Colabello taking road less traveled to make Twins
First base hopeful spent seven seasons playing in independent leagues
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Chris Colabello thought it was a mistake.
He arrived at the Lee County Sports Complex more than a week before he was required to report and looked everywhere to find his locker. The players on the 40-man roster had placards above their lockers, while the non-roster players only had tape with their names on it.
Colabello, a non-roster invite, figured he'd be in the corner somewhere, until someone pointed out he was right in the middle of the clubhouse -- and right next to the lockers reserved for former American League MVPs Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.
"I thought maybe they forgot me, but someone said, "Hey, yours is right here,' and so I looked up and saw Justin and Joe's lockers right next to me," Colabello said with a smile. "So I was like, 'Are you sure I'm in the right place?' But it's been awesome. They're awesome guys and there are no two bigger stars for the Minnesota Twins over the last 15 years than those guys. So it's neat to share this experience with them and pick their brains."
So while Mauer and Morneau took the usual route to the big leagues -- they were taken in the First-Year Player Draft and made their way up through the Minor Leagues -- Colabello's road has been an untraditional one to say the least.
Colabello, 29, starred in college, but it was at Division II Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. -- about 30 miles from where he grew up in Milford -- and he went undrafted.
He then spent the next seven years playing for Worcester of the independent Canadian-American League, with his only taste of Spring Training coming in 2006 as a non-roster invite by the Tigers in Minor League camp.
But Colabello was released before the season even started and spent the next six years playing near his hometown in Worcester, before the Twins finally came calling before the '12 season.
The Twins needed to add depth at first base in their Minor League system and took a chance on Colabello after a breakout year in the Can-Am League in '11, when he hit .348 with a 1.010 OPS en route being named the league's MVP and Baseball America's Independent League Player of the Year.
He carried that success into his first full season in affiliated ball by hitting .284/.358/.478 with 19 homers and 98 RBIs in 134 games to finish as the runner-up in the Eastern League MVP balloting. He also batted .332 with 17 homers and 13 doubles while playing for Algodoneros de Guasave of the Mexican Pacific League during the offseason.
It's made all of his work in Worcester worthwhile, and Colabello said he never came close to quitting the game he loved, even though the Can-Am League isn't exactly a pipeline to the Majors.
"I promised myself three things -- No. 1 was that if I was having fun I'd still keep playing, No. 2 was that it was feasible financially and physically, and No. 3 that I was getting better," said Colabello, who gave baseball lessons and served as a substitute teacher in his spare time to make ends meet. "I think from the beginning I always thought I belonged and if I didn't believe that, I think I would've stopped playing. I always kind of thought that if someone gives me a chance I can get this done."
Colabello's success in Double-A earned him his first shot in big league camp this spring and so far he's taking advantage of it.
He entered Wednesday's game against the Phillies hitting .429 (3-for-7), including the game-tying RBI in the ninth inning against the Rays on Sunday and the game-winning RBI single against the Pirates on Monday.
"It's been awesome," Colabello said. "It's just a great experience from the first day and I'm sure it'll be like this every day I'm here. It's easy to come to the field with a smile on my face and get my work in. I'm so incredibly thankful for the Twins not just for this but for signing me in the first place and giving me the chance to work my way here."
Colabello's next stop, however, will be with Team Italy, as he's set to leave for Arizona on Sunday to participate in the World Baseball Classic. It's a special honor for Colabello considering he spent part of his youth in Italy because his dad played for eight years in an Italian baseball league, and even represented Italy in the 1984 Olympics and pitched against Team USA at Dodger Stadium.
"It's pretty neat," Colabello said. "I'm really looking forward to it. I'm thankful for the opportunity and the Twins approving me going. The first thing [Twins manager Ron Gardenhire] said to me was that it's just such a wonderful opportunity and that you don't get many opportunities like that in baseball because it's such a short window."
But Colabello's main goal is to work his way to the big leagues, and he has an outside shot at cracking the roster as Morneau's backup because Gardenhire is looking for power off the bench this year.
Gardenhire has been impressed with Colabello this spring and has been giving him plenty of work at first base as the No. 2 first baseman on the depth chart behind Morneau in Grapefruit League play.
"To take that route I took to get that end goal is special because not too many guys go that direction," Colabello said. "I don't think of myself any differently or that I deserve any extra pats on the back, but it's neat to know that you can be persistent enough to not go away."