Adapted from So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets―the Best Worst Team in Sports, by Devin Gordon, published by Harper.
When the Mets signed Bartolo Colón, then 40 years old and weighing in at nearly 300 pounds, to a two-year, $20 million contract in the winter before the 2014 season, the baseball world snickered. Mets fans groaned. Two years! Ten million a year! (Technically nine, then eleven.) For a journeyman 40-year-old pitcher—41 in May—whose fastball topped out at 52 mph!
As far as we knew at the time, the Wilpon family—Fred, the patriarch, and Jeff, his dink son—didn’t have $20 million to spend on their baseball team, because their fortune had vanished in 2008 when the FBI took down their good friend and longtime money guy Bernie Madoff. For five years, the Wilpons had been clinging to the franchise, subsisting on care and feeding from the MLB commissioner’s office, and now all of a sudden, they were dropping eight figures on a fat old junkballer.
Sure, we’d had success with crafty fossils in the recent past, most notably Julio Franco, an indestructible hitting machine who the Mets signed at the age of 47 (that’s not a typo; he really was 47) to a two-year deal (also not a typo; they really did give him two years) and who turned out to be worth every penny. But this was a starting pitcher. Sure, Colón was a former Cy Young Award winner, but that was a decade ago and his elbow had exploded in between. Sure, he was coming off an All-Star selection in Oakland, but before that season he was coming off a PED suspension. And now he was the highest-paid pitcher on the Mets’ 2014 roster. He was the third highest-paid Met overall, behind only Captain America David Wright and Baseball’s Most Popular Man Curtis Granderson. We were coming off a bloodless 74-88 season in 2013, and now Bartolo fucking Colón was, on paper at least, our third-best player.
I was livid. For the first time in the vast unforgiving arc of my lifelong relationship with the Mets, I thought I might surrender. I was defeated. I was this close to all-out surrender.
Five pitches into Bartolo Colón’s first start in a Mets uniform, I was smitten. I had simply failed to account for the visceral joy of watching a man shaped like a large ball throw a much smaller ball. Colón bulged like a human bouncy castle. One time he took a liner straight to the gut and he barely flinched, just picked up the ball and flipped it to first with a big grin.
He also kept getting hitters out, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how. It was like voodoo. He’d scatter 17 singles over six innings, but he always seemed to do the job and keep the Mets in the game. And every now and then he’d flash a glimpse of what a deceptively superb athlete he was—the classic nimble chunky guy, a favorite varietal of mine, the Chris Farleys of sports. Colón’s teammates fell for him just as hard, just as fast. He acquired a nickname—“Big Sexy”—a tribute to both his size and his humble mug. According to the mythology, Bartolo was thin as a rookie in Cleveland and then over two decades he gradually got swole with joy, but this isn’t true. His face was long and slender and unironically sexy back then, but his frame was already dense, and by the time he arrived in New York he looked like a Dominican Big Pussy Bonpensiero.
Even Colón’s fatal flaw was endearing: In his 16-year career to date, he’d spent all but half a season in the American League, which meant that now, here in the National League with the Mets, he had to hit. It meant he had to swing a bat. It meant he had to run. (That’s where he drew the line, though. Once during a sliding drill at Mets spring training, a coach told him he was next up, and he replied: “Bartolo no slide.”)
Fortunately for Big Sexy, he would only have to run if he made contact with the ball, and he never did, so problem solved. His early at-bats with the Mets were a masterclass in comic timing. “Utter futility” is how Gary Cohen, the longtime voice of the team for SNY, described it to me. “Helmet flying off, butt flying in the other direction.” According to Cohen’s boothmate, former Mets pitcher and World Series winner Ron Darling, Big Sexy would occasionally flash “prodigious power” in batting practice—he was a big strong dude, after all—but that was BP. Over 69 plate appearances that first season with the Mets, against live major-league pitching, Colón collected two hits and struck out 33 times.
One of those two hits was a double, the first extra-base hit of his career, a low sharp liner down the left field line that trickled into the corner. The MLB Network was carrying the game, and soon as Big Sexy made contact, the announcer snapped to attention. “Colón rips one!” he cried. “Let’s watch him run!” It was an easy double, even for Colón, and as he pulled into second base like a docking cruiseliner, three teammates gathered on the dugout steps and swung towels in tribute. Darling, who moonlights for the MLB Network, just happened to be in the booth that day, and as he broke down the replay of Colón’s gait, he noted that Big Sexy doesn’t round first base so much as he “just kinda gets there and makes a 90-degree turn.”
On the mound, though, in his dojo, Colon over-delivered on the deal that nearly finished me with the Mets. led the staff in wins (15) and innings pitched (202⅓), and the Mets finished a surprising second in the NL East. A tie for second, with a losing record of 79-83, 17 games behind the division-winning Nationals, far closer to last than first—but still! Second place! And more importantly the Mets were fun again. Colón was the nominal ace, but coming up behind him the Mets had a bunch of limber young arms, including a converted shortstop named Jacob de Grom. Big Sexy did his job. He would be back for 2015.
