The Path Burned Brightly
Thomas Calabrese…..Bob Colton grew up near Guajome Park in Oceanside, the youngest of three children. His mother Martha was a 911 dispatcher with the Escondido fire and police district and his father Robert Colton served in the Marine Corps and after his discharge, he applied for the Fire Department in Oceanside and rose up through the ranks to his current position of Battalion Chief. His sister Dana was a paramedic with the San Diego Fire Department and his brother Charles who was three years his senior was currently attending the Palomar College Fire Academy with the hope of finding employment with a Southern California Department after graduation.
The Colton family had a strong tradition in firefighting and public service, but Bob chose a different path, he aspired to be a professional baseball player and his desire burned as brightly as any fire that his father ever fought. Bob Colton’s natural ability was accentuated by his intense work ethic and by the time he was a sophomore at El Camino High School, he stood six foot two inches tall and weighed one hundred and ninety pounds and was already throwing in the mid-nineties. He developed a wicked curve ball in his junior season that snapped so much that it had batters bailing out of the batter’s box quicker than a hyperactive skydiver out of an airplane and a tantalizing change-up that froze the hitter in place as if his cleats had been temporarily encased in superglue. If these abilities were not impressive enough, then combine them with pinpoint control and Bob Colton was a lock for being a first round pick in next year’s Major League draft.
This young man added two inches in height and twenty pounds of muscle and now stood six foot four inches and weighed two hundred and ten pounds. Bob Colton was an imposing figure as he stood on the mound, able to target the black edges of home plate as if his pitches were laser guided and nibble around the strike zone like an indecisive and picky eater with too many choices at a lavish Sunday buffet. When he put the octane to the gas, Bob might as well have been throwing aspirin tablets instead of baseballs from a hitter’s viewpoint. In and out, up and down, fast and slow, straight or curved, Bob Colton was a Phenom on the baseball diamond and there was no dispute by any of the major league scouts who saw him pitch that he was a bona fide five star prospect.
At the end of his junior year, Bob felt that the fulfilment of his lifelong dream was within reach and growing closer with each passing day. He pitched three no-hitters, went undefeated for the season and received numerous awards for his athletic accomplishments. During the summer Bob played in an instructional league to hone his skills for his final season in high school with every intention of becoming the number one pick in the draft.
It was the weekend before Labor Day and a storm in Mexico had brought high waves to the San Diego coastline. Charlie called to his brother, “Hey Bobby! Let’s head down to the beach and do a little surfing.”
The two brothers got their surfboards out of the garage and headed down to the Oceanside Pier where they saw five foot sets, but every so often a “Maverick” ten or twelve foot wave would appear. Bob and Charlie were intermediate surfers and these waves were at the top end of their comfort zone so they paddled out and caught a few good ones and were ready to call it a day.
“One more?” Charlie asked.
“Let’s do it,” Bob replied.
As luck, good or bad depending on your perspective, the two brothers caught the biggest wave of the day, a fourteen foot giant as their last one, as did a few other surfers. Bob and Charlie were right next to other on the crest of the behemoth when another surfer who overestimated his skills barely got to his feet before he wiped out, his surfboard went up in the air as if it was shot out of a gun and hit Bob in the shoulder causing him to fall. The huge wave crashed down and when Bob came to the surface, he grimaced when he tried to swim.
By the next morning, Bob could not lift his arm above his head so his father Robert immediately set up an appointment with Doctor Halverson an experienced orthopedic sports doctor and after a series of tests and x-rays, it was determined that Bob Colton had suffered a torn rotator cuff and would require surgery.
“I’ve performed this surgery hundreds of times, you are young and will make a full recovery,” Doctor Halverson said confidently, “After proper rehab, your arm will probably be stronger than it was before.”
