New Britain Stadium will always be the Field of Dreams for Minnesota Twins first baseman/outfielder Chris Colabello.
It’s just another minor league ballpark to most of us — concrete, steel, alternating aromas of fresh popcorn and steamed frankfurters — but it was during the 2012 season that it became the scene of mystical enchantment for the native of Framingham, Mass., who had every reason to believe the chance to play baseball at the highest level had passed him by.
He was 28 then, young by most standards, but a virtual relic in the baseball scouting realm. His perfect storm had so many ebbs and flows that even Walter Mitty would have batted behind him.
The script could have been spliced from a variety of Dream Factory hits about unlikely heroes and fantastic characters — The Rookie, Damn Yankees, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz to name a few. He was on the road to becoming a 2000 version of Bull Durham’s “Crash” Davis when all heaven’s forces convened to alter his destiny.
Colabello went to spring training with the Detroit Tigers out of Worcester’s Assumption College in 2006, but his dream dissipated in a wisp of smoke. Seven seasons in the Canadian-American Association, a circuit of professional teams without major league affiliations commonly known as “independent baseball,” followed.
When his agent wheedled a spring training invitation to Twins’ minor league camp in 2012, a magical portal opened that even a painfully slow start couldn’t shut. With each step, a golden stone extended his pathway to destiny.
One of those responsible was Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith.
“We sat down one day and he was 0-for-20, 0-for-30,” Smith said. “He was sweating. I talked to [former minor league director] Jim Rantz a little bit and sat down with Chris and said, ‘You’re on the team,’ and I don’t think he’s stopped hitting since.”
Six years in the bush leagues heightened his memory of failure with the Tigers. With every empty at-bat, he had to fight off the angst of failing again. This time, he had maturity on his side, but wondered what Rantz, Smith and current minor league director Brad Steil were thinking. “At minor league camp there’s a big tower in the middle of all the fields and there would be times I’d be playing in the field and I’m looking up there and I’m like, ‘Are they looking at me?’” he said.
“Talk about nervous, it was going to be one of my last chances to make an affiliated club. I’m so thankful to them for realizing what I was going through emotionally at that point in time. When they said I made the team, it was a huge sigh of relief. I could relax and start having some fun.” Colabello, every essence of his being sprinkled with modesty, is well aware his voyage was guided by powers both human and beyond. Smith, Rantz and Steil were among those in the human realm.
“I was very blessed to get the opportunity, I know,” Colabello said, at the Rock Cats’ Hot Stove Luncheon last Thursday. “Brad had a huge hand in that and I thank him so much for understanding that [older players can still be viable big league prospects].
“I think what indy ball at the end of the day did for me was to give me the opportunity to play every day and compete and learn more about myself every day. I understood that my maturity was a positive and allowed me to overcome some hurdles. When I went through those leagues, I saw a lot of guys that were very capable. Obviously I got very, very lucky.”
Especially since the Twins had rarely tapped independent baseball before. They’re looking a little closer now.
“I think with our scouting department we’ve had a little bit more coverage in those leagues and I think you’ve seen that not just in our organization, but other organizations,” Steil said.
“When you run into injury during the season there aren’t a lot of guy out there who you can sign and plug into Double-A. The independent leagues are a good resource for that. I think the best players in those leagues are definitely worth signing and have a chance to make it to the big leagues.”
Colabello’s bat has always produced a lovely tune, but it never sounded so sweetly as it did cascading through the New Britain air in 2012. Over 137 Eastern League games, he batted .284 with 19 home runs and 98 RBI, playing in a pitchers’ league in a pitchers’ ballpark. He isn’t about to forget where he came from.
“Obviously being a part of that team in 2012, the only thing I wish would have been different was if Reading had lost on that last day and it went to a one-game playoff,” he said. “That would have been interesting, but other than that it was such an awesome experience. I made a lot of great friends and built a lot of great relationships that I’ll have for a long, long time. I will never ever forget my summer in New Britain. Just to be able to move on to [Triple-A] Rochester and get the opportunity to get to Minnesota I really do feel blessed.”
In the midst of it all, he accepted an opportunity to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic. His legend grew when he hit two three-run homers — March 8 in a 14-4 rout of Canada and four days later off Edinson Volquez in a 5-4 loss to the eventual champion Dominican Republic.
He proceeded to Rochester, where he tore up the International League. In 89 games, he batted .352, pounded 24 homers and drove in 76 runs. He was named IL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. Between 2013 Triple-A acts, he reached the ultimate goal. He made his big league debut in late May.
His numbers in the majors — .194, seven homers, 17 RBI in 55 games — are a mere postscript. What happened on September 2 in Houston added another chapter to his legacy. He hit two homers, the second a grand slam that propelled the Twins to a 10-6 victory.
A seed planted under the hot sun of a Fort Myers spring that blossomed to full maturity in Minnesota was nurtured in New Britain. It was here where his baseball cleats suddenly became Cinderella’s glass slipper.
“This is where it all started for me,” he said. “I’m so thankful to this organization for giving me the start they did. I’ll remember New Britain for a long, long time. A lot of great things happened in the summer of 2012, the kickoff to my career at the ripe old age of 28.”