Chris Colabello broke into the majors with the Minnesota Twins two years ago, and now is in the thick of the ALCS as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Tom Schreier documented his path from the Can-Am independent baseball league to the major leagues in the first-ever story written for Cold Omaha.
Paul Cantiani, the man that brought independent baseball to the city of Worcester, Mass., believes that Minnesota Twins first baseman Chris Colabello should wind up and hit a tree. Evergreen, birch, hickory or willow – it doesn’t matter: He should just let loose and wail on some arbor. “I just want to punch him once in a while and say, why don’t you get pissed off? Punch a tree or something,” says Cantiani in an East Coast accent so thick he could be mistaken for aFamily Guy character. “He just smiles back.”
Cantiani is kidding of course. Colabello broke his hand while playing in his penultimate season for the Worcester Tornadoes, the Canadian-American independent league team that Cantiani brought to central Massachusetts. Even if he hadn’t done that, it isn’t smart for a person that wants to hit a ball 400 feet or throw a runner out at home to run around punching trees.
Colabello would be justified if he let loose, however. He played his first MLB game at age 29 last year. He is also primarily a first baseman, a fungible defensive position where Joe Mauer will play next season, and a right fielder, where first round pick Chris Parmelee and blue-chipper Oswaldo Arcia play, and he hit below the Mendoza Line in 181 plate appearances as a rookie. That means that if he cannot get the bat going, he probably will not find a spot on a major league roster. He cannot play for the Tornadoes if he gets cut because they folded shortly after he entered the Twins system and he does not have much more to accomplish in the minor leagues after being named International League MVP and Rookie of the Year last season.
None of that bothers Colabello, though, because he is just taking it one step at a time. “Every day my focus is on the task at hand and when I say that I mean it,” he says. “If you get too caught up in where I’m going to be in a week or where I’m going to be in two weeks or what’s going to happen in my next at-bat or all that stuff, it has a tendency to really detract from what you’re trying to do as a player.”
“He doesn’t feel pressure,” says Cantiani. “He’s acting no different in the major leagues than he did when he was [with] the Tornadoes. I’m not kidding you; the kid’s wacky. You can tell him I said that too. If you talk to him about me, he’ll tell you how much he loves me.”
Beloved in Worcester
Everybody in this city took to him because he’s just so personable. He’d stay after games and sign autographs for an hour or two hours and it was all for nothing. He’s just a nice kid.
– Paul Cantiani, Cantiani Insurance Agency
“The one thing I can say about Paul for sure is that he has a huge heart and he’s a very straight shooter,” says Colabello. “Until you get to know him, it’s hard to see how big his heart is and what kind of guy he is.” He calls Cantiani the Godfather of Worcester. “He’s a guy that cared very deeply for a lot of players who played for the Worcester Tornadoes those years when I was playing and became like a surrogate dad to me.”
It was not as though Colabello needed a surrogate father, though: Both of his parents, Lou and Silvana, were supportive of his choice to pursue professional baseball despite his long odds and allowed him to live at home while he was playing for the Tornadoes. Lou, a high school physical education teacher and former pitcher, met Lou while he was playing professionally in Italy. “My mom and dad have the same passion for the game that I do,” Colabello told Sports On Earth’s Pat Borzi. “A day on a baseball field is better than a day somewhere else. That’s the way I looked at it.”
So while his parents were comfortable with him living at home until age 27, it was Cantiani that got in his ear about his pursuit of a career as a professional baseball player. “I was like, ‘you’re outta your g**damn mind!’” yelled Cantiani, adding that Colabello made enough money to live independently during that time. “Would you g**damn move out? He loves his mother and father.”
“They were more than happy to have me there,” says Colabello, smiling. “I was an only child in an Italian family.”
“The problem I was having, personally at the end, I was saying, ‘Chris, you’re 27, you’re 27 years old, stop bulls****ing yourself. You’ve got to get out and get into the real world and find some kind of career,’” says Cantiani. “I used to think he was playing baseball because he was too lazy to get a job.”
