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Colabello's Journey to the Twins

Created: 05/19/2014 8:59 AM KSTP.com

*Click above to see the TV story that aired Sunday night on 5-Eyewitness News

In spite of a current 0-for-22 slump, Twins first baseman/outfielder/designated hitter Chris Colabello is one of the more fascinating stories in the game. He had every reason to walk away from baseball after seven years of playing in the independent Can-Am League. Many players would have. But not Colabello.

He first made it to the majors in 2013, but the Twins weren't convinced he was ready for regular action. They were ready to sell him to a team in Korea in the offseason, but Colabello turned down a $1M offer. In the meantime, the Twins pursued a few bats, including Rajai Davis and Mark Reynolds. If the Twins had convinced any of those free agents to sign, Colabello would've likely been demoted coming out of Spring Training. But he made the team and set a Twins record with 27 RBI's in April.

KSTP's Darren Wolfson recently sat down with Colabello to chronicle his journey to being a regular with the Twins. Here's the lengthy Q&A:

You told me off-camera that you're embracing everything that entails being a major leaguer more so this year compared to last year. Can you expound on what that means?

A: Last year was the first time I ever switched levels. I played all of 2012 in AA. My career before that in independence ball I hadn't been between two levels. I made a home in Rochester last year. Then when I got called up I was ecstatic. When you get here there's this angst and a desire to want to do so well and really find your place. I think that got in the way of remembering what this was all about -- not necessarily not remembering, but having the ability to do it more so. 

Everyday my favorite thing to do in this game is compete. It's just about the competition. It really has nothing to do with the numbers or personal success. I love winning and I love competing. That's what makes the game great. So far to this point every day has been about coming to the field competing and helping this team win. It has been awesome.

You have to be paying attention to your numbers. In a dream do you start like this?

A: I'd be lying if I told you I couldn't picture it. Belief in yourself is the No. 1 thing you need to be successful. Nobody has ever achieved anything without being able to envision it. The first day I started playing in high school, college, or the Can-Am League I believed I could play in the big leagues. That might've been far-fetched, but I think for me to say I couldn't play in the big leagues or that I wasn't aspiring to be the best player on earth would be selling myself short. If you don't dream it you can't do it.

That being said, RBI's (30, 27 in April) is the number that sticks out to everyone. RBI's are a product of opportunity. Granted, you have to get it done. But the guys in front of me are the ones I have to give credit to for getting on base. Also the guys behind me for protecting me. It's about helping the team. Yeah, my RBI numbers jump off the page. But I'm just thankful for the opportunity these coaches, players, and organization have given me. The best part is I get to come to the field and play baseball everyday.

Jeff Smith, your manager, at AA, had a stretch where he didn't care if you went 0-4 for a whole. That he was keeping you in the clean-up spot. This right?

A: I had never not played in my life. I had no idea what it was like to not be in the lineup. The first few days in AA I'd play one day then not play another. I thought about what I was doing. I was in a panic trying to figure out where I fit. He came up to me the second week and said he'd like me in the clean-up spot. He said he'd stick me there and that I'd DH and play first a lot. He told me no pressure. That he'd keep it like that for a week or two. That was a relief. It was like, 'OK, cool.' I took off there at the beginning. That got me going. I had my moments when I wasn't the best. The whole last week of April into May I was trying to adapt to the environment and getting used to having instructors around and roving instructors and just people watching you all of the time. I wanted to impress them so bad. It was all about an extra desire to show them that I belonged. It was the same last year with me in the big leagues. At the end of the day it's really about just playing the game. Play the game. Play the game and see what happens. Just compete. Have a great at-bat. Put a good swing on the ball. When you can simplify the game to that it takes a ton of pressure off. It causes you to just want to win that pitch. Whether it means taking a ball or putting a good swing on it. That's what the game is all about.

Didn't you have doubts? Not drafted out of high school or college then all the years playing independent ball. You couldn't have been making much money.

A: No. 

You had to be figuring out what your livelihood would be at some point.

A: This is my life. Baseball is my life. Baseball has been my life my whole life. My family is very important to me and they come first. My fiance too. They understand how much this game means to me. Baseball has always been in my blood. Since the day I was born I said I'd play in the big leagues. I guess I don't take no well for an answer. When you're just stubborn enough to not go away -- my buddy told me a line from an old-time baseball player: It's tough to beat the guy who never quits. Keep showing up and see what happens. I tell people all the time that this game is so much more about showing up and competing everyday than it is about anything else. That's what I've tried to do my whole life. I've had a lot of good people that taught me a lot of important things about this game. Without them I wouldn't understand anything. Just show up. Keep showing up. Did it ever cross my mind that I'd stop? No. As the years went by I did wonder why they weren't signing me. What it came to down for me when I eventually got picked up was I finally decided that I didn't need anyone else's approval. I didn't need anyone to tell me that I was good enough to play affiliated ball. I decided one day that I was good enough. Whether they saw that wasn't important to me anymore. Then (snaps fingers) it just clicked. We were off to the races.

