TORONTO—It is the point at which a player can become dangerous.
When he is on the bottom rung of the ladder, that very last step that doesn't quite reach the ground, and he has absolutely nothing to lose—that's when he becomes the biggest menace he can be.
Jason Grilli, a teammate of Chris Colabello‘s on the World Baseball Classic’s Team Italy in 2013, shared that piece of wisdom with Colabello once, and it stuck with the Blue Jays hitter. It's been with him at the lowest of his lows, it has remained with Colabello when he's been at his best, and it has helped to continue to propel the journeyman forward from being waived last year to become a formidable threat at the plate in the American League Championship Series.
Rock bottom for Colabello happened after most players in his position would have already quit. It wasn't during the seven seasons he spent playing in the independent Can-Am League, or even when the Worcester Tornadoes traded him to the Nashua Pride–though being passed from one indy team to another comes pretty close–it came after his first two months in affiliated baseball.
When he joined the Twins organization in Double-A as a 28-year-old, Colabello achieved a goal, the first of many. At first it was exciting, finally accomplishing something that he had set out to do so many years earlier. But then he moved into unfamiliar territory. A career .317 hitter, he struggled like he never had before.
Two months of the worst hitting of his career sent him spiraling to a dark place. And that is exactly when he became the most dangerous he had ever been.
“This is going to sound weird," Colabello said. “This might be hard to believe, but the proudest I ever was of myself, the most gratifying season I ever had, was the first time I didn't hit .300 and it was my year in Double-A. At the end of May, I was at the darkest place I had ever been in. I was hitting .220, just scuffling, it was a new environment, my first time in affiliated ball, and I wasn't having fun."
Down but not out, Colabello did an about-face and tore up the Eastern League for the remainder of the season.
“The last three months I played as well as I have in my career for any extended period of time," he said. “It was so gratifying to be able to make an adjustment like that within a season, especially my first year in affiliated, in a new environment.
“I think of digging yourself out of huge holes. When everybody is counting you out, when all the cards are laying on the table, your back's up against the wall, who are you going to be? That was that moment for me."
Then came Colabello's big league low. It was just last year, after breaking camp with the Twins and heading to the majors out of spring training for the first time. Colabello had just homered in back-to-back games (one of the home runs came while Colabello’s family was being interviewed on TV) when he injured his thumb and suffered nerve damage in an April game against the Rays. The first baseman and right fielder tried to play through it, fearing that if it took him away from the game that it might be for good.
“Having to come to the field and know that I'm like a shell of myself and trying to battle through the pain, it's indescribable," Colabello said. “Hitting a baseball—which is the only thing I've ever wanted to do—became tedious and treacherous and hard. And I still loved it, but every time I would make bad contact it would hurt. Even sometimes with good contact my hand was in writhing pain.
“I was terrified that it would never be the same again. I was terrified that I would never be the same again."
When Toronto selected Colabello off waivers in December, he'd had the rest required to heal his thumb. Dispelling his anxiety, it did look as though he would return to form.
To start the season, he hit .337/.421/.554 with Triple-A Buffalo in an organization that was crowded at every position he had ever played. The 31-year-old got an opportunity just a month into the season and he ran with it, leading a team of sluggers in average and securing a spot in the postseason. Colabello hit .321/.367/.520 with 15 home runs for the Blue Jays.
“I've always expected to be here," Colabello said. “It sounds so stupid probably to people when I say it. And this year's been great, don't get me wrong, I'll always remember it. It will be a high point and it will be up there, but I didn't have to grind through as much stuff this year. They gave me an opportunity, I came and played, I did what I did, and stayed healthy throughout the year.
“Being able to battle through my thumb injury last year and being able to play the whole season, dealing with what I was dealing with, those are the challenges that I appreciate the most. Not to say that it's been easy this year by any stretch of the imagination, but this has been a great environment. Every day has been great to come to the field. I would have expected nothing less from this group and from myself. Every day coming here has been awesome."
Not only awesome, but the best response Colabello has had to offer to those who doubted him or passed him over along the way.
“That's what I use as internal fire," he said. “My way of saying, 'I told you so' is going out on the field. I internalize a lot of that stuff because it motivates me. It motivates me on days when I'm not feeling my best or I'm not at my best and I'm still figuring out a way to get stuff done.
“It's not hate, because hate and rage end up taking you to dark places, or you channel energy where you don't want to be, but more than anything for me it's about motivation. Every time somebody told me I couldn't do something in my life, the first thing that came to mind was, 'Watch me.' Watch me, and we'll find out."
Now, battling it out with the Royals in Toronto for a spot in the World Series, there are plenty who are watching Colabello. Some who doubted him, and some who are inspired and motivated by the path he took to get here. The latter are the ones he has words for.
“The biggest message that I've always wanted to pass across to people is to pursue their dreams, whether it be baseball or ice fishing, whatever," Colabello said. “Whatever your dream is, whatever you think you're good at, whatever you believe in yourself at, whatever you want to do—within the boundaries of the law and reason—you should do that.
“Anybody who tells you they can't do something is somebody I can't quite understand or get along with, because when you tell me you can't do something, it means you're making a conscious effort to not try to do everything you can to make it be different."