In this excerpt from Bartolo Colon's memoir, Big Sexy: In His Own Words, co-written by Michael Stahl and on sale now, the larger-than-life pitcher shares what it was like as a 25-year-old facing one of the best teams of all time, the 1998 New York Yankees, in the American League Championship Series.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Colon was a longtime starting pitcher who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2005 and accrued more wins than any Latin American-born pitcher in major league history. But more importantly, Big Sexy captured the hearts of fans of the game as well as the stars he played against. Colon played the game the way it was meant to be played. Big Sexy: In His Own Words is his intimate story told for the first time. The result is a touching and deeply personal account of a unique baseball life.
The last game I pitched for Cleveland in 1998, though, was my best, and certainly my most memorable of the year.
I'd started what happened to be the closeout game against the Red Sox, in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. Even though it was the first playoff game of my career, and it was at Fenway Park, I actually don't recall much about it. It was unbelievable to be pitching in the playoffs, on that stage, at such a young age, but my mind is mostly a blank when it comes to that game. Nomar Garciaparra hit a home run off me; I remember that. It was the only run I gave up, but I left the mound in the sixth inning on the losing side, down 1–0. My teammates picked me up, though, rallying late, and we finished off Boston.
But then in the American League Championship Series we had to face the Yankees—and not just any Yankees. That was the year they won 114 regular-season games, one of the most by any team in major league history at the time. They were loaded. They had great starting pitching, an amazing bullpen and one of the toughest lineups you could imagine.
If you need a reminder of some of the players on that team, here are a few names: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Paul O'Neill, Andy Pettitte, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Chuck Knoblauch, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, David Wells and Scott Brosius. They had guys like Tim Raines coming off the bench, Chili Davis as their designated hitter, and they all were led by Joe Torre, who's now a Hall of Fame manager.
Before the series began, Mike Hargrove had a meeting with all the starting pitchers. He told me I was going to get the ball for the third game, and every night leading up to it I stayed up late watching video of the Yankees hitters. I hardly slept.
We were underdogs, and it was understandable why, but early in the series we stole a game at the old Yankee Stadium in New York: Game 2, a 12-inning marathon famous for the Knoblauch play when he argued a call at first base on a throw from Martinez. While the ball rolled behind him into the outfield during his protest, we scored the go-ahead run that won it for us.
When the Indians left New York, I got together with my father in Cleveland during the off day. I was about to start Game 3 at our home park, Jacobs Field, with a chance to give my team the series lead. I was going up against Andy Petite. He won 16 games in '98, but my father told me, "Son, tomorrow's game is just like any other game you've pitched before. Don't feel pressured." I told him, "Yes, Dad, but it's the Yankees; it's not just any team." And he said, "No, no, you're going to have a good game. Go with God, son, and we'll talk after the game." I had it in my mind, then: I'd perform well, even under the circumstances.
The first three innings are like a dream to me, even now. My knees were shaking. I was so nervous. I wasn't really even thinking. But every pitcher desires to compete against the best lineups and against the best pitchers. That's what I always liked.
When it came to strategy, with that Yankees team there wasn't much to work with, so you just had to give it your all. I didn't have any big plans for them because at that time they didn't know me well, and I didn't know them. They only knew that I threw hard. Back then, against any team, I always tried to strike out the first batter to make the rest of the inning maybe a little less difficult. Of course, the Yankees were so good I only finished with three strikeouts, and Knoblauch led the game off with a base hit. Then, with two outs, Bernie Williams drove him in with another hit. Though they didn't score again, it really wasn't until after the third inning that I loosened up. From then on, I felt normal; the pressure I had on me went away.
I walked a few batters and gave up a couple of hits but no more runs. I keep video of the ninth inning from that game on my phone and watch it every once in a while. It's such a special memory. The crowd was so loud and intense, and when I struck out Tino Martinez to end the game, I couldn't hold back my excitement. I got chills seeing the fans so excited. I pumped my fist, and my teammates rushed the mound to congratulate me.
They told me so many good, encouraging things—I think. I still didn't know English very well, much less than I do now, so I didn't understand what they were saying. I just smiled back at them. While we celebrated, as I walked off the field, I lost feeling in my legs again. I was so happy.