One of the hottest hitters in the American League is a player most fans have never heard of, and just three years ago, he was playing for a team that no longer exists. Chris Colabello of the Minnesota Twins ranks among the league leaders in RBI and doubles while batting over .300, and he managed to hit a two-run homer in Tampa Bay while his mother was being interviewed on the Fox Sports North broadcast -- on her birthday.
He's becoming a folk story inside of a game that loves to embrace its folk heroes, and part of his appeal is the seven seasons he spent toiling in the Canadian-American Association, an independent minor league known less for producing major-league talent than its constant flux and turnover.
Consider Colabello's last Can-Am League team, the Worcester Tornadoes. In 2012, the year after the Twins signed him, the Tornadoes folded in rather spectacular indie-league fashion. It started by signing Jose Canseco (a move that lasted only 20 games) and ended with players' uniforms being seized for unpaid cleaning bills and employees locked out of the team's offices as moving trucks were packing things up before the season was even over. Vendors and detail services were also left unpaid and the team was forced to shut down.
Whether Colabello becomes just a simple footnote in the game's history or becomes a fixture in the majors, it doesn't matter. Now 30, he has made his mark, most notably by breaking the Twins' April RBI record held by Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett with 27.
"I wake up every day, I'm like, "Yes! This is awesome.' How could I not?'" Colabello said. “At the same time, I'm still a competitor and I always believed I could be here. It doesn't shock me. My mom called me and said, ‘Oh my God, you were on [TV]!' When I was 5, I was like, 'I'm going to be on those highlights.'"
After playing at Assumption College in Worcester, Colabello had high hopes for getting drafted. But when that didn’t happen, he headed toward the other side of town with the Tornadoes based largely on the fact that Rich Gedman was the manager. Gedman caught for 13 years in the majors, mostly for the nearby Red Sox.
"Rich was pretty instrumental for me too throughout that time where he just [said], ‘Just keep playing man,'" Colabello said. "There were a lot worse things I could have been doing."
So it's at least somewhat understandable that Colabello continued to play, year after year, chasing a major-league dream that kept enticing him further each season, only to spit him right back out into the small towns and smaller stadiums.
"Every year I had something come up," Colabello said. "Every year I'd get a call to go to a workout here or something like a letter to go to a workout there."
That included the Red Sox, Tigers (who signed him to a minor-league deal in 2006, releasing him at the end of spring training), Rockies, Phillies and a group workout in Chicago for the Padres. Those group workouts often included more than 60 players all fighting for the same impossible dream.
"I never saw it as a dead end. Rich said to me early, ‘If you have a jersey on, you have a chance.' And I was seeing that guys were getting picked up by indie ball," Colabello said. "I thought if I played well enough that somebody would notice."
Getting noticed certainly wasn't the problem, but it wasn't getting him anywhere. For some, this vicious cycle would be nothing if not a slow, cruel torture.
But here's the thing. Colabello really just loved getting paid to play ball. You know, how you always think you'd feel if you were lucky enough to do it.
"I had a blast playing there. I met probably three out of four guys I would call my best friends [in the Can-Am League]," Colabello said. "Relationships that will last forever. Guys from the Can-Am League text me, tweet me, email me every day and this is as much for them as it is for me."
He'll even regale you with fond memories and independent league tales if you ask.
"[The Quebec Capitales] packed the house almost every night," Colabello said. "You walk down the street and you see billboards of guys.
"Eric Gagne actually ended up playing there. He beat us in Game 3 of the championship series in 2009. He came out and threw a gem. He wasn't pitching all that well that year but in the championship series, he decided to figure it out, which didn't help our cause."
The Can-Am League isn't a place, though, where one should be able to keep his own sanity, at least not when dysfunction reigns and the majors can stay so tantalizingly out of reach.
"The league, we had teams in and out on a year-to-year basis just because I think some of the markets that were chosen and some of the owners that came in really didn't have the deep enough pockets, number one, or the right mindset in terms of the way they wanted to do things," Colabello said.