The surgery took place in mid- September and went exactly as planned, just like Doctor Halverson promised. After four weeks of having his arm in a supportive sling Bob retained the services of Travis McRoberts a personal trainer at the Tri-City Wellness Center in Carlsbad and former baseball player to guide him through the rehabilitation process. He worked with Travis three times a week on strength and flexibility exercises after school and did yoga and running on the other four days.
Finally the day came for Bob to begin light throwing in January so Bob and Travis went to a park in Bressi Ranch where the first day consisted of ten throws. Bob felt a little stiffness, but no pain so on the following week, he threw twenty five times and by mid-February, the time had finally come for Bob to begin throwing off the mound. Two weeks later he was ready to start throwing from a wind up and with increased velocity. He felt good after thirty pitches although he was over the place with his throws.
The following week Bob and Travis met with El Camino High School baseball coach Jeremy Madison at the school baseball field for the final test.
“Let’s see what you can do,” Coach Madison said as he held a radar gun then added with great emphasis, “If you feel any pain then shut it down.”
Bob warmed up with catcher Chris Forrester one of his teammates until he signaled, “I’m ready,” He consistently threw in the upper nineties with his fastball and even broke a hundred miles per hour barrier several times without any discomfort. That was the good news; the bad news was that for every pitch that went over the plate, two weren’t even close.
During his sophomore and junior seasons on the baseball team, Bob completed every game he started and averaged less than two walks per game, but it was a completely different scenario during his senior year. Bob couldn’t finish one game and for every strikeout, he had two walks and it turned out to be a disastrous year for the rising star. His draft status plummeted and by the end of his senior year, Bob was a confused and frustrated young man.
Robert Colton approached his youngest son, “You’ve lived and breathed baseball for the last ten years, maybe it’s time to take a break, your body came back from the injury alright, but your mind is telling you that you’re not ready.”
Bob stubbornly resisted his father’s advice at first, but after some soul searching, he eventually came to the same conclusion so he walked away from baseball with no idea if or when he would be coming back to the sport that he loved. It was not in The Colton family’s DNA to play the “woe is me card” so when Robert Colton told his son that he could get him a position with Cal Fire as a seasonal firefighter, Bob knew that it was the best offer that he was going to get and the thing to do at this time of his life.
The Santa Ana Winds came in early summer so instead of the June Gloom that sometimes encompassed the area at this time of year; it was clear, windy and hot with humidity in the single digits. The forecast for today was the same as it had been for the past five days; low nineties on the coast and higher inland with strong gusty winds.
Bob’s fire crew was bouncing all around the county as new blazes kept popping up. Two days ago they were in Escondido and yesterday they were in the San Marcos hills and today they got the call, loaded up and headed to North Oceanside. There were several fires raging on Camp Pendleton and Bob and a group of weary firefighters were grabbing some much needed rest and nourishment at the makeshift base camp on North River Road next to the San Luis Rey gate of the base.
Bob looked over and saw his father giving orders to a group of firefighters and called out, “Chief Colton!”
Robert Colton turned around and despite his fatigue at being up for thirty six hours straight bursts out in a bright smile when he saw his son and walked over to meet Bob, “How are you doing?”
“I’m hanging in there,” Bobby replied.
“I’m sure you’re doing more than that,” Robert said proudly.
“Absolutely, same to you Chief.”
A voice called out from the midst of the hustle and bustle of the situation, “Colton! We’re moving out.”
Bob guzzled down his bottle of water and rushed off to rejoin his fellow firefighters as his father looked on in pride for several seconds before resuming command of his own men.
The team was assigned to patrol the area behind a row of houses that bordered Camp Pendleton’s southern boundary and while the area was currently free of fire, the wind had picked up and burning embers were flying overhead. Bob was the last person in a row of five when he noticed a hot spot smoking and called out, “I’ll take care of this and catch up.” then proceeded to use his brush axe to clear the area around the smoldering dried grass before covering it with dirt and when he was absolutely sure that the fire could not re-ignite, he jogged to catch up to his team.