And by now, as far as Mets fans were concerned, he could stay as long as he wanted. No one minded that Big Sexy was so lost with a bat in his hands. He wasn’t getting paid to hit, and anyway we loved watching someone so clearly overmatched at the plate. We’re Mets fans. We live for this stuff. For everyone else, though, automatic outs are a snooze, not worth the rare treat of watching a blimp leg out a single. Beginning with the 2022 season, the NL will finally surrender and adopt the designated hitter and, as with interleague play, this is several decades overdue. Then again, if we’d taken the bat out of pitchers’ hands before Big Sexy came to the plate on May 7, 2016, two weeks shy of his 43rd birthday, a Guinness world record in his grasp, we never would’ve experienced what Cohen called, with delirious voice-cracking ecstasy, “one of the great moments in the history of baseball.”
For a franchise with an underrated resume of playoff success—five World Series appearances since 1962, six division titles, eight total postseason trips—not to mention a long-standing rep for batshit finishes, Met history is surprisingly light on momentous home runs. We don’t do shots heard ’round the world. We hit grand slam singles, and hard grounders up the line that eat up first basemen. We win, and more often lose, in ways you could never imagine, but rarely via the pure crisp thrill of a walk-off home run. We don’t have a Joe Carter moment like the Blue Jays do, or even a futile one like Carlton Fisk’s. Until Pete Alonso came along and bashed a MLB rookie record 54 home runs in 2019, no Met had ever come close to threatening any MLB home run marks. And if I’m being honest, the sweetest part of Alonso’s was the fact that it broke the mark set two years earlier by Yankee behemoth Aaron Judge. (You can all sit down now—court is adjourned.) It was as much fun as I’ve ever had watching the Mets, but it was also a slugger doing what sluggers do.
Our most recent postseason appearance wasn’t even all that long ago: 2015, when the Mets lost the World Series in five games to the Kansas City Royals. Big Sexy won another 14 games during the regular season, anchoring the rotation yet again, and Jacob de Grom completed his warp-speed metamorphosis into de GOAT, our future multiple Cy Young winner, our Tom Seaver 2.0. The Mets led in all five games against Kansas City, but our feeble bullpen blew three of them, just like we knew they would.
Perhaps it tells you something fundamental about Mets fans, though, that we remember what happened the following May in San Diego, during a banal regular season game against baseball’s worst team, with infinitely more fondness than the entirety of that 2015 World Series run. That postseason was super fun, to be clear—it’s just that I knew we were going to lose the World Series by the end of Game 1. For the first time since the 1969 title team, a young, talented Mets team had gelled a year ahead of schedule; their only mistake was running into a young, talented Kansas City Royals team that had gelled even faster. Rookie outfielder and captain-in-training Michael Conforto bashed two home runs in Game 4, a must-win game that we lost after an eighth-inning bullpen collapse. If we’d won, Conforto’s home runs would’ve been up there with Tommie Agee’s destiny-altering homer off of Jim Palmer to open Game 3 of the 1969 World Series, and what is arguably the most consequential home run in Mets history—Lenny Dykstra’s walk-off blast at Shea Stadium to win Game 3 of the 1986 NLCS against the Houston Astros, a homer that has since become tarnished by its unavoidable association with Lenny Dykstra.
Until Big Sexy came along, the best Met home run ever, the one that raised the tallest goosebumps, occurred a few weeks before yet another season ended with yet another demoralizing finish out of the playoffs: Mike Piazza’s game-winner—against the odious Atlanta Braves!—to win the first post-9/11 baseball game in New York City, nine days later on September 20. It was a moment of national catharsis, bigger than the Mets, bigger than baseball, so exhilarating that even a scattered few Yankee fans stood and applauded.
I don’t care if this is blasphemy: Big Sexy’s big blast on that irrelevant day in San Diego was even bigger.
Before every start during his career in New York, Big Sexy had a tradition with Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen that snow-balled into a superstition: they played hide-and-seek in the clubhouse. “He’d come out of the locker room,” according to Warthen, “and I’d be hiding. I’d have a tarp over me; I’d hide behind walls. I was in garbage cans, linen baskets. And he would always find me, and he would give off this belly laugh. Sometimes I’d jump out at him from inside a closet.”
Warthen tells this story in Big Sexy’s 2020 memoir, which Colón had announced to the world during the previous winter, when he was 48 years old and a year into involuntary retirement from MLB. The book was to be called Big Sexy, and Colón broke the news by posting an Instagram video of Big Sexy on his treadmill reading an advance copy of Big Sexy. He’d pitched in the big leagues for 21 years, and he was hoping someone would give him a shot at 22, and he was particularly hoping it would be the Mets. But if not, he had a back-up plan: Big Sexy, by Big Sexy.
The book is delightful. Charming illustrations of his pet donkey from childhood, Pancho, and the Dominican coffee cans he and his pals used for bases. Favorite Big Sexy stories shared by famous ex-teammates. Fun with fonts. It’s as bright and buoyant as Big Sexy himself. The book’s most poignant moment is his recollection of the 2012 phone call he had to make to his father to tell him he’d been suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, which forced him to sit out a playoff trip with the Oakland A’s. “My father was so disappointed in me that when I called him and told him what I’d done, he was completely speechless,” Colón writes. “I learned later from my sisters, who were with him during the call, that after he hung up with me, he started weeping.” The next season, following his reinstatement, he went 18-6 with a 2.65 earned run average and made his first All Star trip in nearly a decade.