The two used to get together every for lunch when Colabello was playing for the Tornadoes, but Cantiani would not allow Colabello to talk about baseball. “He knows I don’t want to hear it,” Cantiani says. “I want to talk about your life, I want to talk about your girlfriend: I want to make sure you don’t knock her up.”
In the offseason Colabello taught baseball lessons and worked camps and clinics while also substitute teaching at local schools. Not only was it additional income for Colabello, who made between $800 and $2,000 a month playing Indy ball, but it also allowed him to integrate with a community that he cared for greatly.
He even went so far as to participate in an event called Dancing with the City, Worcester’s play on the popular television show Dancing with the Stars. Colabello, who admittedly is a poor dancer, took Beth O’Brien, the wife of former City Manager Mike O’Brien, to the event. He had to do countless lessons, in addition to playing baseball, in order to be competent enough to dance in front of other people. In three weeks he learned how to do the Cha Cha and the Limbo. “Why would a guy do that? He just respects the City Manager,” says Cantiani. “And then he calls me up one time and says, ‘We’re going out with the City Manager’s daughters for lunch.’ So he takes me because he knows I’ll pay – so he’s not stupid.”
Hitting Like Pujols and Cabrera
The thing that made him ultimately give it a chance was I was showing him clips of Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, and Hanley Ramirez and when I showed him a clip of himself and it was the farthest hit ball that he’s ever hit up to that point and he looked at it and the things that happened in that swing were completely different than his intent.
– Bobby Tewksbary, A.B. Athletic Development
“Chris always had this thing in his head, if he doesn’t hit .300, he’s a failure,” says Cantiani. “That’s why when is average goes down, he panics a little.”
Colabello hit .300 every year when he was with Worcester, including his rookie year in 2005 as a 21 year old, but this was different. With the Twins Double-A affiliate in New Britain, Conn. he was going to be playing 134 games; in the Can-Am league he played around 90. In New Britain he was affiliated with a major league team; in Worcester he did not. He was playing with major league prospects, Bonus Babies, in New Britain; in Worcester he was not.
“I don’t care what you play: Little League, Babe Ruth, high school, college — not many people hit .300 six years in a row,” says Gedman. “There’s an art to it, an understanding of it. Knowing how to do it, regardless of what level you’re playing at, you’re doing something that some people can do and other people can’t do and he’s one of those kids.”
“Richey Gedman loves him,” says Cantiani, adding that the two do regular hitting lessons together and also put on clinics for underprivileged children in Worcester. Colabello fell short of .300 for the first time in his professional career, however, when he hit .284/.358/.478 for in 134 games with the Rock Cats in 2012. He still was promoted to Triple-A last year and it was there that Colabello, at age 29, had perhaps one of the best single season turnarounds for a minor league veteran in baseball history.
In 89 games with the Rochester Red Wings, Colabello hit .352/.427/.639 with 24 home runs. Never before in his professional baseball career had he hit above .350. Never before in his baseball career had he hit more than 20 home runs. Only in his final year with the Tornadoes did he have an OPS above 1.000 and yet, in his first year at Triple-A, Colabello’s on-base plus slugging percentage totaled 1.066.
How did that happen? It was a combination of instruction from the Twins, Gedman, and a friend named Bobby Tewksbary.
Colabello met Tewksbary during the 2004 New England Collegiate Baseball All-Star Game during the summer between their junior and senior years of college and then played a year and a half together on the Tornadoes. Unlike Colabello and Beauregard, however, Tewksbary was never a .300 hitter in the Can-Am league. In fact, the Hudson, N.H. native never cracked .250 in the 72 games he split between Worcester and the North Shore Spirit in Lynn, Mass. But it was getting away from the game that allowed him to instruct hitters to do what he himself never could on a baseball diamond.
“I went to New York City for a couple years, got away form baseball, and I started looking a the swing again, looking at video again,” he says. He went out and bought a high-speed camera and went to the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium and took footage of Josh Hamilton as the former Texas Rangers slugger hit 35 home runs at New York’s old park. “The time away from the game allowed me to look at things in a different light,” he says. “When you transition from playing to coaching, you teach what everyone taught you. I got away from it for a couple years and started seeing some things differently that what I always thought was happening.”
