By Dan Cook, WCCO Radio
Each season baseball produces more than its fair share of unlikely stories. That’s one of the things that makes the game so special.
And yet, even though we know to anticipate the unlikely, to count on the improbable and to prepare for the implausible, it still manages to catch us off guard.
I give to you, the case of one Chris Colabello.
An undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts, Colabello has had one of the more round-about routes to the majors you’ll ever see.
He began his professional odyssey in 2005, playing for the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Can-Am league. He remained there (outside of a 43-game stint with Nashua) for seven years.
At one point, rumors swirled that he and a teammate were going to have their contracts purchased by the Mets. His teammate got the call. He didn’t.
“He expressed disappointment that didn’t happen, but I recall was how loyal and supportive he was of his teammate. Chris was a consistent hitter that could do a lot of things to help a team win and he had that great attitude. There’s always players in [the independent leagues] that stand out from the pack because of their approach, because of their willingness to work, and he was one of them,” minor league reporter, Jessica Quiroli, said.
In baseball, like life, hard work will eventually earn you opportunities, and Colabello’s finally came.
In 2011, Colabello was named Baseball America’s Independent League Player of the Year. That was good enough to get him a look with a minor league affiliate – in this case the New Britain Rock Cats whom he joined for the 2012 season.
He promptly went out and earned Twins Minor League Player of the Week on April 20 after hitting .381 with two doubles, three home runs and eight RBI.
And he kept right on going through the rest of the season.
He had 40 multi-hit games that season, 21 multi-RBI games, led the Eastern League in doubles (37), ranked second in RBI (98), fourth in runs scored (78) and was tied for fourth in home runs (19). He was the runner up for the Eastern League MVP award and was named the first baseman for the MiLB.com Twins organization All-Star team.
Taking advantage of that break led to his next opportunity: a spot on the 2013 Team Italy roster for the World Baseball Classic. All he did in those five games was hit .333 with two home runs and seven RBI.
That helped get him invited to big league camp in 2013, though he was reassigned to Triple-A Rochester to start the season. But he wouldn’t stay there long.
On May 22, at age 29 and in his ninth year of professional baseball, Colabello finally got the call after Trevor Plouffe was placed on the 7-day disabled list with a concussion.
It wasn’t quite the debut Colabello had hoped for, collecting just one hit in 11 AB’s while striking out six times.
On May 29, he was optioned back to Rochester, only to be told that he’d need to turn around the next day and head right back to Minnesota, because after coming off the concussion-DL, Plouffe injured his calf and was placed on the 15-day DL.
Chris bounced back-and-forth between Rochester and Minnesota a couple more times before finally getting called up for good on July 19th.
He finished the 2013 season hitting .194/.287/.344 in the big leagues with seven home runs, three doubles and 17 RBI.
But his minor league numbers were good enough to earn him a spot in the Triple-A All-Star game, the International League MVP and Baseball America’s Triple-A Player of the Year award.
In the business of baseball that’s enough to get the “4-A” label slapped on you. Good enough to dominate Triple-A, but not good enough to get it done in the big leagues.
So Colabello’s career was at a cross-roads.
During this past off-season, the Twins presented Colabello with an opportunity to play for the LG Lions in the Korean league. An easy, “no thanks”, right? After all the time Colabello had spent chasing his big league dream and finally getting a taste of it, why would he go play in Korea?
For a guaranteed $1 million contract, that’s why.
There was no guarantee he was going to make the Twins big league roster, and the club decided that some flexibility on their 40-man roster wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, so they worked out the deal with the Lions, but made it Chris’ choice.
In the end Colabello decided to continue following his dream.
“I don’t think it was that hard [of a decision],” he said to Phil Rogers of MLB.com “My heart never went that way. I’ve followed my heart my whole life. I use my head too, but I follow my heart. … It has never steered me wrong.”
Which brings us to the first month of the 2014 season, where it would seem that Chris’ decision as been fairly well vindicated.
Through Saturday’s action, Colabello is hitting .308/.351/.505 with nine doubles, three homers and 27 RBI.
That last number is especially important, since it broke a 20-year old mark for most RBI by a Twins batter in the month of April. The previous owner of that mark?
One Anthony Kirby Puckett.
“Pretty impressive,” said manager Ron Gardenhire, “He’s got his name sitting next to one of the best players I ever saw. That’s a pretty cool thing. You tip your hat to him. That’s pretty special.”
As for Colabello, as you might expect, he’s taking it in stride.
“You know Kirby obviously was quite the player… and represents everything that’s right about the Minnesota Twins. For me personally, it’s a great honor, but I still feel like I have a lot of work to do and a lot of stuff that I want to contribute to this team.”
There’s no question that he’s limited by the lack of a natural defensive position. His best spot, first base, is currently occupied by $23 million. And his BABIP is a sky-high .397. So even if the Twins are able to stay creative and get him at-bats, his hitting numbers should normalize a bit.
But on a team that was expected to struggle to score runs, any production is welcome. And it’s all the more entertaining when the story behind it is as unlikely as Colabello’s.