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Baseball History: The Embodiment of the Game

There really isn't much of a D-backs tie-in on this one, but I wanted to write it anyway.

There is simply no way that Bartolo Colon isn't the most entertaining player in baseball
There is simply no way that Bartolo Colon isn't the most entertaining player in baseball
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

The Arizona Diamondbacks have existed since 1998, which is a very short amount of time. Children born in 1998 will be graduating high school this year. But in baseball terms, it is a very long time. So long, in fact, that Baseball-Reference lists only seven players who played in 1998 as still being active players. Some are more famous, some are less so. One was a Diamondback, but he is active in a very different sense from the other six; Karim Garcia is still officially an "active" player, but hasn't played in the big leagues since 2004. Alex Rodriguez would hit his 100th home run in 1998; he picked up career dinger #91 in Chase Field on June 27th. David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre (who went 0-for-12 against the Diamondbacks) were rookies. Carlos Beltran and A.J. Pierzynski were late-season call-ups, and would maintain their rookie status into 1999. And then there was Bartolo Colon.

Rodriguez, Ortiz, and Beltre should all enter the Hall of Fame one day. Beltran will have a very good argument. Pierzynski is Pierzynski; unpopular as ever, yet somehow decent enough to land a job on an MLB team, yet again, catching at the age of 39. (He started 104 games at catcher last year at 38; if he catches 100 games again this year, he will join Bob Boone and Carlton Fisk as the only players to have multiple seasons catching 100 games at 38 or older.) Pierzynski, by dint of his longevity, might get some votes at voting time, but his numbers simply don't hold up. Colon will only enter the Hall if he plays until he's fifty. At this point, who knows?

Bryce Harper claims to want to "make baseball fun again." He's as likely to accomplish that as the politician whose slogan Harper is copying is to accomplish his goals. Harper is entertaining; he can hit baseballs 500 feet. Colon is fun; I'd rather watch him swing his helmet off than watch Harper hit one 500 feet, any day.

I mean, who wouldn't want to watch this? Colon's starts are must-watch, and not just because his pitching is still somehow effective at 42 (he turns 43 next month). Watching Colon play, or swing the bat, is the closest anyone can come to seeing a Little League player on a Major League diamond. In fact, Colon's swing is probably worse than many one might see in a youth game. No self-respecting youth baseball coach would allow a kid to swing like that. Colon does it with such joy, no one wants him to swing any differently. This is why, however good at baseball Harper is, he does not embody baseball in the way Colon does. Baseball is, at heart, a game for kids. Most professionals have forgotten that. Colon plays like a kid. A Bryce Harper bomb is impressive in the way a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier is impressive. Sure, when Harper's career is over we will all remember the things he could do to a baseball, and he'll likely find himself in the Hall of Fame. But instead of fun, we have a feeling of awe. Colon batting is pure, unbridled, fun and entertainment, leading to sheer joy if he happens to make contact. And if Colon ever manages to hit a home run, it will get top billing on all the highlight shows and be constantly watched on the internet. Heck, if Colon hits an actual home run off of an actual Major League pitcher, the entire sport might say "well, there's no way to ever top that" and shut down. If I want to show someone what baseball is really all about, I won't show them Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Giancarlo Stanton, or any other hitter. I'll show them Bartolo Colon. Because Bartolo is baseball, in a way that no other player is right now.

And let's not forget, Colon is pretty good on the mound too:

Colon was the pitcher for the first plate appearance by a Diamondback in All Star Game history.

It didn't go so well, as a much smaller Colon would give up three runs in his inning on a home run by Barry Bonds, but pick up the win. In those days, I suspect, baseball wasn't as much fun for Colon as it is now. It took a turn for the worse in 2002, when he was dealt to the Expos. He bounced around, had a career year (assisted by PEDs? we don't know for sure, although he was later busted for using) in 2005, then fell off a cliff, missed a year, came back, got busted for PEDs, and came back again. It was with this second comeback that he apparently decided that baseball was supposed to be fun, and he would be the most fun player there was. Instead of trying to recapture the player he had been, he embraced the player and person that he is. He'll never hit the mid-90s with his fastball again, but it doesn't matter. He is a valuable part of a good, young pitching staff, although he is playing a very different role than when he was called up.

Colon is currently tied with Pedro Martinez for second-most wins by a Dominican-born player, with Juan Marichal's 243 the most. If he pitches a couple more seasons, he could overtake Dennis Martinez (245 wins) for the most by any Latin American pitcher. He surpassed the 3000 innings pitched mark on Tuesday. If you were to pick a player to show what was good about baseball, even during the steroid era, it would be hard to pick someone other than Colon.

Colon is also part of a line of players, none of whom are Hall of Famers, who span the ages back to the very beginning of the major leagues as we know them.

When Colon made his debut for the Indians in 1997, his teammates included future Hall of Famers Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel. Manny Ramirez and David Justice were also on the team. Future Diamondback connections included Matt Williams, Richie Sexson, Albie Lopez, Charles Nagy, and Brian Anderson. Julio Franco (the hitter whose career arc most resembles Colon's) was on the team until August. In 1997 (and the intervening years) Colon has faced 12 players currently in the Hall of Fame; he struck out Wade Boggs, but never faced Tony Gwynn, although he did strike out Tony Gwynn, Jr., a couple years ago.

The history gets even better, though. Bartolo Colon struck out a batter who doubled off the same pitcher as did Ted Williams. It's true! Colon struck out Paul Molitor, who doubled off Jim Kaat in 1979. Williams doubled off Kaat in 1959. Basically, as long as Colon continues to play, only two generations separate today's baseball from the Splendid Splinter. (And given that Williams was the first notable player to cause a defensive shift, this makes a certain degree of sense.)

But let's not stop there. Williams also doubled (four times, in fact) off Bobo Newsom. Other Hall of Famers to double off of Newsom include Joe Dimaggio, Lou Boudreau, Lou Gehrig, and Stan Musial. Lou Gehrig also doubled off of Jack Quinn. Ty Cobb also doubled off Jack Quinn. Oh, and more than likely, Quinn faced Cy Young in a game, although I can't find the box scores to show it, both were in the American League from 1909-1911, so there's a pretty good chance. One of Quinn's teammates when he came up with the New York Highlanders in 1909 was Jack Chesbro, the last pitcher to win 40 games in a season. Cy Young won 20 games for the first time in 1891, and quite possibly faced Old Hoss Radbourn in one of those games.

Bartolo Colon, Jim Kaat, Bobo Newsom, Jack Quinn. None of them in the Hall of Fame, almost certainly none of them ever to be in the Hall of Fame. Yet, thanks to their position crossing eras in baseball, important links in a chain from the players of today all the way back more than a century. Players like Chris Owings (who has faced Colon) and Brandon Drury (who hasn't, but hopefully will get to) are only seven links away from Cy Young. (Colon-Molitor-Kaat-Williams-Newsom-Gehrig-Quinn.) They are only eight links away from Old Hoss Radbourn (winner of an incredible 59 games) himself.

Colon, more than any other player right now, embodies the eras across which he has played, while also pointing back to a bygone time. I'll appreciate every start Colon makes from now until he calls it quits, and when he does, I'll know we are one step further away from the great players of the 19th century.