This past winter, the Twins were up against a roster crunch and decided that Colabello, who hit below .200, accumulated a waist-high pile of strikeouts and had positional inflexibility, not to mention he was at an advanced age for a prospect, was expendable. When they signed catcher Kurt Suzuki in December, they negotiated with a Korean team to move Colabello off the 40-man roster. If he agreed, Colabello would receive upwards of a million dollars -- well above the amount he stood to make playing with the Twins and the pittance he made in independent ball.
Of course, playing professional baseball on the Korean Peninsula was not Colabello’s lifelong dream. He stayed with the Twins, even if that meant another season in the minors or the possibility of being cut in spring training.
This plight had become standard practice for Colabello in his career. A career that almost ended before it started when the Worcester Tornadoes of the Cam-Am League released him after eight at-bats in his first season to make room for a backup catcher. In 2006, he was cut from the Italian team in the World Baseball Classic, then later dropped by the Detroit Tigers after a spring training tryout the same year.
Obviously the snow has not even completely melted from the northern cities but, after a fast start which included sharing the American League’s Player of the Week with the Angels’ Josh Hamilton, Colabello is starting the 2014 season like he wants the Twins to regret even considering the idea of moving him just a few months ago.
“One of our scouts in the northeast, John Wilson, had got a tip that there was a guy over there,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said last year when he was summoned to the show. “Of course [Colabello] continued to put up number after number, year after year, and was worth a look. And John went over and took a look and I think that year he was named the Independent League Player of the Year, all that good stuff. Ok, this guy deserves an invite to minor league spring training. He got down there, he was pretty good. He started in Double-A and never really had an off-week.”
For seven years, Colabello toiled in the Cam-Am League, bouncing between Worcester and Nashua. Toiled might be putting it lightly. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire joked that the slugger came from the beer leagues, and he’s not far off. Nashua, the team Colabello played for 43 games in 2007, had Olympic skier, Bode Miller, play one home game each year from 2006 to 2008. While Miller had six at-bats and five strikeouts, the New Hampshire native and baseball sideshow failed to generate interest. The team was eventually evicted from their stadium in 2009 for failing to pay rent.
Meanwhile, Worcester, whose nickname came from a tornado which ravaged the community in the early 1950s and the team Colabello had played with for his 540 other games in the league, folded for unceremonious reasons similar to the Nashua team. In 2012, the season after the Twins plucked (or was it saved?) Colabello from the Massachusetts town team, the Worcester Tornadoes had their charter revoked for being unable to pay for uniform cleaning.
The collapse of the Tornadoes did not come before one last Hail Mary scheme, however. In April of 2012, the team reached out to baseball pariah, Jose Canseco, hoping that the former major leaguer’s diminishing star would help ignite some local interest in the club. While being compensated $14,000 a month, more than quadrupling Colabello’s monthly take in his final year in Worcester, the toxified outfielder could not find enough juice to buoy the sinking franchise and the 47-year-old hit just .194 with one home runs in 74 at-bats. In that season’s final weeks, even the team’s uniforms were repossessed and the players were forced the finish the year in generic loaner unis for the last few games before the team was shuttered for good.
So, yeah, just for surviving that league for seven years you could say Chris Colabello deserved a minor league invite at the very least.
How exactly does a player of Colabello’s offensive aptitude not only fall through the cracks but manage to avoid detection from other major league organizations for almost a decade of success in the lower ranks?
“It happens,” Ryan said bluntly. “There are numerous players who are from the independent leagues who are on big league clubs who fell through the cracks. Some players who are in minor league baseball do not get opportunities because there is a bigger draft in front of them or something like that so then all of a sudden they start losing confidence. Before you know it, they get released and then they get signed by the [St. Paul] Saints or somebody and they get there and they play well.”
It is not as if Colabello was a mythical Hobbsian-type hitter who was injured and finally healed enough to tear the cover off the ball. He went vastly unnoticed in his amateur career, failing to draw interest in a pool of thousands of other high school and collegiate players -- mainly because he played out of a little known Division II school in Worcester. (Knowing where the ballpark was certainly made the transition to the Cam-Am League a little easier.) No, Colabello constantly tinkered and improved his approach, acknowledging the ever-evolving tango between pitcher and hitter.
“I’ve always had this desire to be complete in terms of being a hitter,” Colabello told me this spring. “To be able to do what the best hitters in the world have done and that means, in my humble opinion, means hit .300 and 30-plus home runs a year.”
Those are lofty goals for a player who was two years removed from playing against washouts and pitchers whose hopes of seeing a major league stadium involved buying a ticket.
Colabello, however, said it was always putting in the work at the field, in the cages and at the tee, which helped him improve physically, and constant game-planning that propelled him into the position where he is at today. Unlike some of his fellow employees who were drafted or signed massive bonuses and have a safety net of a large investment by ownership supporting them and knowing that they will have every opportunity to succeed, Colabello has been afforded no such luxury. If he did not produce, the Twins could send him back to what is left of the Cam-Am League, no worse for the wear.
“There are a lot of people who like to see an opposite field hitter when they are younger because you know guys will eventually learn to pull -- very rarely does a hitter learn to hit the other way with authority when they are 28 or 29,” Ryan said of Colabello’s approach.