You had the chance in the winter to make seven-figures in Korea. Was it an easy decision to say no when general manager Terry Ryan called you?

A: I was honored someone would pursue me that hard because I've never had that feeling in my life. That someone would come after me and throw all these numbers at me. Every time you say no then come with more. It was certainly a different feeling. 

My heart never went that way. I talked to Terry a couple times. He was just being as honest as he could with me and he tried to look at like I was his son. I appreciated his honesty. One of my best friends told me this as his dad years before turned down a job: everyone told him he was a fool for doing that. He then went on to be super successful doing what he was doing. Life opportunities come up all the time. It's just a matter of what you choose. That made so much sense to me. I spent 29-years trying to get onto a major league roster and now all a sudden because someone is throwing money at me I'm supposed to go, 'Oh my God!' No. This is what I've been dreaming about. I'm in a position to do this. As long as they told me there's a chance -- they could've told me one percent -- I was like, 'OK, let's go.' That's all I've ever asked for. I'll figure out a way to get it done. That's what it came down for me.

You get a signing bonus when you signed?

A: No. What's a signing bonus? I don't know what those are.

They probably just gave you a plane ticket.

A: I drove, so they paid for my gas. I didn't need more than that. It's never been about money as you can tell. I made $750/month in the Can-Am League my first year. I taught baseball lessons. I've seen a lot of people chase money. I've seen it too many times. It never quite turns out how you want it to. What I have seen is people chasing their dreams and going after them as hard as they can. Something they're passionate about. Then they become successful and get all the financial freedom. It would be irresponsible to chase the money and not be happy especially when you still have an opportunity. Thankfully, my family and fiance have been super supportive. I've never had to be responsible for kids or a wife or anything like that. I made a commitment to myself a while back. It seemed a little selfish. But people understood. They said do what you have to do. Follow your dreams. Sometime someone is going to rip that uniform off your back. So just keep going as long as you have it on. I feel very blessed to be here.

Are you humbled like that in your personal life? Have the fancy car and house and Gucci suits, etc.?

A: I wear Nike Air Max shoes everyday I can. In the offseason I try to wear sweatpants everyday. That's not kosher for travel in the big leagues, so I had to get a couple suits and shirts. I bought a car in the offseason. It was really hard for me to hand that check over. I bought a Tahoe. It was a big day in my life. I'm still the same guy. Nothing has changed. I look at $800 shoes and wonder why anyone would buy those. That's not to say that's not for somebody. Even if I made a billion dollars I doubt I'd change. But I think coming from where I did makes you understand what it's all about. I'm a sneaker and jeans kind of guy, t-shirts too. I like to do things for other people more than I do myself. If it came to helping my parents, fiance, or my aunt, or whoever, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Things for me are like whatever. Still hard to go in a store and see something that costs $200 and not panic.

Have a wedding day set?

A: After next offseason just so we can have the offseason to plan it and then we'll have a better idea where this thing is going. We got engaged right before spring training. I wasn't really sure where the road would lead. She's been super supportive and awesome. I look forward to sharing all of this with her and my folks. Really all the people who have supported me from day one.

Did you ask her in a creative way?

A: I was wearing sweatpants. I had this big plan -- I was going to get candles and roses and things. I ended up getting rear-ended that day because we had a big storm in Massachusetts. Got rear-ended by a snow plow. Thank god I came out of it ok. But it put a damper on my ability to do all that stuff. We were two days from me leaving for camp. So I had to just pull the trigger. She was upstairs so I yelled for her to come downstairs. She said, "hold on. I'm booking you a hotel." I told her, "Now." I was waiting on one knee.

More nerve-racking: in the batter's box vs. Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander or that?

A: That was. I had that ring for three weeks. I was so nervous, for sure. It was the right thing. It was good.

You done anything different swing-wise, mentally, etc.?

