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  • Chris Colabello Finds Comfort at the Plate

    Chris Colabello is a player who refuses to take a hint when he is no longer wanted.

    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.

    From the Beer Leagues to the Major Leagues

    Colabello’s discovery almost sounded like pure happenstance.

    “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.

    “If I’m getting stagnant that means I’m getting worse. I want the ability to do everything and to be able to have the clearness mentally to be aware of that and want to do it is the first step.”

    In the minors, Colabello started to feel the pitchers were attacking him on the inside half of the plate. In response, he started to back away from the plate. This led to him driving the ball with authority to the opposite field -- something that is not typical of undeveloped players, said Terry Ryan.

    “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 it is really just a comfort thing.”

    Much has been made on the televised broadcasts of Colabello moving closer to the plate in his stance. When the subject was broached, the right-hander shook his head and shrugged.

    “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.

    “There are definitely physical things that you become aware of every day but that only enhances your mind’s ability to become confident.”

    For hitters uninitiated into the major leagues, the prolonged slumps can be deflating.

    “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.
    Comments 28 Comments
    1. clutterheart's Avatar
      clutterheart -
      What a great read, thanks for sharing this story. I was annoyed when Colabello made the team as it signaled to me the total lack of options this team has. I viewed him as good story sideshow who would be back in AAA by June.

      Its still possible that comes true. However, this article shows that he is a student of the game. He knows how to hit, knows how to make adjustments and knows what his role should be. His dedication is paying off and it would be nice if he could stay up for a few seasons. He could take that same dedication and work in as a hitting coach on some level as he seems pretty intelligent.
    1. Otwins's Avatar
      Otwins -
      Article of the year so far. What I have been hoping is that Colabello needed that failure last year to have success this year. It is not at all unusual for a player to struggle the first time he is in the majors. It just felt different because he was 29. I don't know how any baseball fan couldn't root for this guy.
    1. twinsnorth49's Avatar
      twinsnorth49 -
      Colabello is a major reason to watch right now, he's paid his dues and has earned his shot, I'm pulling for him.

      Great to hear what he says about Mauer. I think that's a big plus for Colabello, he's smart enough to pay attention to the things that make guys like Mauer great and take something from it.
    1. jimbo92107's Avatar
      jimbo92107 -
      Wow, do I like Colabello's attitude. I hope he's seen some footage of Manny Ramirez. There's a guy that could blast to all fields and adjust to different speeds better than just about anybody.
    1. jokin's Avatar
      jokin -
      Ask and you shall receive. This is the story I've been waiting to see written. Kudos to Parker! You have put the rest of the local media to shame.....as I would be stunned if this article isn't picked up and reprinted all around the country. No matter how it all turns out in the long run, thanks for getting the full scope and scoop of what is shaping up to be the early season story of the year.

      How did you get such great, insightful quotes? I'm assuming that the media, for the most part, has limited access to the players in-season. Cola comes across as an amalgamation of an Everyman, Don Quixote and Robert Pirsig (by coincidence, Pirsig's son in Zen and the Art...., is also named Chris). Here's a guy who's actually living what the Twins preach about playing the game the right way. I've already forwarded this out to all the athletes I've played with and coached over the years. Triumph for Cola no matter how this plays out, and triumph for Parker on a tremendous read.
    1. h2oface's Avatar
      h2oface -
      This might be the best piece of sports journalism i have seen on this site. What a great article. Send it into SI, and get paid well.
    1. lightfoot789's Avatar
      lightfoot789 -
      This is such a great read and should be passed on to every prospect in the A+ and AA and AAA level. It would give players a great awareness as to how to grow as a hitter. Awesome interview and article.
    1. Dman's Avatar
      Dman -
      Wow, that was a fun read! Well written and insightful. Couldn't ask for more. Thanks for putting this out there!
    1. tarheeltwinsfan's Avatar
      tarheeltwinsfan -
      Parker, I agree that this article should be printed in SI. Outstanding journalism. Well written. Very personal. We fans need to be reminded that these players are human beings with hopes and dreams, families and friends, money problems and injuries, competitive against some of the best athletes in the world who are trying to defeat them...playing an unforgiving game, where the player is not fully in control. Please submit it to SI. Cola is still living his story and it needs to be told. Thank you for telling it so well.
    1. JB_Iowa's Avatar
      JB_Iowa -
      When i open up an article from you Parker, I always expect a great, comprehensible technical analysis. I had absolutely no idea you could write the human interest aspect so well. It is the best article I have ever read on this site and one of the best about a Twin that I've read for a long time.