Bob came upon a slight incline in the trail and he heard some angry yelling, but did not recognize the voices so he approached with caution and saw a white van parked at the end of a cul de sac. Two men were holding weapons on his team while another man poured gasoline from a five gallon container along a stretch of dried grass and wood. Bob knew that if that flammable debris caught fire then there was a distinct possibility that the whole neighborhood could go up in flames and if that wasn’t bad enough, he also felt that his team was in eminent danger. There was no way that these men were going to leave them alive to report what they saw.
Bob had no weapons and could not get close enough to do anything to stop what was about to happen when suddenly he looked to his right through the wrought iron fencing and saw the decorative stones around the barbecue island located behind a beautifully landscaped house so he climbed over the barrier and removed his fire retardant and cumbersome jacket. Bob picked up a smooth stone that was basically the same size and a little heavier than a regulation baseball and held it in his hand then picked up two more and set them on the island, easily within reach.
He didn’t have time to dwell on accuracy, in fact he didn’t have time to think about anything and in his heart, and he knew that these would be the most important throws of his life. The man emptied the container then reached into his pocket and removed a lighter from his pocket.
He would have to be the first target so Bob fired his best fastball and the stone hit the man in the side of the head and he went down in an unconscious heap then picked up the second stone and hit another men in the face and almost in the same motion picked up the third stone and let it go, this one caught the final arsonist in the throat.
It was later found out that the three men were self-radicalized terrorists who had been traveling around San Diego County starting fires during the Santa Ana conditions. The first man that Bob hit died from the blunt force trauma and the other two were arrested.
The following spring, Bob tried out for the Palomar College baseball team and miraculously his control had returned and he was drafted by the San Diego Padres after two stellar seasons with the Comets. He was assigned to the Storm, a Class A minor league team in Lake Elsinore and was called up after one year. Bob Colton won eighteen games during his rookie season and helped lead the Padres to the World Series, the first time they had been there since the 1998 Fall Classic when they lost to the New York Yankees.
Bob won both his games as part of the starting rotation and the series was tied three games to three. The deciding seventh game was being played at Petco Park and the Padres were leading six to five in the ninth inning. The Kansas City Royals had loaded the bases with no outs and it was immense pressure for a young rookie, but Manager Jeremy Troy had confidence in the mature young man so when Bob took the mound at Petco Park, he was surprisingly calm and completely focused as his mind briefly flashed back to that life changing moment in Oceanside. He struck out the first two batters throwing nothing but fastballs, literally overpowering the hitters. The next batter up was Trey McGowan, the clean-up hitter who had forty home runs and a .310 batting average during the regular season and was slugging over .400 in the post-season. He was an extremely dangerous hitter on a hot streak and had a well- deserved reputation for hitting tape measure dingers off aces and seasoned veterans all over the league.
Bob started McGowan off with a wicked curveball that McGowan swung over as it dipped below the strike zone at the last moment. The next pitch was a change-up that was clearly outside, but McGowan couldn’t resist the temptation to weakly slap it foul down the right field line. He slammed his lumber against the plate in frustration and dug into the batter’s box like a bull getting ready to charge then glared out at the rookie with intimidation in his eyes.
The count was no balls, two strikes and two outs as Bob went into the stretch, checked the runners and let go with a blinding fastball that started off belt high. Trey McGowan’s eyes widened in anticipation as his boomstick sought out the Holy Grail of Horsehide, but by the time the ball got within three feet of the plate, it had risen dramatically. The melody of chin music hit a crescendo when the last note of the diamond symphony was perfect in pitch and tone as it found the catcher’s mitt with a distinctive pop that echoed around the park. The powerful hitter wasn’t even close to making contact as he is almost corkscrewed himself into the dirt when he swung completely around in a pirouette of futility. When he regained his composure, McGowan tipped his cap in respect to the rookie who won this particular battle, but there would be many others to come in Bob Colton’s long and illustrious career.
When the Colton family got together over the years, they always made sure they were talking about the same thing when the subject of High Heat came up.