2011 Independent Leagues Player Of The Year: Chris Colabello
See also: 2011 All-Independent Leagues Team
Growing up as the son of a professional baseball player, Chris Colabello was always around the ballpark. And whether he was watching a big league game, or watching his father pitch for Rimini in the Italian Baseball League, he always noticed the hitters.
"I think when I was a little kid, I always noticed what made the best hitters in the world—.300 was such an important number for me," Colabello said.
Colabello took notes. His father was a lefthanded pitcher, but Colabello wasn't made for the mound. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound righthander always wanted to be considered one of the best hitters around.
If you go by that magic .300 number, Colabello is reaching his goal. He has topped .300 in each of his seven years in the Can-Am League, and he's the league's all-time leader in hits, doubles and RBIs.
But he's never had a season like the one he had in 2011. The Worcester first baseman hit .348 with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs, finishing runner-up in the Can-Am League in each of those categories. He also ranked second in the league in hits (127) and led the league in doubles (32) and slugging percentage (.600).
"I really started to commit to my swing on every pitch this year," Colabello said. "I made up my mind I was going to swing no matter what. Before, I'd decide when the ball was midway to the plate. Now when the pitch is on the way, I plan to swing, then I decide whether to take or not."
"It's a pretty straightforward swing," Worcester director of baseball operations Brady Michaels said. "He's thinking up the middle every time he gets up, but he's able to hit for power without really trying."
For all that, Colabello is the Baseball America Independent Leagues Player of the Year for 2011.
The Next Step
Baseball has taken Colabello around the globe. He lived in Italy when his dad was pitching, and then managing, in the Italian league. He later returned home to Massachusetts.
Eventually, Colabello may follow in his father's footsteps and play in Italy. He's gotten feelers for several years. But as he sees it, it's too soon to make that jump.
"I've stayed over here in hopes of getting picked up in affiliated ball. If I went to Italy, it's kind of giving up on that," he said.
When Colabello was playing first base at Assumption College, a Division II school in Worcester, he thought there was a good chance he'd get his shot at playing affiliated ball. The summer before his junior year, he had a strong showing in the summer New England Collegiate Baseball League. He made the NECBL first team alongside future big leaguer Kevin Slowey.
But the 2004 draft came and went that June without Colabello's name being called. A year later, he again went undrafted.
"When I went back to school for my senior year, I thought we had an advantage because we played with wood (bats)," he said.
The only team that called in 2005 was the Worcester Tornadoes, then making their Can-Am League debut. Colabello hit .320 that year as the Tornadoes won the league title. Six seasons later, Worcester still hasn't had to look for another first baseman.
That next spring, Colabello got his first, and so far only, shot at affiliated ball. He made the 60-man tryout roster for the Italian World Baseball Classic team. While he didn't make the cut for the active roster, the Tigers noticed him at the workouts and brought him to spring training.
There Colabello found what many other indy players have seen before and since: it's tough to make a roster out of spring training.
"It was an eye-opening experience," he said. "I didn't realize how many people there are in spring training. When I got the opportunity, I had some success. I hit a home run against the Braves that was one of the furthest balls I've ever hit. Matt Joyce, Jeff Frazier and others were asking me, 'Where did that come from?'
"I thought I did well enough to make a club. I remember being called into a meeting. They said it was a pleasure to see (me) outwork and outplay guys. They said they felt bad, but they had a numbers thing."
For the six years since, Colabello has remained in the Can-Am League. He was traded to Nashua in 2007, but the Tornadoes quickly reacquired him that offseason.
And throughout his tenure with Worcester he has kept putting up numbers with a consistency that is remarkable. He doesn't strike out much, he draws some walks and he hits for some power. But he's also a righthanded-hitting first baseman, which is about the toughest profile to overcome for an independent league player hoping to jump to affiliated ball. Colabello has played a little third base in recent years, and he's looking to play some outfield next year to add to his versatility.
"We've tried to put him at third base the past two years so teams could see him as not just a first baseman," Michaels said. "But it came to a point that the best (interests) of the team had to come first. We were struggling at first base and he's a dominant first baseman."
So for now, Colabello keeps plugging away in Worcester. He's grateful for the opportunity the Tornadoes have given him. But he hopes that at some point, he'll get another chance at affiliated ball.
"I don't want Worcester to be the last uniform I put on," Colabello said.
As a 27-year-old first baseman, Colabello knows the odds of getting picked up again aren't great. But as long as he keeps putting up the numbers he putting up, he knows he still has a chance.