      Congrats, Parker and thanks and congrats to Colabello for making the first week of the season memorable. I was rooting for him because I appreciated the risk he was willing to take to make his major league dream come true. I had no idea that I should be rooting for him because he is what being a professional baseball player is all about.
    1. ericchri's Avatar
      ericchri -
      Rarely do I get goosebumps when reading stories about professional athletes playing at the highest level, but this one got me. He seems so level-headed and insightful and has beaten some ridiculous odds to get here, you have to root for him.
    1. Tibs's Avatar
      Tibs -
      Great piece of writing, Parker! I hope Chris Colabello continues having success this year. He deserves it and it would greatly help our offense.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      Great read.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      I'm in complete agreement with everyone here. I don't know how to go about getting it to the proper channels to get out there, so if anyone has any ideas, let us know. For sure, copy the link to this article and promoted on Facebook and Twitter and other social media places. Send it on Twitter to the Ken Rosenthal's, Peter Gammons, Buster Olney, etc.

      I've said it many times... talking to Chris Colabello about baseball, process, life, anything is pretty incredible... I remember after meeting him in person for the first time last September that I came away immensely impressed by the person. When he did a Q&A for this site last January (2013), I remember reading it over and over and using some of his responses in my daily life.

      Can't help but be happy for him and this start. Just a tremendous story about a tremendous person!
    1. blindeke's Avatar
      blindeke -
      Nice job. Go Chris!
    1. spycake's Avatar
      spycake -
      Interesting stuff about the Can-Am league too. I always assumed it was about equivalent to the Saints league, but it actually sounds lower quality and more disorganized, which makes Colabello's ascent even more unlikely!
    1. jsimssd72's Avatar
      jsimssd72 -
      http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/po...hris-colabello

      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      I'm in complete agreement with everyone here. I don't know how to go about getting it to the proper channels to get out there, so if anyone has any ideas, let us know. For sure, copy the link to this article and promoted on Facebook and Twitter and other social media places. Send it on Twitter to the Ken Rosenthal's, Peter Gammons, Buster Olney, etc.

      I've said it many times... talking to Chris Colabello about baseball, process, life, anything is pretty incredible... I remember after meeting him in person for the first time last September that I came away immensely impressed by the person. When he did a Q&A for this site last January (2013), I remember reading it over and over and using some of his responses in my daily life.

      Can't help but be happy for him and this start. Just a tremendous story about a tremendous person!
    1. jimbo92107's Avatar
      jimbo92107 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      I'm in complete agreement with everyone here. I don't know how to go about getting it to the proper channels to get out there, so if anyone has any ideas, let us know. For sure, copy the link to this article and promoted on Facebook and Twitter and other social media places. Send it on Twitter to the Ken Rosenthal's, Peter Gammons, Buster Olney, etc.

      I've said it many times... talking to Chris Colabello about baseball, process, life, anything is pretty incredible... I remember after meeting him in person for the first time last September that I came away immensely impressed by the person. When he did a Q&A for this site last January (2013), I remember reading it over and over and using some of his responses in my daily life.

      Can't help but be happy for him and this start. Just a tremendous story about a tremendous person!
      Chris Colabello sounds like the kind of man you'd like to have on any team, any sport, in any capacity you can get him. The best thing about Twins Daily really is not just baseball news, but also finding out about the fascinating people in the organization. Guys like Colabello, AJ Pettersen, Tim Shibuya, and others have shown themselves not only to be talented ballplayers, but also eloquent and expressive diarists of their experiences in their quest to reach the Show.

      I really hope the staff at TD continues to encourage these young men to share their experiences and their opinions on any subject they care to discuss. The connections they forge with fans are so much better than just watching the Twins on TV. These are people just like us, struggling to find their way through all the uncertainties of life.

      Doesn't everybody here just feel like giving Chris Colabello some kind of trophy, just for being such an awesome dude?
    1. 70charger's Avatar
      70charger -
      I agree with all about the quality of this article. Just top-notch stuff. And congratulations to the author for getting picked up by ESPN.

      I for one think Colabello's story would make a pretty compelling book. Maybe we're a few years away yet from that point, but I'm over here sharpening my pencils...
    1. Mr. Brooks's Avatar
      Mr. Brooks -
      Great read.
      If only every baseball player worked as hard at their craft as Cola seems to.
      I'm not sure what will eventually become of Chris Colabello, but I know that I'll be rooting for him along the way, whether that be in Target Field, Korea, or the beer leagues.
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