A: I've made adjustments in my ability to make adjustments, put it that way. My whole career in my humble opinion has been personified by my ability to compete and adjust to the guy on the other side of the field. In Double-A I went and competed and adjusted everyday. Same at Triple-A. Last year when I got to the big leagues everything was going so fast. I can't tell you how fast my mind was racing everyday. I would go in the box and feel like, 'Oh My God,' everything is going too quick. I don't know what I'm feeling. I told myself to swing easy and was swinging out of my shoes. It was out-of-body. 

My biggest goal this year was to get my mind right. To have the ability to say this is how this guy is attacking me and this is what I'm going to do. That is what makes the most successful hitters in the world. It's that ability to win that game everyday -- you might not get a hit every time, but it's knowing what the guy is trying to do. The last at-bat in Tampa, the one in the 12th inning, is the one that I'm most proud of this year. That at-bat defines who I am my entire career. I'm going to find a way right now. It doesn't matter what or how you throw or how far ahead you are in the count. I'm going to find a way. That's what I want to be about, to represent. There's small physical adjustments, but those are part of what I'm talking about: making adjustments within at-bats. That's what happened last year. I was over-swinging. I was too far away from the plate. In Triple-A everyone was pounding me in. I just said I had to get off the plate, but I didn't realize where I was standing. It's a cat-and-mouse game. That's the single biggest thing and having confidence in yourself. Don't let the results dictate who you are. Don't let 4-for-4 or 0-for-4 define you. Just come compete everyday.

Have you thought A=B=C=D=E=F=G, just all the steps that have gotten you to the majors? How so many things had to fall into place? Even more recently that the Twins chased bats in the winter. Anyone signs here and you are bumped.

A: Yeah. I'm a logical guy. I think about stuff like that all the time. Stars have to align. Don't get me wrong: you have to put yourself in a position though for those stars to line up. I think about this all the time: What if Brad Steil (Twins minor league director) hadn't opened that email from my agent. What if (scout) John Wilson hadn't come to watch me workout. What if I didn't bring Rich Gedman there that day to talk to John. What if (New Britain manager) Jeff Smith didn't tell me what he did. What if (Rochester manager) Gene Glynn didn't keep penciling me in. What if Ron Gardenhire didn't believe enough in me to hit me in the 4-hole, or heck, just take me north out of spring training. I think about that stuff. I feel very blessed that every single one has happened and I look forward to continuing the opportunity to put on a major league uniform. It was more about my belief that I could do this. If Minnesota had said, "Sorry," I would've understood. I would've seen if there's anyone else out there. I knew I could contribute to this organization. I believed it from the day I signed. I told my dad (in 2012) that I wanted to be in the big leagues and by the end of next year. He said that was awfully lofty. I said, "Let's go." Sure enough it happened. If you set your mind to the idea that I'm going to help this team win games, then ok, let's go. You have to believe things for them to happen. If I didn't truly believe from the bottom of my heart all of them then I wouldn't pursue them. If I had come up last year and thought I wasn't good enough I would've said ok and moved on. But I never felt that. Not once. Many people wanted to write me off. I said, "Keep writing me off. Let's see." That's what has driven me my whole life. It's people saying I couldn't do something. If there's any message I can pass along to anyone with a dream it's let them say you can't do it. Then see what happens. Use it as ammunition. I was around a lot of great people that taught me how to compete. Without them I would've never understood this stuff. I was once a 21-year-old kid who didn't get drafted and I was mad at the world. I didn't understand why. Then Rich Gedman pulled me aside and said, "Stop. Just stop. What you have is good enough. Just play the game." I told him he's crazy. Next day same message. Then I got a couple hits and hit the ball hard. Without a lot of good advice I wouldn't be here. I'm very thankful.

What's been the coolest thing so far this year?

A: Hands down it was after Opening Day in Chicago. My parents were there -- I didn't know if I'd play, but figured there was a chance with lefty (Chris Sale) on the mound. I ended up getting a couple of hits. Unfortunate we lost. It was so cool just to get announced. Then right after the game my mom and dad were waiting downstairs and we went back to the hotel. We were then heading out to dinner and there were fans waiting to get my autograph. I signed a couple autographs and my dad was tearing up. I looked at him and he gave me the biggest hug ever and said, "This is what I always dreamed about happening to me and now it's even better experiencing it with and for you." My dad isn't one to get emotional unless I struck out on a 2-2 cutter. That moment made me realize what it's all about. To be able to share it with him and all the people -- I just can't tell you how much support there is. Even in Italy. That's what makes it special. It's for them as much as it is for me.

I felt like this was 60 minutes.

Twins 1B/OF/DH Chris Colabello 1-on-1 with Darren Wolfson
KSTP: Kerry Klatt

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