NEW BRITAIN, CT - The New Britain Rock Cats are off to a hot start in 2012 and first baseman Chris Colabello has done his fair share to help the team climb to first place in the Eastern Division. For the 28-year-old rookie, he's just happy someone gave him the chance to play ball.
Despite growing up less than 100 miles from New Britain Stadium, Colabello has taken an unusual route to New Britain. The path from Milford, Mass. to New Britain, Conn. may not seem like a long one at all, but for Colabello it has been one lengthy road paved by determination, hard work, and patience.
"I just went out and played the game hard and played the game the right way," Colabello said of his path to the Eastern League.
His first stop along the way was Division II Assumption College, where he batted .352 with 40 doubles, 24 home runs and 111 RBI in 154 career games. After going undrafted in 2005, Colabello signed with the Worchester Tornadoes of the Canadian-American Association League. In seven seasons, he proved he could simply rake at the plate - he never turned in a season under the .300 mark - yet found himself in the same position. Still, he kept suiting up and taking the field chasing a dream.
"I was very fortunate. I had some people around me early in my career that gave me some good advice. They said, 'Keep playing until someone rips your uniform off your back. As long as you have your uniform on, someone could see you,'" Colabello said.
Colabello's best season in independent ball came in 2011, when he batted .348 with 20 home runs and 79 RBI on his way to being named the Can-Am Most Valuable Player. It was enough to be his final season.
"I was very fortunate to have a good year and I think that kind of got me on the map a little bit," he said.
The success of last season was certainly enough to garner the interest of the Minnesota Twins. After seven seasons, Colabello's dream was realized with one phone call.
"It was tremendous," he said. "It was something I waited for a long time. I had a little bit of an opportunity with Detroit in 2006."
Back in 2006, Colabello was working out for Team Italy in an attempt to make the roster for the World Baseball Classic - and thus following in his father's footsteps of playing for the Italian National Team.
"My dad ended up in Italy in 1976, I think was his first year, and played eight years over in Italy. He was an American guy from Milford, Mass and met my mother over there," said Colabello.
His dad pitched for the Italian National Team in the 1984 Olympics, facing off against the United States at Dodger Stadium. Colabello just grinned when asked how the game ended for his father.
"It didn't go well for him. He still has nightmares about it a little bit," Colabello joked.
It was while following in his father's footsteps in an attempt to represent Team Italy at the WBC when Colabello learned the Tigers were holding a tryout. It resulted in his first Spring Training camp. And his first Spring Training cut.
"It seems so far back. I always promised myself I would use that experience as a learning experience for the future in case I got another opportunity," he said.
That opportunity finally arose with the call from the Twins. With that, the independent ball veteran-turned-minor league baseball rookie was packing his bags for Spring Training once again. Now, a month later, he finds himself in Double-A, just two steps away from the big leagues on the organizational ladder.
On Saturday afternoon, while he stands near the on deck circle as the visiting New Hampshire Fisher Cats take batting practice, he can look in the home team dugout and see the Twins' roving instructors. Among the Minnesota staff perched atop the dugout bench is Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. Consider it a perk of working in the Twins' organization - and a far cry from the Can-Am League.
"Everything I had heard about Minnesota from even before I signed was that they are a first-class organization in terms of the way they treated guys in their minor league system and the opportunities that guys got in the system," said Colabello. "All the coordinators, all of the coaches have been tremendously helpful. They don't short-change anyone. Being an outsider at the beginning was a situation that could have been fairly uncomfortable but they made this transition so easy for me."
Colabello has made the transition to the Eastern League look effortless as well. The New England native currently leads the team with a .313 average (15-for-48), four home runs, a .414 on-base percentage, and .667 slugging percentage. He ranks second in runs scored with 12 and is tied for second with 12 RBI. With the Twins' brass in town for the current homestand, Colabello learned on Sunday he had just been named the Twins' Minor League Player of the Week.
"It's a great environment to be in," said Colabello. I think there are a lot of good people around. I'm very thankful to the Twins for the opportunity. I'm just trying to go out and play the game I've been playing."
He enters the season as the oldest member on the Rock Cats' roster and finds himself surrounded by a mix of veterans and young prospects. It is the young faces and naturally talented prospects that have been two of the biggest changes for Colabello to adjust to.
"What I've noticed is that there are a lot of guys that are certainly tool guys. You'll notice you have a guy like (Rock Cats center fielder) Aaron Hicks on your team that it speaks for itself - the way he runs, the way he throws, the way he goes and gets it in the outfield," Colabello said. "I think in independent baseball, you're typically going to find guys who have been around the game a little longer. It's weird for me to be the oldest guy on the team. I've never been that guy in my career."
Just add "oldest guy on the team" to the list of firsts for Colabello this season. With his lifelong dream becoming a reality, it likely won't be something he will let deter him from continuing to flat-out rake at the plate no matter what uniform he puts on.
"At the end of the day," Colabello said, "you have to remind yourself that baseball is baseball no matter where you play."
Thankfully for Rock Cats fans, Colabello finds himself playing in New Britain these days.