ANAHEIM, Calif. — At 23 years and 2 months, the age difference between Texas Rangers pitcher Bartolo Colon and Los Angeles Angels pitcher Jaime Barria — Friday night’s starters here — was about the time required to bear a child, raise it, educate it and have it — with any luck at all — never ask to borrow the car or eat the rest of the Oreos again.
Beyond that, an entire and satisfying baseball life could be played in that time, from the day a boy first buttons his jersey and smooths his pants and punches the pocket of his new glove to the day the uniform is taken back by a younger version of himself.
These things are not supposed to last forever, in spite of Colon’s earnest efforts. He took the baseball Friday night at 45 years, 8 days, sharing the mound with Barria, who was 21 years and 318 days. I wondered if Colon could look far enough back to see himself in Barria, the Panamanian right-hander who in the past year had risen from Class A to the big leagues, who was making his seventh big-league start, who is said to have the heartbeat of a veteran. Though perhaps not of a 21-year veteran.
Or if Barria’s dreams were big and broad enough to see himself one day as Colon — decorated, widely revered, wealthy, secure. Colon, who’d rescued his career more than once, who’d spent more than a decade traipsing across a league that wasn’t always sure if it wanted him, but then sure it needed him. He has been the Texas Rangers’ best pitcher, which doesn’t say as much about the Rangers as you would perhaps think.
If Bart and Jaime would care for that sort of sentiment. Probably not.
The age gap wasn’t even in the top 15 in history. Satchel Paige, after all, pitched a game when he was 59 years old. On that day he was 30 years older than the opposing pitcher, veteran Bill Monbouquette, who, by 1965, the year Paige kicked in three more innings to a career that spanned forever, was on the downside of his own career.
Also, Phil Niekro pitched until he was 48. Jaime Moyer was still spinnin’ ‘em at 49. A 44-year-old Warren Spahn once started against an 18-year-old Larry Dierker. The game does reasonably well by its elderly, particularly if they come with deceptive life. On their fastballs. And, of course, it falls all over itself for young men with coiled legs and elastic arms. So that fathers and sons have shared evenings in the same lineups. Summers on the same rosters. Not their best summers as the sport goes. But pretty darned good as far as fatherhood – life – goes.
As long as one takes care of his body, eats and lives clean, one may pitch forever. Or, one could do it like Colon.
On a mild evening in which the sky turned from blue to gray to orange to purple to black, Colon trudged to and from the mound from the first-base side. His 538th career start didn’t go as he’d wanted. The Angels swung freely. The Rangers outfielders chased dutifully. Ol’ Bart just gnawed on a gum wad and lifted his front leg and raised his arm and tried to find what had allowed him to do this for so long, whatever that is. Then, too often, he’d be moved to back up third base or home, far too often for a man of his age and standing. By the third inning, had he looked over his right shoulder, he’d have seen relievers warming their arms to take his place. He allowed six runs in three loud innings.
Then Jaime Barria would bound from the third-base side. Not even two months back his mother had cried when she’d heard he was to be a major league ballplayer. Not even three years back he was an 18-year-old strike thrower seeking a third pitch, something to go along with his fastball (four- and two-seams) and slider, when minor-league pitching coach Jairo Cuevas shaped Barria’s fingers just so, and placed a baseball in his hand just so, and together they had formed the beginnings of a changeup.
“He was very advanced for his age,” Cuevas said Friday night. “A high aptitude for pitching.”
Cuevas, who pitched in the Atlanta Braves organization and coached in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, came to value the relationship between and effectiveness of fastballs and changeups.
“When a player is open-minded, willing to listen, like Jaime, things will go well,” he said. “The credit is his.”
After a minor-league season, then two, after first learning to throw the changeup for a strike and living with the contact, then learning to throw it so it looked like a strike until it wasn’t, Barria owned the pitch that would rush him to the major leagues. It came in April. In Texas. It all struck him on his way to the ballpark.
“Actually,” he said, “when I got on the bus. When I saw Mike Scioscia. That’s when I knew it was real. … I was very proud. I knew this was my time.”
He threw six shutout innings Friday night, in the shadow of a man who’d won 242 games over an entire generation. He is 5-1. His ERA is 2.48. All of 36 1/3 innings in. Twenty-one years and, now, 319 days in. Some would call that a decent part of a life. Bart? He’d call it major-league service time.
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