He has a point. After all, this is what the Can-Am League looked like ever year while Colabello was playing:
- 2005: Brockton Rox, Quebec Capitales, North Shore Spirit, The Grays, New Haven County Cutters, Worcester Tornadoes, New Jersey Jackals, Elmira Pioneers
- 2006: Brockton Rox, Quebec Capitales, North Shore Spirit, New Haven County Cutters, Worcester Tornadoes, New Jersey Jackals, Nashua Pride, Sussex Skyhawks
- 2007: Brockton Rox, Quebec Capitales, North Shore Spirit, The Grays, New Haven County Cutters, Worcester Tornadoes, New Jersey Jackals, Nashua Pride, Sussex Skyhawks, Atlantic City Surf
- 2008: Brockton Rox, Quebec Capitales, Worcester Tornadoes, New Jersey Jackals, Nashua Pride, Sussex Skyhawks, Atlantic City Surf, Ottawa Rapides
- 2009: Brockton Rox, Quebec Capitales, Worcester Tornadoes, New Jersey Jackals, Sussex Skyhawks, American Defenders of New Hampshire
- 2010: Brockton Rox, Quebec Capitales, Worcester Tornadoes, New Jersey Jackals, Sussex Skyhawks, Pittsfield Colonials
- 2011: Brockton Rox, Quebec Capitales, Worcester Tornadoes, New Jersey Jackals, Pittsfield Colonials, Newark Bears, Rockland Boulders, NYSL Federals
The league does have players peppered throughout the minors and other foreign leagues, but only four current alumni are in the majors: Colabello, Steve Delabar (Blue Jays), Craig Breslow (Red Sox) and Raul Valdes (Astros). None of those three players spent more than a year in Can-Am let alone seven like Colabello.
And now, the league as it once was, technically, no longer exists. In 2013, its four remaining teams (Quebec Capitales, New Jersey Jackals, Rockland Boulders and Trois-Rivières Aigles) were absorbed into the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, creating a Can-Am Division. But the Can-Am League still chooses to maintain its own identity as a separate league, despite being part of another.
It's weird. It's independent league baseball.
Somehow out of that seven-year rubble, Colabello emerged a career .317 hitter in the Can-Am League, hitting 86 homers on a shortened schedule. The Twins were finally the team wise enough to give him a real shot in 2012, and he responded by hitting .284 with 19 home runs and 98 RBI in Double-A with the New Britain Rock Cats.
In 2013, after hitting .333 with two homers and seven RBI in five games for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic and dominating Triple-A pitching with the Rochester Red Wings, Colabello made his major-league debut with the Twins in May, hitting only .194 in 160 at-bats, but he did show some power with seven home runs.
The team brought him back in 2014, but with no guarantees of a roster spot. Colabello had to earn his role on the team, even turning down a $1 million offer to play in Korea.
"There was a shock factor in the sense that like, 'Wow, I made it' last year, but now it's about competing," Colabello said. "It's about playing the game. It's about proving you belong and I think I'm in this appreciation for it but still maintaining the ability to keep an edge."
Chris Colabello is the player you expect all of them to be, one who never takes where he is for granted and understands how undeniably cool his job is.
"One of the nicest, most genuine people I've ever encountered," said Jim Wilson, who writes for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "He's still the same person I've remembered since I got to know him in high school around this area. Couldn't be prouder of him.
"Chris was a fan favorite. Signed autographs after every game and was a fixture at team events and clinics for local players. Through all the trials of the Tornadoes, Chris was the lone constant."
The enthusiasm is still there in the majors and it is easy to spot at all times. In a giant Twins winter cap, the 6-4, 220-pound Colabello strolls through the visiting team's clubhouse, just after 11 a.m., batting gloves on, bat in hand, more than ready for a frigid early-season game against the Indians in Cleveland.
"When is BP?" he asks to no one in particular.
"11:30," someone in the clubhouse responds.
"11:30?" Colabello responds, jokingly incredulous (maybe). He has to wait just a little bit longer to keep living his dream.
And who knows how long that dream will last? How much longer will it be until pitchers figure out Colabello and that long swing of his? Will that happen at all?
There's a good chance none of that matters to him.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that anything he says might have actually been a line from a take-your-pick amount of feel-good sports movies. But as his eyes light up and the sincerity of his voice is inescapable, you begin to realize you found a rarity: A player so genuine about his love for the game that it's like a genie granted him three wishes and he used all of them on the same thing, just to make sure he'd be a professional ballplayer.
"I wasn't going to let anybody tell me I couldn't play because if I wanted to play, I was going to play," Colabello said. "It really didn't matter if it was in A-ball or the Can-Am League, it's about the game for me. It's always been about the game."