Tropical Heat

Times Staff Writer

Bartolo Colon developed his remarkable leg strength, the primary reason his fastball still hits 98 mph in the ninth inning, as a youngster in his native Dominican Republic, where he would climb tall tropical palm trees to pick coconuts.

"That was not an easy task," Colon, the new Angel ace, said through an interpreter.

And the stamina that enabled Colon to throw 200 innings or more in five of his last six seasons, including 242 in 2003 -- second-most in the American League -- can be traced to Colon's youth, when, from ages 8 to 14, he spent grueling days with his father, Miguel, working in the sun-baked coffee-bean fields near his hometown of Altamira, a farming town on the Dominican's mountainous north coast.

"We picked beans in the fields and fruit from the trees, usually for at least 10 hours a day, six days a week," said Colon, who dropped out of school after the sixth grade. "Some days, we'd start at 4 a.m., and some days we didn't stop until midnight.... I definitely think that work helped me."

But what about the lightning in that right arm, the combination of strength and natural mechanics that has made Colon one of baseball's overpowering pitchers?

"That's something I was born with," Colon said with a shy grin. "I've always had the ability to throw hard."

Don't think the Angels don't know it.

"I'll never forget [our home opener against Cleveland] in 1999, Bartolo had shut us down for five innings, and then it starts pouring rain," first baseman Darin Erstad said. "You're thinking he's not going to come out there again [after a 1-hour 43-minute delay]. Then he comes back and is throwing 97 or 98 and struck out two guys. I sat down and thought, 'Aren't you supposed to be a little tight, a little sore, after a delay?' Apparently not.

"He's just a workhorse. He's the kind of guy who can say, 'Hey, I've got it today, give me two runs and it's over.' It takes a special pitcher to be able to do that. He can take over a game."

Not since Chuck Finley was in his prime from about 1989 to '95 have the Angels had a starting pitcher who could chew up 200 innings annually and overwhelm opponents more often than not.

Some thought the Angels, who gave Colon a four-year, $51-million contract in December, might have overpaid the stocky, 5-foot-11, 250-pounder, who went 15-13 with a 3.87 earned-run average and a major league co-leading nine complete games for the Chicago White Sox last season.

Colon, 30, can be dominant, but he can also be erratic, his infatuation with his fastball resulting in home runs and his lapses leading some to believe he hasn't quite lived up to his potential. Why pay him like one of the game's elite pitchers, critics argue, when he doesn't always act like an ace?

"Bartolo can be an elite starter," Cleveland General Manager Mark Shapiro said in 2002. "But will it happen this year? Ever? I really don't know."

The Angels seem convinced it already has happened. In Colon -- whose 96 victories in the last six years are the seventh-most in the major leagues, behind Randy Johnson, 106; Greg Maddux, 105; Pedro Martinez, 101; Tom Glavine and Andy Pettitte, 98 each, and Roger Clemens, 97 -- they say they have a front-of-the-rotation starter who can match up with the American League's best.

"We feel he can be one of the top starting pitchers in the game," pitching coach Bud Black said. "He's in his prime, and he's showed he can pitch at a high level."

The key word is "pitch." Colon threw so hard as a 15-year-old in the Dominican that some youth league opponents refused to take the field against him. When he reached the big leagues with Cleveland in 1997, he regularly hit 100 mph on the Jacobs Field speed gun, fueling expectations he would be the next Clemens, a right-handed Big Unit.

But Colon grew so enamored of his fastball -- he sometimes checked stadium gun readings to see how hard he was throwing -- that he failed to develop other pitches. He also was afraid to pitch inside "because I might hit someone and hurt them," Colon said.

Through repeated conversations with Martinez, a fellow Dominican and the Boston Red Sox ace, and other veteran pitchers, Colon developed the confidence and control to pitch inside and expanded his repertoire to the point where opponents couldn't just sit on his fastball.

"He has an extreme power arm and, a couple of years back, he learned a filthy sinker, which wasn't real fun," Angel third baseman Troy Glaus said. "And now, he doesn't throw hard all the time.

