The Toronto Blue Jays finished with a historically great run differential and a six-game edge in the AL East. Since 1950, only 18 teams (out of 1,592; just about 1 percent) have had season run differentials better than the Blue Jays’ sum of +221. The Jays are an elite offensive team not only because of their fearsome foursome of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki, but also because of 31-year old baseball nomad Chris Colabello, who has become a key and unlikely contributor on baseball’s most imposing offensive club.
“This is arguably the most fun I’ve ever had playing the game and to be able to experience that at the big league level I think is every little kids dream,” Colabello, a first baseman and outfielder, told me recently in the Blue Jays locker room.
Unlike his star teammates, Colabello took the road less travelled to chase his major league dream, which consisted of playing for the Mill City All-Americans in the New England Collegiate Baseball League as a small college player, seven years toiling in the independent leagues and growing up in Italy. Colabello, a native of Framingham, Mass., spent much of his youth in Rimini, Italy, his mother’s hometown, where his father, Lou, migrated for nine summers to pitch and where Chris began playing baseball at a high level.
“Honestly I’d say that at a younger age I got to play more competitive baseball in Italy,” said Colabello, who moved back and forth between here and Italy for the first twelve years of his life. “I didn’t play AAU or anything like that growing when I was here in the States, so in Italy because the population of baseball players is so much more concentrated in terms of you don’t really have in-town leagues or anything like that like we would here. So really you’re drawing probably the best 12 or 15 players from a certain City or whatever, versus in a town-baseball like here you play more town leagues or little leagues – more recreational.”
He eventually took his talents to Division II Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. — about 30 miles from where he grew up in Milford. As a senior, Colabello was an honorable mention All-America and he had an OPS of nearly 1.000 at wood-bat using Assumption. He made the All-Star game in the NECBL with several future major leaguers and worked out for the Red Sox. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound righthander also graduated magna cum laude, studying economics and marketing, which was important considering that no Major League organization was thought he was worthy of even a 50th round pick.
“There was never a day that I ever thought I wasn’t capable of playing with an organization,” said Colabello, who cried in his bedroom for two days after watching more than 1,500 names called in the 2005 draft — but not his. “Obviously at the time I didn’t really understand how valuable it would be to be at a bigger school, but I always wanted to play. Like I just wanted to play. I didn’t want to go to a division one school, I did, but at the same time I didn’t want to go sit on the bench for two years or have to redshirt or anything like that. I always believed that playing would allow me to get better, where sitting on the bench and watching would not help me progress as much.”
Shortly after the draft, Colabello got a call from former Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman, who was managing the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Canadian-American League, with an invitation to play. So he moved his home ball field six miles south – from Assumption’s campus to Worcester’s Fitton Field, where his Tornadoes career began in 2005. His second home run came against a 45-year old Oil Can Boyd and he continued to hit .300 year after year with little interest from major league clubs.
Indy ball isn’t exactly a pipeline to the Majors and the seasons consist of long bus rides, dingy hotels, small crowds, miniscule paychecks and franchise uncertainty. But Colabello had no complaints as he spent seven years dominating the competition, with his only taste of Spring Training coming in 2006 as a non-roster invite by the Tigers in Minor League camp.
“Maybe I was naïve enough to believe that I had a chance,” said Colabello, who helped lead the Nashua Pride to the Can-Am League title during his lone season there in 2007. “My manager for six of those seven years was Rich Gedman, a former catcher for the Red Sox and he said something to me early in my career, he said as long as you have a uniform on you have an opportunity. So I took that to heart. I believed it.
“I told myself, I said as long as three things kind of stayed true for me: Number one that I was getting better all the time, I felt like I was getting better as a player and developing. Number two, that it was feasible physical, financially, like I didn’t have responsibly to a family or wife or kids or anything like that. And number three, that I was still having fun doing it, that I’d continue to play.”
