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Rock solid; Chris Colabello still chasing MLB dream.

Byline: John Conceison

NEW BRITAIN, Conn - Just after taking his regular pregame grounders with the infield, Chris Colabello remained at first base.

There was still time before batting practice, so roving instructor Paul Molitor stood at shortstop with a fungo bat. Then the Hall of Famer started delivering hot shots, skidding one- and two-hoppers at the former Worcester Tornado, who was snatching them with his mitt as only Tim Thomas can.

A Minnesota native peppering a Bay Stater, a snapshot we're more likely to see on the ice.

"The one thing that has surprised me is seeing how athletic he is at first base," New Britain Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith said of Colabello, who has played error-free ball this season. "He's a very good athlete and a very good competitor."

Of course, Smith is also pleased with the early-season offensive production of Colabello, who has helped the Minnesota Twins' Double-A affiliate to a 13-9 start with his slugging from the cleanup spot, after earning Can-Am League and independent baseball Player of the Year honors last year.

At 28, Colabello is the Rock Cats' oldest player. "I've never been the old man on a team," he said. "Much of my career, I was the young guy - and even the last couple of years, there was someone older on the Tornadoes. Even though I'm the oldest guy on this club, I'm still the rookie, I'm a first-year guy."

A week ago, Colabello was named the Twins' Minor League Player of the Week after enjoying an 11-for-25 road trip with four home runs and 10 RBIs. Before last night's 5-3 loss at Richmond, he had hit safely in 11 of the previous 14 games. The chance the Twins took on signing the Milford native in February appears to be paying off.

"I told everyone in the organization how honored I was just to be considered," Colabello said. "They've shown they care about me, and they realize I can play the game a little bit, and hopefully things will continue the way they have."

"During the winter, we're always looking to add players to our system," said Jim Rantz, the Twins' longtime farm director. "We think anyone who has hung in there as long as he has in independent ball and has put up the numbers he has deserves a chance to come to spring training."

Colabello struggled early at spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. "A lot of times, the first thing a guy wants to do is impress, and you could tell the first two or three weeks that he wasn't himself at all," Smith said. "He was probably trying to do too much to impress to make a team, to show that he fits in."

Unlike during his brief stint at Detroit Tigers camp in 2006, the Twins were patient with Colabello, who batted over .300 in each of his seven Cam-Am seasons after an impressive career at Assumption College.

"Obviously, if a guy has had that much success over the seasons, there's a reason he's had that success," Smith said. "Since he's had that success, I knew it was in him."

"It certainly was a situation in which I felt I had to impress somebody every day," Colabello said. "I'm thankful to the Twins for realizing that and understanding that. The only experience I had had in spring training was I went through the thing at (Tigers) camp and somebody told me to go home."

To Colabello, hitting is hitting, whether it's in the Northeast-10 or the Eastern League. He remains comfortable with his slightly open stance and has continued to hit well to all fields.

After his flourish on the road two weeks ago, Colabello went into a little bit of a funk at home, with a 3-for-19 stretch last week. Perhaps again he was pressing too hard, with some of the Twins' brass in town, including Molitor and Rantz. Yet again, Colabello worked his way through it.

"The one thing he's making adjustments with is the bullpen guys," Smith said. "In this league, everyone who comes out of the bullpen is pretty good. They all have an `out' pitch that should be able to get a righty or a lefty out. I think depth and quality of staffs are the biggest things he's adjusting to."

Last Tuesday night, he showed he's adapting well to Double-A relievers. After Portland Sea Dogs starter Billy Buckner (no relation) mowed through the Rock Cats over six innings, striking out 11 (including Colabello once) and leaving with a 6-1 lead, the Cats rallied off Jeremy Kehrt in the seventh. Colabello's two-out, two-run single to center tied the game.

Colabello didn't get the chance to win it in the ninth, as he was walked intentionally with one out and a man on second. Two batters later, Nate Hanson's hit to right-center won the game, 7-6. The next morning, Colabello delivered an RBI double in the first inning of the final game of the homestand, a 7-3 loss to Portland.

"The people in this organization are awesome," said Colabello, who's wearing No. 20 in New Britain like he did in Worcester. "I had heard so many good things about Minnesota coming in, and it's all true. Every coach, every instructor, every coordinator - they have a distinct care for every guy in the organization."

"He's handled himself very professionally," Molitor said. "He was diligent in his work in the spring, probably a little nervous in trying to make an impression after spending so much time in independent ball.

"He's very knowledgeable, and obviously working with Rich Gedman the way he did, he has studied hitting," Molitor added. "I've enjoyed him - he's done everything we've asked."

About twice a week, Colabello talks to Gedman, the former Tornadoes manager who now coaches in the Red Sox organization. Gedman attended Colabello's winter workout for the Twins in Milford.

"And I was so fortunate to have him down the street during spring training," Colabello said. "He's always been one of the biggest people in my corner and will always be a huge part of my career."

Of course, Colabello's departure to New Britain leaves a huge spot in the Tornadoes' lineup, and he smiles that a former American League MVP, one Jose Canseco, has been called upon to help fill the void.

"Just the buzz it has created in the past few days can only be good for the organization," Colabello said. "Anything that can put the Worcester Tornadoes on people's minds can only be a good thing for the organization. People who haven't even been to a Tornadoes game are now wanting to go.

"As a hitter, what he's done speaks for itself," Colabello added. "There's an interesting dynamic to it - his age, some of the things he's been through as a player. I have no question he's in good physical shape. I'll be following every night."

Cliche as it sounds, Colabello is taking the road to The Show one day at a time. "I've tried never to think about the future," he said. "I try to live in the moment the best I can. I just have to be myself, the best I can be. I'd be lying if I said the thought of someday playing at Target Field didn't cross my mind. But those kind of things are out of my control.

"I'm 28 years old and a free agent sign," he added. "I don't have any expectations for the Minnesota Twins to do anything with me. I'm just going to try to control me."

"He feels good about where he's at and what he's doing," Rantz said. "He's in Double A, he's putting some numbers up. He's just got to continue to do that and working hard and see how far it takes him."


CUTLINE: (1) Former Worcester Tornado Chris Colabello of Milford has been the best hitter so far this season for the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats after earning Can-Am League and independent baseball Player of the Year honors last year. (2) Entering this weekend, Chris Colabello was batting .283 with four home runs and 15 RBIs for the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats.

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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 29, 2012
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