By Pat Borzi
MINNEAPOLIS -- The phrase that stuck with Chris Colabello lacked dramatic cadence; it wasn't like that voice in Field Of Dreams repeatedly telling Kevin Costner, "If you build it, he will come." But the words of Rich Gedman, Colabello's former manager with the Worcester (Mass.) Tornadoes, resonated nonetheless. And they helped Colabello endure seven seasons of independent league baseball, long past the time a reasonable person might have changed careers.
Gedman believed the undrafted Colabello had the tools to play in the major leagues, even if no major league scouts shared that opinion. What did they know? Gedman wasn't drafted either and caught for 13 seasons, mainly with the Red Sox, playing in two All-Star Games and one World Series. Colabello was still having fun and getting better. Sooner or later, somebody had to notice.
"Rich told me when I was young, 'As long as you have a uniform on, you have a chance,'" said Colabello. "So I really took that to heart. For as little or as much promise that had, it didn't matter to me. I knew he was right."
That kept Colabello plugging through years of bouncy bus rides, lousy food and meager paychecks topping out at $2,200 a month. He lived with his parents in Milford, Mass., an Italian-American enclave about 30 miles from Worcester, and made extra money substitute teaching or giving baseball lessons. Colabello's father Lou, a high school physical education teacher and former pitcher, and his mother Silvana, whom Lou met while playing professionally in Italy, never nagged him about getting a real job.
"My mom and dad have the same passion for the game that I do," Colabello said. "A day on a baseball field is better than a day somewhere else. That's the way I looked at it."
The perseverance paid off on May 22, when the 6-foot-4 Colabello made his major league debut in right field for the Minnesota Twins in Atlanta, at the unlikely age of 29. Over the next month, Colabello shuttled three times between Minnesota and Triple A Rochester, before his International League dominance -- a .354 average, 24 homers and 76 RBIs over 85 games -- convinced the Twins to give him an extended look after the All-Star break.
Overall, he hit only .221 in 86 at-bats, not enough to keep him in the big leagues when the Twins activated Ryan Doumit (concussion) from the disabled list on Friday. But the righthanded-batting Colabello flashed power with four home runs, two to the opposite field. His first, a two-run shot in the 13th inning, beat Seattle, 3-2, at Safeco Field on July 26.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire suspects Colabello will be back when rosters expand in September, if not before.
"I like it when he walks up there," Gardenhire said. "I feel like he can do some damage, and he's hit a few a long way." That's appropriate for someone who has come a long way himself.
Until he reached middle school, Colabello spent almost as much time in Rimini, his mother's hometown on the Adriatic coast of Italy, as he did in the U.S., learning to speak Italian fluently. He later studied Spanish, which is similar to Italian, and became comfortable enough to translate for Latin-American teammates.
"I thought it would be silly to take Italian in school," he said. "I probably could have taught the class."
Colabello's father Lou was a lefthander who pitched for Rimini from 1976 to 1984, leading the Italian Baseball League in victories three times. Lou Colabello also pitched for Italy at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when baseball was a demonstration sport. Lou jokes about it now, but it did not go well. Facing a loaded Team USA at Dodger Stadium, Lou gave up nine runs in the first inning of a 16-1 loss, three on a long home run by Will Clark. "The ball still hasn't landed," he said. (Last year, Chris met Clark, now a minor league instructor for the Giants, and got him to autograph a ball for his dad. Lou said Clark couldn't resist a smart-alecky inscription: "To Lou: You hang 'em, I bang 'em.")
Chris Colabello excelled at Division II Assumption College in Worcester, ranking seventh in career hits and once hitting three home runs in a game, but big-league scouts ignored him. Hooking on with the Worcester Tornadoes in the reconstituted Can-Am League in 2005, Colabello barely played before Gedman cut him to sign a catcher for a road trip to Quebec. Gedman told him to stay busy and rejoin the team for workouts after the trip.
Ten days later, after Worcester added another player, Colabello asked Gedman about his future. Gedman had no answers. Figuring he was done with the Tornadoes, Colabello cleaned out his locker but hung around the clubhouse until the end of the game. That's when Gedman saw him, called him outside and told him to be there the next afternoon for batting practice.
"I'm like, what? What changed your mind?" Colabello said. "He said, 'The way you worked this week, not having a spot on the team. Don't change. Keep being the same guy.' I was like, wow.
"I was still pressing a little bit, but before you know it, I had another good talk with him. He reminded me to be myself, play the game. We had an injury real quick, next thing I knew I was in the lineup every day. That's how it started, I guess."
Worcester won the Can-Am League Championship that year, with Colabello hitting .320 and slugging an even .500; he posted .429 on-base percentage, third-best in the league despite being its youngest everyday player at age 21. Detroit signed him out of a tryout camp that winter but released him in spring training, and he returned to the Tornadoes. In seven Can-Am seasons -- all with Worcester, except for a brief stint with Nashua in 2007 -- Colabello never hit below .300. In 2011, Baseball America named him "Independent League Player of the Year" after a .348 season with a sterling 1.010 OPS.
"I was fortunate to have a team so close to home," Colabello said, "I think that played a major role in the fact I was able to keep doing what I was doing."
That winter, Colabello's old Tornadoes teammate John Birtwell, now a coach at Harvard, talked up Colabello to Brian Charles, an agent he knew out of New Rochelle, N.Y. Charles emailed all 30 major league teams on Colabello's behalf, attaching a scouting report from Gedman, trying to land him a minor league contract. Twenty-nine teams said no. Only Twins farm director Brad Steil, with his system short on first basemen, offered Colabello a chance.
This time, Colabello stuck. At Double A New Britain, Colabello hit 19 homers and finished 2nd in the Eastern League Most Valuable Player voting. That and a big winter season with Algodoneros de Guasave in the Mexican Pacific League (.322, 17 homers) earned Colabello a non-roster invitation to spring training.
Slated to start the season in Rochester, Colabello opened eyes by starring for Italy at the World Baseball Classic, hitting .333 with two home runs. In a 14-4 rout of Canada in pool play, Colabello crushed a three-run homer amid a four-hit, four-RBI performance. Against the Dominican Republic, the eventual champion, Colabello hit a three-run, first-inning homer off established major-leaguer Edinson Volquez, though the D.R. came back to win, 5-4.
Colabello kept it up at Rochester, slugging .652 as a first baseman/right fielder, amassing 39 RBIs over 46 games by the time Minnesota's Trevor Plouffe landed on the seven-day concussion disabled list. Twins general manager Terry Ryan's insistence on rewarding production, not potential, prompted Colabello's first callup.
"The kid gets the credit," Ryan said. "Look at the numbers he put up in Rochester. Unbelieveable.
"You can see that he's not a young kid. When you get to 28, 29, you might start to think, you might want to move on with life. He didn't, which is a good thing."
Colabello's promotion did not proceed without drama, however. Two hours after Rochester manager Gene Glynn interrupted a card game on the team bus to tell Colabello he was joining the Twins, a car collided with the bus, delaying their trip back to Rochester by an hour. Colabello barely made the 6:25 a.m. flight to Atlanta, which was imperative since the Twins played that afternoon. Colabello went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, but it didn't matter. He had made it, at last.
"If I stop and think about it too much, I'll probably faint," Colabello said. "But I always knew I could play the game a little bit. I didn't know what that would lead to.
"I don't think a lot of people expected it to be in this clubhouse, but you just try to embrace moments. If you get overwhelmed by it, that will make you fail. But if you can embrace it, even if you fool yourself into believing you're supposed to be here, I think you'll be OK. I think that's what it's all about."
* * *
Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.