When he reached the Twins, Colabello was an opposite-field machine, slugging over .750 when going to right as four of his seven home runs left the park in that direction. But when he pulled the ball he wound up batting just .194 with little power. Something was not clicking.
“As last year progressed I started to get more and more confident in my ability to drive the ball over the wall that way, that pulling the baseball became an afterthought,” Colabello said. “It almost got to the point where I wanted to pull the ball or needed to pull the ball, that I got so confounded by that, that I was in search of it for a while.”
“I’ve watched guys like Miguel Cabrera, for one, and the Albert Pujols of the world and to be able to see them drive the ball over the walls to all three parts of the field and still maintain the ability to hit .300, that’s pretty amazing. I always looked at that and said ‘wow’. I’ve been a guy who could hit .300 in Indy ball and at the minor league level and I had this aspiration to continue to improve and figure out how they did that. And I think that has been the evolution of me as a hitter.”
“I think that varied a lot. I feel like because I’m long and my stance is open that they thought I was further away than I was. I watched guys like [Dustin] Pedroia and Ryan Braun stand on the other side of the box sometimes when they knew guys were throwing them in but I think what happened more than anything else is that I did not have the awareness to make the adjustments when I needed to or the comfort level to say that ‘ok, I can still get to this ball’ because things were going a little too fast.”
“In Triple-A, one day I might get closer or one day I might get further away and it is really depended on how I felt that they were going to attack me or patterns that I saw and I think that is part of the self-awareness thing. I think at the big league level last year I had gotten to the point at [Rochester] that I had gotten so comfortable being off the plate that I hadn’t even realized how far I was. I used to stand on the inside white line.”
Colabello acknowledged that one of the reasons that he was frequently heading back to the dugout after a fruitless at-bat had a lot to do with being uncomfortable and not fully prepared for what was coming at him. As he said, the game moved fast. That, and the sheer impressive talent that existed on the mound at the major league level.
He cited the handiwork of Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Anibal Sanchez as a lingering memory for him. The pair matched up four times in 2013, once in May and three times in August. On each occasion, the results were the same: a Sanchez strikeout.
What Sanchez demonstrated to Colabello was the uncanny ability to unleash a low-80s changeup in any situation -- first-pitch, up in the count, behind, it didn’t matter. Fixating too much on that pitch allowed Sanchez to buzz his low-90s fastball at the knees. This was an awakening for Colabello, recognizing that he would need to tighten up his plan if he wanted to succeed at this level.
“I think part of what makes me a good baseball player is my mental ability to play the cat-and-mouse games with the pitchers and I felt like that was very far off from what I was doing in Triple-A and Double-A there year before where I went up to bat when I had plans,” Colabello said of his 58 strikeouts in 181 plate appearances last year. “You are going to go through times as a hitter where you get away from your plan or your plans kind of skew, but it is all based on results which, at the end of the day, the game for a hitter, it is more than the results: it is about the process.”
The game is focused on output and production. A hitter’s value is tied to his ability to reach base, avoid outs, score and drive in runs. With this constant scrutiny, hitters always know where they stand when they see numbers like their batting averages plastered wall-to-wall in every stadium. And they know when it is dropping lower and lower. They know when a manager’s confidence may be waning. They know when the front office may be discussing booking a flight back to the International League. The key, Colabello realized, was to focus on the process -- hitting the ball square and taking good at-bats -- and forgetting about the stretches when the hits don’t fall.
“You can go oh-for-4 on any given day and hit the ball right on the button, every time,” he said transitioning into a near Crash Davis-esque soliloquy about the baseball gods. “Then there are days when you go 4-for-4 and not hit a ball square and break three bats so, realistically, what should give you more confidence, the fact that you squared four balls up or that you got four hits? The obvious answer is you squared four balls up but when you go home and look at the box score and you are aware that you are oh-for-8 or oh-for-12 or oh-for-20, it looms on you. I think maturity allows you to realize that, ok, it is not about that and I think that is what the best hitters in the world are capable of doing.”
Colabello said he reached out to players, coaches, instructors, trainers, friends and anyone who would discuss hitting who could lead to an improvement. He tried to absorb everything he could.
“I watched Joe [Mauer] be present all the time. That’s one of the biggest things I took from last year from watching him everyday that he’s so self-aware. So self-aware. And understand who he is and what he wants to do about as well as anyone in the game. I learned a lot from that, to be able to say this is who I am, this is what I’m going to do, this is how I’m going to handle it and not stray too far away from it.”
Clearly modeling your style after a three-time batting champion is not a bad route to go. He already shares his patented opposite field stroke but would he consider stealing Mauer’s signature move of watching the first-pitch pass by?
“Being a guy who is typically a middle-of-the-order guy, who is going to produce runs and try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, you have to get yourself in offensive counts and I think oh-oh is as offensive of a count as we get,” he said. “So if you get the chance to do some damage on oh-oh, for me, I’m going to let it go. I certainly think it is about keeping that in reason and understand how to not doing too much with it. I think most of my success came last year in oh-oh counts or hitter’s counts because that’s when you are suppose to do damage.”
After doing damage in Chicago and Cleveland to start the season, Colabello has demonstrated that good things happen to those who work hard and are stubborn enough to keep hanging around.