Colabello broke his left hand late in the 2010 season in a game against Les Capitales de Quebec. It was raining out at the time, but because the Can-Am league did not have a budget for makeup games, so the teams played on. Colabello caught a fastball in the left hand when the pitcher fell off the mound and missed the rest of the season with a non-displaced fracture. “At that point I was really starting to feel good about myself,” says Colabello. “When I got hurt, I was still hungry. Going into the offseason, I decided that I was going to start hitting right away. I was going to do everything I could to be the best hitter that I could be that offseason. That was when I first really made that commitment to being the guy I am today.”
It was during the 2010 offseason that he began to work with Tewksbary. The mechanics Tewksbary teaches do not fall in line with conventional wisdom, which preaches short swings and few moving parts — something the Twins preach to their hitters from the minors on up. Tewksbary, who studies film of great hitters so often he says its like he’s conducting a C.S.I. investigation (“People talk about the 10-year, 10,000-hour rule,” he says, “I’ve blown past 10,000 hours a long time ago.”), has found that the best hitters in the game today, guys like Hamilton, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera, have large swings with multiple movable parts that all serve a purpose in the swing.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan has openly expressed his concern regarding the moving parts in Colabello’s swing, but Tewksbary insists that his method is the reason why Colabello went from being a .284 hitter in New Britain, to a .352 hitter with 24 home runs in Rochester. Asked about the moving parts in Colabello’s swing, Tewksbary replied that “I want to be careful answering this question because I don’t want to piss off Terry Ryan or get Chris in trouble, but I’ll say that the movement of Chris’ swing is not random.
“We’ve spent a lot of time studying video, we’ve spent a lot of time adding and removing different components of his swing and the movement that exists in his swing has purpose,” he continues. “It’s in sync with what the pitcher is doing, it’s in sync with his plan with how he is trying to be successful, there’s nothing random about what he’s doing in the batter’s box.”
Twins hitting coordinator Bill Springman acknowledged via email that Tewksbary and Colabello have a relationship and said it is not an “instructional type of relationship,” but offered no further comment. “I would definitely consider Chris a friend before I consider him to be a client just because of our history,” says Tewksbary, “but he’s a smart kid, he’s very smart, he’s very critical and objective and has very good questions.” Colabello actively works with Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky during the season and hits in Tewksbary’s Nashua, N.H. facility in the offseason.
Two of the Twins best hitting prospects, Oswaldo Arcia and Josmil Pinto, have large swings and both players had success at the plate as rookies last season: Arcia hit .251/.304/.430 with 14 home runs in 97 games and Pinto hit .342/.398/.566 with 4 home runs in 21 games. During the past two seasons, Tewksbary has traveled to Ft. Myers, Fla. for Spring Training with Colabello and was impressed by both players.
The first year he traveled down to Florida, he did not know many of the Twins prospects, so he walked around the complex and a left-handed hitter caught his eye. “I went over to the cage underneath the stadium and there was this lefty hitter just raking, mashing balls off of the iron mike and I took video and this guy has the best swing that I’ve seen here today,” says Tewksbary, who had no idea who that player was, but had been informed by Colabello that there were two players that could hit: Arcia and Pinto. “So I’m going back to my video at the end of the year, looking up the big league camp roster and the lefty I saw was Arcia.”
Tewksbary got a chance to see Pinto when he was called up to Double-A. He was at home and he and Chris decided to see New Britain play when they visited the Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire. “I was there watching batting practice and I see Pinto swing, I have no idea who he is, and as soon as I see him take one swing, I look at Chris and I’m like, ‘Who’s that?’ and he slapped himself on the leg like ‘I knew it, that’s the guy I was telling you about.’
“When you see the guys with these mechanics, it jumps out at you because it’s different,” Tewksbary continues. “The more you understand it, the more obvious it becomes. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not really debatable that it exists because you can look at the video and it’s pretty obvious once you know what to look for.”
Colabello initially rejected Tewksbary’s advice, challenging repeatedly in verbal disagreements that often grew very loud, very quickly. “It was pretty funny, he would question me about specific hitters, he would question me about certain wording, and he was very adamant about emergency swings and how am I supposed to protect the plate? How am I supposed to hit the inside pitch or the outside pitch?” says Tewksbary. “He needed to understand the concept to understand there might be more to what he is capable of.”
