with the A's during the 2013 season -- which was just one of his 18 years in the Major Leagues -- he has pitched an average of 195 innings per season.
He also is effective.
That's despite everything.
Most of Colon's pitches barely create a breeze on their trip from the mound to home plate, and they are swatted more often than not (his 217 hits allowed topped the National League last season). But he doesn't walk folks (24 last season), and he battles like crazy enough each outing either to pick up the victory (14 last season) or to put his team in position to do so.
Sounds like Niekro down the stretch of his career.
"Well, you know [Colon] is sort of a special guy, because not too many people can do what he's doing at 42," Niekro said. "But somebody's got to be the youngest on a team, and somebody's got to be the oldest. So I don't really look at the age of players as a determining factor of anything. To me, it's all about, can you get batters out? Can you still perform? That's the same question you should have for any other player who goes out there. It's not the age."
I hear you, Phil.
I hear you.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.