And then that off-season he signed with the Mets. Which meant he was consenting to hit. He admits in Big Sexy that this gave him considerable pause. Fortunately, the opposing pitcher for one of his first starts in Queens, where his fear of humiliation was the most acute, was Ervin Santana, his former Angels teammate and fellow Dominican. “A day earlier I was talking to him out on the field,” Colón writes, “and I told him, ‘When it’s your turn to hit tomorrow, I will throw you all fastballs, but you have to do the same for me.’” “OK,” he claims Santana replied. “No problem.”
His first at-bat was a farce before he faced a pitch. “I wasn’t even sure where the best place for me to stand in the batter’s box was,” Colón writes. As they’d agreed, Santana started him out with a fastball, and Colón, knowing it was coming, swung very hard, so hard that his batting helmet popped halfway off his head. Mets fans squealed with delight. Strike one. Then Santana broke their pact. In his defense, the Mets had a runner on second base;he was professionally obliged to be merciless. His next pitch was a slider, and Big Sexy swung mightily again and “this time,” he wrote, “the helmet came completely off my head, hopping around on the dirt in front of home plate.” Even he started laughing—“not because of the helmet but because Ervin went back on his promise.” Santana finished off his fellow countryman with another slider, and the crowd squealed again.
At first, Big Sexy was wounded. He thought his own fans were mocking him. But then he realized they were right—this was extremely funny—and after the game, Colón serves up a big scoop: “I told the Mets’ equipment manager to give me a helmet that was a little bigger, so I could make the fans laugh some more.”
May 7, 2016. “Top five Mets game I’ve ever broadcasted,” Darling told me. “A remarkable day.”
The Mets’ traveling road-show fan collective, the 7 Line Army, was there at Petco Park in San Diego, a few hundred strong, meaning they outnumbered the Padres fans. And so was Colón’s wife, Rosanna, Mrs. Sexy, plus lots of family and friends. It was already a big day for Bartolo. For the rest of us, though, it was the textbook definition of a lazy afternoon snoozer. Until, with two out and one on in the top of the second inning, Mets up 2–0, James Shields on the mound for San Diego, Big Sexy waddled up to the plate. Gary and Ronnie were chit-chatting away as Shields went into his windup for his third pitch, a fastball that he left up and out over the plate. Big Sexy took a big cut, and this time he blasted the ball toward the upper deck in left field.
“Oh!” Ron blurted out, snapping to attention.
Gary’s voice went straight to a shout. “He drives one! Deep left field!” Already his voice was cracking. “Back goes Upton! Back near the wall! It’s . . . OUTTA HERE! Bartolo has done it! The impossible has happened!!”
Screaming. Full-on screaming. The way Gary’s voice shattered on his “outta here” still gives me chills. Ron spasmed through a punch-drunk giggle fit. Every single Met in the dugout lost their shit, then fled into the tunnel (age-old baseball prank) so that Colón would return to an empty bench for a split second before they mobbed him. “This is one of the great moments in the history of baseball,” Gary declared, not even half joking. I savored every moment of Big Sexy rounding the bases, and I had plenty of time to savor it, because it took forever. “I wanna say that’s the longest home run trot I’ve ever seen,” Ron said, “but I think that’s just how fast he runs.”
If you polled Mets fans on their favorite Gary Cohen home run call, Big Sexy’s Big Blast would be the runaway winner. I rewatch it at least once a month or two. His glee is so pure, and yet somehow he never loses his sense of the moment. He gets it right away. He knows immediately, instinctively, that this is amazing, quite possibly the most amazing thing that has ever happened.
“The incredulity that you could hear in my voice, as I’m saying, ‘It’s outta here’—I’ve said those words thousands of times,” Cohen told me three years later. “But I don’t think I’ve ever said them in quite that way, because you could hear the shock, and that’s literally what we were feeling.”
“I knew I’d hit a home run because the bat didn’t vibrate,” Bartolo writes in Big Sexy. “The contact was that solid.” He recalls saying I can’t believe I just hit a home run to an ex-teammate, Padres shortstop Alexei Ramírez, as he rounded second base. But mostly his memory is a bit pedestrian—he’s a ballplayer not an essayist—and so he wisely leaves the poetry to Gary Cohen. In fact, the book’s climactic spread, rendered in all-caps Sharpie-style handwriting, is a transcript of Gary’s historic call—English on the left side, Spanish on the right:
¡SACA BATAZO ELEVADO FUERTE PARA LA PARTE IZQUIERDA! ¡PA’ ATRAS, BIEN ATRAS! ¡LLEVA COLOR! ¡LLEVA SABOOOOOOR! ¡HASTA LA VISTA, BABY! ¡CUADRANGULAR DE BARTOLO!
From the book SO MANY WAYS TO LOSE: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets, the Best Worst Team in Sports. Copyright (c) 2021 by Devin Gordon. Published on March 16 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.