“More than a player, he’s a student of the game,” says Beauregard, who acts as the hitting coach at Santa Clara. “He understands the game extremely well at one of the highest levels I’ve ever seen.”
Early on in the training process, Tewksbary would have Colabello try “something crazy” with three swings and then the two would yell for three hours. Then they would try something different, only to have another shouting match ensue. “It was hilarious because we’re good friends and he’s got some Italian in him.” Eventually, though, Colabello gave in and began to see results, culminating in his Triple-A performance last season.
“He showed up and he didn’t have to show up,” acknowledges Tewksbary, who says that Colabello is a friend first and a client second. “He could have been like, ‘You know what? You’re crazy, I don’t need this. I’m as successful as I need right now, I’m comfortable with what I’m doing and I don’t need it.’
“Despite the confrontation that we used to have back and forth, he kept showing up, kept giving it a chance.”
Don’t Label Him Quad-A
More than anything else, what makes Chris special is the type of person that he is. He’s a good teammate, a good person, and that’s what makes him special. It’s his perseverance, his desire to want to be one of the best, to overcome obstacles where most people would have given up – that’s what makes him special.
– Rich Gedman, former major leaguer and manager of the Tornadoes
“Baseball likes to label people and create definitions of people and a lot of times its accurate,but people are really quick to throw that Quad-A label on players,” says Tewksbary, “To know where he came from and to know where he’s at, he’s gonna battle, he’s the type of kid that’s going to do everything he can and challenge himself harder than anybody could challenge him to be a better player and to succeed.”
“His dream would be to die on the ball field,” says Cantiani. “I ain’t s***tin’ ya: Kid’s wacky.”
“He played seven years of Independent ball and I bet you 99.9 percent of the population in America that knew him was like ‘When is he going to hang it up?’” says Beauregard. “[He’s] going to do all he can to make the Minnesota Twins the best possible team that they can be or whatever team he is a part of for the remainder of his career.”
Colabello himself says that he never once considered quitting because baseball meant so much to him. He said that he promised himself he would play as long as three things held up: 1) Physically he could do it, meaning he was capable physically, financially, and emotionally, 2) That he was still having fun playing the game, and 3) That he felt like he was getting better. “I felt that was the most important one and over the course of time, that just kept happening,” he says. “More than anything, my hunger to get better grew.”
Colabello says the fraternity of players that have gone from Independent ball to the majors has welcomed him.
“It’s funny, when you’re in Independent ball, you have a tendency to really keep an eye on the guys out there,” he says. “You keep close tabs on those guys because you know what it took to endure over there and kind of get through it.” Colabello speaks highly of players like John Lindsey and Steve Delabar, who made it to the Show after playing Indy ball and says he looks up to Daniel Nava, who has had success with the Red Sox.
Gedman feels that Colabello has made a major impact on the Canadian-American league and the players playing in it. “New anybody who plays in Independent ball can go, ‘If Chris Colabello can do it, why can’t I?’” he says. “For whatever the reason or for however it happens, it gives that league a valid reason to be there. Yeah, you can get there from here. It might be a hard road, but if somebody gives you an opportunity, you never know.
“That’s what makes his story so special.”
For Colabello’s part, he’s just focused on the moment. His long-term goal, of course, is to play into his 40s, but right now it’s about making the team and producing at age 30. “Hitting .300 has always meant the world to me, for whatever reason. From when I was a little kid, I understood what it meant to hit .300 and we have the epitome of that guy in this clubhouse every day,” he says. “To watch Joe Mauer go about his business and be as steady as he is every day, he’s so poised.” Colabello says that he is at his best when he breaks down an at-bat into its most basic form form: a battle between a hitter and the pitch that is thrown. He knows he’ll stay as long as he can produce at the plate, and he has proven he can hit at every level except the game’s highest. In order to take his game to the next level, he will focus on each individual moment rather than the big picture.
“A lot of times we catch ourselves focusing too much on the future instead of staying in the present,” he says. “Aspirations of what you want to be down the road have to come from the individual moments.”