“I took the one less travelled by/and that has made all the difference.”
Chris Colabello is one of those players whose box score line one looks for before sunrise every morning, not because of his RBI or OPS+ totals, but because he took the road less travelled than most other major league players, living in Italy where his father pitched, playing for the Mill City All-Americans as a small college player, grasping at an opportunity with the Worcester Tornadoes of the Can-Am League that lasted through seven seasons of bus rides to Quebec City and Sussex, N.J. and, now, age 30, breaking the Twins April RBI record held by Kirby Puckett, HOFer and reaching the morning of April 28 second only to Jose Abreu in RBI, tied with Carlos Beltran in Runs Created.
And even hitting a home run while his mother Silvana was being interviewed.
We look every morning for that Twins box score and the Colabello line, simply because there may not be a man in America who more appreciates what it means to be a major league baseball player. “Sometimes I cannot believe where I am,” he says. “We bus from the park to the airport. We fly charters and stewardesses ask us if they can get us anything, like food. I’m playing with Joe Mauer. I get to talk hitting with Jason Kubel.” But he resists the temptation to check the morning leaderboards. “I’m fortunate enough to be here,” he says, “and being here means trying to help the Twins win.”
Yet he has never forgotten that road less travelled. “I loved those eight hour bus rides from Worcester to Quebec City or Sussex (N.J.), because I was playing baseball, and I was playing for one of the great men in the game, Rich Gedman. To this day, most of my best friends rode those buses with me, because we all love the game. I do not forget.” Nor does he forget that his second home run in the Can-Am League was off Oil Can Boyd, or that Twins GM Terry Ryan understood why he turned down close to a million dollars last winter to play in Korea because “I hadn’t woken up from my dream.”
When he re-signed with the Twins organization in lieu of Korea, Ryan promised Colabello “you will have a chance to make our big league club.” Ryan knows only truth. Chris made the big league club, a three connection flight from the Can-Am League.
And before every Twins game he gets a text from the mother of Greg Montalbano, a Worcester Tornadoes teammate whose life was cut short by cancer, a Cape League roommate of Mark Teixeira and once-promising farmhand of the Red Sox. Because for each and every underdog, soldier in the night, we gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing, in this case the flashing of the name of a 30-year-old from a town named Milford, Massachusetts on message boards across America.
The journey of Chris Colabello stretches all the way back to 1969, when his father Lou pitched for a University of Massachusetts team that made it to the College World Series in Omaha. Lou was hurt much of his junior and senior seasons, and after graduating played for the Milford Town Team and in 1977 went to play for the Rimini club in the Italian League, which he led in wins three times. There Lou met his wife Silvana, and in 1983 Chris was born. Lou Colabello pitched for the Italian team in the 1984 Olympics against the United States, a brief, ineffective stint beginning with Shane Mack; the one out he recorded was Mark McGwire.
In the early Nineties, Lou pitched in a recreation of a 1941 exhibition game played between the Red Sox and Yankees on Soldier Field in Douglas, where he taught at the high school. There the 11 year old Chris met a young Red Sox representative named Rich Gedman and got his autograph, having no idea that Gedman would end up such an influence in his life.
Chris Colabello eventually played at Assumption College in Worcester. He looked for summer opportunities, and between his junior and senior year had the opportunity to play for Lowell’s Mill City All-Americans in the NECBL on the same team as John McDonald and Kevin Slowey. He was an honorable mention All-America as a senior. He worked out at Fenway Park under the watchful eyes of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. But, to his disappointment, went undrafted and unsigned, and eventually got to try out for Gedman, who was managing Worcester in the Can-Am League. “I was a little angry, and maybe was living a sob story,” Colabello remembers. “You’re not alone,” Gedman told him.
“Maybe I was naïve, but I believed him,” says Colabello. “He always used to tell me, ‘as long as you have a uniform, you have a chance,’ and I believed that. Rich is an incredible man. I completely understand why he is such a highly-valued instructor and teacher in the Red Sox organization. He cares so much for other people. He’s been through so much. He caught Roger Clemens (as well as Bruce Hurst, Tom Seaver and Oil Can Boyd) and played in the World Series. I just listened and learned.”
Colabello’s Worcester Tornadoes career began in 2005. His second home run was off Oil Can. “I loved those bus trips to Quebec or Ottawa or the desolate area of New Jersey because it was baseball,” he says. “My teammates there were some of the best friends I’ve ever had. We shared so much.” From 2005 through 2010, he rode those buses, but before the 2011 season, at the age of 27, he told himself he had to “make a splash to get a chance.” He batted .348 with a .410 on base percentage and .600 slugging percentage and after the season was told by J.J. Cooper of Baseball America that he’d been chosen as the magazine’s Independent League Player of the Year, like, years before, Daniel Nava had been so honored and signed by the Red Sox by a dollar, the Daniel Nava Colabello says “has been my inspiration.”
He heard from the Diamondbacks, but nothing came about. Red Sox scout Ray Fagnant told him he had an opportunity for him overseas. In January, a scout and former teammate named John Birtwell, a former Harvard pitcher who now is scouting, contacted 29 of the 30 teams on Colabello’s behalf, the one team he didn’t contact being the Twins. But eventually he got hooked up with a Twins scout named John Wilson, who worked him out in Milford and signed him to a minor league contract and a spring training gig in Fort Myers, Florida.
And Chris Colabello was off to double-A New Britain. He batted .284 with 19 home runs. He went to spring training in 2013, made it to Rochester of the International League, and while putting up a .352/.427/.639 line, and was even called up in May for a rookie season that consisted of 55 games, 181 at-bats, seven homers, at the age of 29.
Then this past winter he got an offer to play in Korea from several teams, one guaranteeing close to $1M. “I was honored,” says Colabello, “but my dream wasn’t finished. I talked to (Twins President) Terry Ryan and he told me, ‘if you were my son, I’d advise you to take it—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime offer.’ But I told him I’d come too far to walk away from my dream. I think because he understood my dream, he told me ‘you’re going to have a chance to make our club.”
Which, on a minor league deal, Chris Colabello accomplished. He’s playing with Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe, staying in four star hotels and riding buses to airports, avoiding security lines, and as of Monday morning has helped the Twins to a 12-11 record, good enough to be within a game of the Detroit Tigers. “I try not to think about all that’s happened because I don’t want to get caught up in it,” he says. “I just try to think about helping the Twins win each day. That’s what baseball is. That’s what I love.”
Be it the Mill City All-Americans facing Joe Smith in North Adams or the Worcester Tornadoes on the bus ride to play the Ottawa Rapides, it’s just baseball. Tuesday night, it’s Zack Greinke and the Dodgers in Minneapolis, at the intersection of dream and reality.