Commentary

Don't count Bartolo Colon out

What we've learned: Even at 39, Colon continues to beat the baseball odds

Originally Published: June 22, 2012
By Enrique Rojas | ESPNDeportes.com

Bartolo ColonMichael Zagaris/Getty ImagesA muscle strain has him sidelined for now. But if past is prologue, Bartolo Colon will be back soon.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is available in Spanish here.

OAKLAND -- At the age of 39, Bartolo Colon is carrying several dozen extra pounds and a repaired arm; but somehow, against the odds, he has still been a part of a big league rotation this year.

Maybe, though, that shouldn't be surprising. Colon is a man who has always managed to overcome adversity, and now he's facing it again after he suffered a strained right oblique muscle just two innings into his start against the San Diego Padres on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerIf the controversial stem surgery that worked for Colon works for other pitchers, maybe it should be named after him.

The injury will force Colon, who missed 28 days with the Cleveland Indians in 1999 for the same type of strain, to spend a good amount of time away from the mound before his next start. But before this latest physical setback, on a windy June afternoon in the San Francisco Bay area, Colon sat down to chat with ESPNdeportesLosAngeles.com about his miraculous return to baseball last year, his recurring weight problems and his future beyond the current season.

"Do you like playing the lottery? I think you should play it this week," said Colon before going to shag flies at batting practice, the only thing about which he is more passionate than eating and pitching. "The fact that I sat down to give an interview longer than a minute is a sign that your luck is good. Play the lottery this week.

"I feel good, thank God; I feel healthy. I feel that I'm pitching well because I can pitch for six or seven innings, which is the most important thing, at least in my view."

The former Cy Young winner (2005, when he went 21-8 for the Angels) was 6-7 with a 4.22 ERA for the Oakland Athletics, his fifth different team in his last five years in the majors, when the injury happened. He'd pitched six innings or more in nine of his 15 starts and was among the American League leaders in starts, innings pitched and fewest pitches per inning (14.4) -- all this two years after having been used as a "lab rat" for an innovative stem cell procedure and three years after voluntarily retiring from baseball.

Shoulder pain, he says, was a big reason for his poor performance with the White Sox in 2009, when he went 3-6 with a 4.19 ERA in 12 games. That pain played a role in his sudden departure from the game after Chicago released him in mid-September that season. But, according to Colon, it was the death of his brother-in-law that really brought about the decision.

"I lost a very important person, my wife's brother ... my brother-in-law was killed. I left baseball completely, but then I had the surgery and came back," he said.

In March of 2010, Dominican doctor Leonel Liriano, under the supervision of American doctor Joseph Purita, performed a stem cell transplant on Colon to repair the damaged tissue in his right shoulder. During the procedure, done in Santiago in the north of the Dominican Republic, doctors extracted bone marrow tissue and adipose tissue from Colon's pelvis, spun them in a centrifuge and administered them to his shoulder and elbow tissue. By 2011, Colon was back in the big leagues and pitching well for the Yankees.

The novel procedure, which was later banned in the Dominican Republic, caught the attention of Major League Baseball because Purita allegedly had used human growth hormone (HGH) in prior cases. (Purita denied using HGH or any other substance banned in baseball on Colon.)

"The operation was a success, thank God," said Colon, who has a 13-16 record with 247 innings pitched in 43 games (40 starts) with the Yankees and Athletics since he underwent the procedure. "I have not felt discomfort. Sometimes I feel that the shoulder and elbow bother me a little bit, but nothing like what I used to feel before. I haven't felt those discomforts again.

"I have never been afraid to loosen up the arm, though at first I did not know how I would react to the operation. But I have worked hard, and that is what has me here."

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
AP Photo/ Bill NicholsDespite his age and arm problems, Colon is still a power pitcher.

For Oakland manager Bob Melvin, the most remarkable aspect of Colon's season with the A's  at least until the strained oblique sidelined him recently -- is that he's been the same type of pitcher he was earlier in his career.

"What impresses me the most is that he continues to be a power pitcher," Melvin said. "He has hit speeds between 93 and 95 mph. I don't know if that's a miracle, but it's certainly impressive."

In a June 6 outing, Colon pitched eight innings in Oakland's 2-0 win over the Texas Rangers, one of the best offensive teams in baseball. It was the first shutout against Texas since last September.

"Colon from before was stronger; Colon now is more intelligent," said Rangers' third baseman Adrian Beltre, comparing the pitcher he faced before the operation to the one he saw a few weeks ago. "His fastball is always in the strike zone, but with a lot of movement."

For pitching coaches Curt Young of Oakland and Mike Butcher of the Angels, Colon's successful return to baseball is tied at least as much to his talent as to the operation.

"I simply think that he is so natural in a pitcher's role," said Young. "He has great command of his pitches and obviously a great sense for throwing strikes at any moment."

Butcher, who was Colon's pitching coach in 2007 during his final season with the Angels, said, "I'm not surprised by the success. I'm sure he invested a lot of arduous work in his rehabilitation. People don't realize what a tremendous athlete he is. I've known him since he started in baseball with Cleveland in 1996, and he has always been a great athlete, very flexible. He has always been a pitcher with tremendous control. When he is healthy, he can be one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. He is a natural to fill that role."

Melvin, Young and Butcher all agreed that if the stem cell procedure proves to be as successful with other pitchers as it was for Colon, then it should be named in his honor, as was done with Tommy John and reconstructive elbow surgery: Bartolo Colon surgery.

"He seems to have been a lab rat," Melvin remarked.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
Carlo Allegri/AFP/Getty ImagesWhen Colon broke in with the Indians in the late '90s, it wasn't so difficult for him to control his weight.

In any event, Colon's work ethic has made a tremendous impression on the rest of the club's pitchers, according to A's Dominican reliever Jordan Norberto, who says, "He is a guy with an amazing discipline at work, who doesn't miss a routine."

Colon, who has an overall 167-120 record and a 4.09 ERA in 15 years in the majors, believes he can keep pitching for a couple more years. But he admits that to do so, he will have to control his body weight, which has taken a huge toll on his knees for quite some time. The 5-foot-11 pitcher's weight normally oscillates between 250 and 270 pounds during the season.

He has battled his weight ever since he was signed out of Altamira, a small town in the Puerto Plata province on the Atlantic coast of the Dominican Republic, by the Indians at the age of 19. The talent scouts feared that despite the strength of his right arm, he might not have a long career.

"This year after the season, I plan to go to Dr. James Andrews' weight-loss program in Pensacola, Fla., to work hard at controlling my weight," Colon said. "Right now, I weigh the same as I did in spring training. But I feel that is what is having an effect on my knees, mainly the left one, which is the one that has always bothered me."

Colon said he signed with the A's as a free agent this spring because they were the only team that offered him a guaranteed contract. He said he'd like to stay with Oakland beyond 2012, although his long experience in the majors has taught him to have a suitcase ready in order to move when necessary.

"Oakland is a good team for which to play, without much pressure," he said. "It was the only team that guaranteed me anything. Arizona was interested but did not guarantee anything. If they give me the chance, I would come back to Oakland."

ESPNDeportesLosAngeles.com's Noel Pineiro contributed to this report.

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.