Bartolo Colón was the perfect internet star, all visual gags and goofy smiles waiting to be GIF’d. How could you not love him? He was an instant meme and perpetually a Vine ready to happen: helmet flying, stomach heaving ahead of him, mouth grinning and eyes agog, a weird and funny player in a sport that is straining to prove that it can be weird and funny. It was so easy to love him, so easy to retweet. His plodding home run trended on Facebook. How could it not?
Bartolo didn’t maintain a public social media presence, so the risk of bumping into an opinion you might not agree with was slim. If you really wanted to know what he thought — hell, what he even sounded like — you had to find a TV and listen to his words mingled with the words of his translator. It’s silly to think that you can ever know an athlete. Bartolo the person was so remote from Bartolo the meme that it was easy to forget that knowing him was even possible.
So now we have this. Bartolo the accused adulterer. Bartolo the accused deadbeat dad. Bartolo the guy who incidentally had his application for a trademark on the phrase “Big Sexy” go through on the same day that the New York Post broke the story of his alleged other family and missing child support.
Colón is the kind of baseball player fans want to watch: lovable, talented, deeply unserious — everything that the GIFs and videos circulated on the internet also represented. Those choice glimpses were inviting. I bought a Big Sexy T-shirt. I’m not a Mets fan, but last fall I rooted for the Mets — for his Mets.
Yet, for all the Bartolo clips that fans used as their daily affirmation, we never got much closer to him as a person. Bartolo wasn’t a meme because of his relationship with his wife or his devotion to the four sons they have together — how many of his fans even knew he was married? We had Bartolo the GIF star, and that was all the Bartolo we asked for.
We watched him jiggle his belly and eat shit in the clubhouse and thought from those moments of humanness that we knew him. But loving an athlete has always meant loving an avatar of that person: their records, maybe some bits and pieces from the PR powers that be. With Bartolo it was easier still to see the reduction: a meme and nothing more.
Bartolo Colón’s at-bats will still be entertaining; his pitching will still be reliable; his antics will still fit comfortably into six-second clips. But a meme is by definition shallow, simple, and uncomplicated by harder questions. Is that Bartolo gone? Maybe.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 18, 2016.