"Don't get me wrong -- 'hard' is a relative term with Bartolo, and 94 mph is still hard. But you don't know what you're going to get because he changes speeds on his fastball. When you drop from 98 to 93, that's enough of a change to throw off a hitter."

Martinez, who has never been afraid to buzz a fastball under the chin of a batter, also taught Colon a thing or two about killer instinct.

"He told me that before every pitch, I have to look the batter in the eye and try to intimidate him, because he's trying to do the same to me," Colon said. "He also said that you earn a living by pitching inside. Now, I'm not afraid, because I have the control to go inside."

Self-control is another issue. When he broke into the big leagues, Colon was listed at 185 pounds. When he signed a four-year, $9.25-million contract with Cleveland in 1999, the Indians included an incentive clause, awarding Colon $12,500 each time he weighed 225 pounds or less during four weigh-in dates a year.

He weighed in near 260 this spring for the Angels, who did not include any weight clauses in the contract, and Colon intends to trim down to 250, the weight he has pitched at in recent years, by the start of the season.

Colon recently hired a personal trainer who often travels with him, and he is a regular on the exercise bike in the Tempe Diablo Stadium training room. But when it comes to conditioning, he's not quite the fanatic Clemens and Pettitte are.

Shapiro, the Indians' farm director when Colon signed in 1993 and the team's assistant general manager during Colon's early years in the big leagues, was asked about Colon's work ethic.

"Among his strengths are his mental consistency, his ability to be poised, to not get rattled or carried away and still rise to handle the big moments," Shapiro said. "That was an evasive answer, huh?

"I will say this: One of the stereotypes of Bartolo is because he has an atypical body type for a pitcher, he is not in shape. But this guy is amazingly strong. He's like [former Houston Oiler running back] Earl Campbell from the waist down. He is a strong, strong man, and that core strength is what it's all about."

So is perseverance, and Colon has an abundance of it. Raised in a modest three-bedroom house that had no electricity, plumbing or telephone, Colon didn't play organized baseball until he was 14. His arm caught the attention of several scouts but after he'd tried out once for the Dodgers, once for Kansas City and three times for the Indians in their Dominican academies, he was sent home, told by most he was too short.

"Many times, I didn't want to continue, but my dad kept pushing me," Colon said. "He loves the game so much, he wanted me to be a success."

The Indians finally signed Colon in 1993, giving him a $3,000 bonus -- first-round pick Jaret Wright signed for $1.2 million out of Anaheim Katella High a year later -- and after four minor league seasons, Colon reached the big leagues in 1997.

But Colon didn't make it out of the first inning in his second big league start, throwing 61 pitches and giving up six runs to Seattle. He was optioned to triple-A Buffalo, starting a roller-coaster ride of a season in which he was called up from triple-A and sent back down three times.

The next season, he was an All-Star, going 14-9 with a 3.71 ERA, and he followed that with an 18-5 record and 3.95 ERA in 1999, and a 15-8 record and 3.88 ERA in 2000. After a 14-12, 4.09 ERA season in 2001, Colon went a combined 20-8 for the Indians and Montreal Expos in 2002.

Now, he is an Angel, and expectations in Anaheim will be as high as they were in Cleveland, when a young Colon was illuminating three digits on stadium radar guns. There's no question he can bring the heat. Now he will have the chance to show he can stand it.

"He's always been a big-game pitcher, a guy who rises to the occasion," Shapiro said. "He fits the criteria of a No. 1 starter."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Solid Starter

Bartolo Colon's statistics with the Chicago White Sox last season and his career averages:

*--* W-L ERA IP K/9 2003 15-13 3.87 242 6.43 Career 14.3-8.9 3.86 198 7.26

*--*

*

Follow the Money

In December, the Angels signed pitcher Bartolo Colon to a four-year deal worth $51 million. Colon is a former 20-game winner who has reached double digits in victories in six consecutive seasons. A closer look at his contract:

* Received an $8-million signing bonus ($5 million was paid Jan. 15, and $3 million will be paid on Jan. 15, 2005).

* 2004: $9 million.

* 2005: $8 million.

* 2006: $12 million.

* 2007: $14 million.

Note: The salary in the final year will rise to $15 million if he finishes among the top three in Cy Young voting in 2006.

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