Through those seven seasons, Colabello lived with his parents, Lou and Silvana, and earned some extra income by substitute teaching, putting on baseball clinics and giving private lessons. He had opportunities to go play in Italy and a countless number of people telling him to give up on the silly dream of his.
“Obviously you have to grind a little bit more in the off-season to try make money and things like that and survive,” says Colabello, who spent one winter working for the San Jose Sharks’ minor-league affiliate in Worcester, which might have led to a front-office career if he were willing to quit baseball. “I was fortunate to play close to home so I had a lot of opportunities between substitute teaching, teaching lessons, doing camps and clinics and things like that. I made it work.”
The Twins needed to add depth at first base in their Minor League system and purchased Colabello’s contract from the Tornadoes for roughly $1,000 after his breakout year in the Can-Am League in 2011, when he hit .348 with 20 homers and a 1.010 OPS en route to being named the league’s MVP and Baseball America’s Independent League Player of the Year.
“I thought the work was just starting at that point,” said Colabello, whose signing bonus was travel expenses to Fort Myers for minor league spring training in 2012. “The day my agent called me and told me that they wanted to sign me to a minor league deal I took a deep breath and it was kind of like the weight was off my shoulders, but I also knew that was going to be the time where the work was just beginning and I was okay with that because obviously knowing you’re not a high draft pick, or that an organization doesn’t have too much stock in you as a player or doesn’t really know what to expect, you have to climb a few more hurdles I think at that point. But I looked forward to the opportunity to just go prove myself as a player.”
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 for Class AA New Britain, finishing as the Eastern League MVP runner up and slugging .644 while playing for Algodoneros de Guasave of the Mexican League that offseason.
Colabello opened the 2013 season by playing for Italy in the World Baseball Classic, where the team was projected to finish last in their pool.But they upset Mexico and routed Canada to advance to the second round. Once there, they lost to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in two one-run games. Colabello homered twice and hit .368 in five games. That spring, Colabello was invited to his first big league camp, but he started the year with the Rochester Red Wings of the Triple-A International League, hitting .358 with 12 home runs in 46 games before his dream of reaching the big leagues became a reality at 29-years old.
He hit .194 in a two-month cameo, but he was named the International League Most Valuable Player at the end of the minor league season, as well as the Rookie of the Year. After his 2013 season, Colabello drew strong interest from the 10-team Korean Baseball Organization. But the independent-league survivor turned down a million-dollar offer from the LG Twins and decided he wasn’t ready to give up his dream of playing in the big leagues.
“I weighed out all the pros and cons of everything and I knew that if I went over there it would be very, very difficult for me to ever come back here,” says Colabello. “I knew that I still had something to offer the game here, again call me naïve or crazy or whatever and a lot of people did at the time, but I knew I was good enough to play at this level.”
When Colabello re-signed with the Twins organization in lieu of Korea, Minnesota’s GM Terry Ryan promised him that he had a chance to make the big league club, which, on a minor league deal, Colabello accomplished. His 29 RBIs in the month of April broke Kirby Puckett’s 29-year-old team record for April and he was the American League’s first Player of the Week. He finished the season with six homers and a slash line of.229/.282/.380/.662 across 220 plate appearances.
In December, the Blue Jays added depth to their 40-man roster by claiming Colabello off waivers. They designated him for assignment in February, only to purchase his contract in early May after a hot month at Triple-A Buffalo to help the team through some injury woes. In 101 games, Colabello hit .321 with 15 home runs and had 54 R.B.I. across 333 at-bats. He had an 18-game hitting streak shortly after his call-up and settled into a platoon role with Justin Smoak at first base, playing mostly against left-handers.
In Game 4 against the Texas Rangers on Monday afternoon, Colabello went 2-for-4, hitting his first career post-season homer and driving in another run with a double. He is 4-for-12 with a homer and two doubles in the series. He has finally made the big time and he’s savoring every pitch.
“It was just a matter of finding the right situation, getting an opportunity, getting a good environment and Toronto has provided that for me.”