FORT MYERS, Fla. — The day after he was featured as “The Happiest Man in Baseball,” on a national website, Milford’s Chris Colabello took the field as the starting first baseman for the Minnesota Twins.
The date was Feb. 23, opening day of the Grapefruit League season for the Twins, who were taking on the Orioles in Sarasota.
“I heard a voice from behind me,” recalled Colabello, a non-roster invitee to Twins camp who slugged his way through the Class AA Eastern League and then the Mexican (winter) League last year, his first with the Minnesota organization.
Veteran umpire Tim Welke told the 29-year-old rookie, “Man, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about you.”
Colabello, two seasons removed from starring for the independent Worcester Tornadoes in the Can-Am League, was caught by surprise.
“I’m saying, ‘What?’ I didn’t know he had read about me,” he said. “But it was a great way to start. He wished me luck.”
On Thursday, Colabello will represent Team Italy in its World Baseball Classic opener against Mexico in Phoenix — a selection that carries special meaning for the Milford High and Assumption College graduate. His father, Lou, pitched in the 1984 Olympic Games for Italy and played professionally in that country.
Colabello spent part of his youth in Rimini, hometown of Team Italy teammate and boyhood friend Mario Chiarini.
Signed by the Twins last year to provide minor league depth at first base and at designated hitter, he hit .284 with 19 homers and 98 RBIs with the Rock Cats, finishing as the runner-up for Eastern League MVP honors.
After helping Italy win the 2012 European Cup, Colabello batted .332 with 17 homers for Algodoneros de Guasave of the Mexican Pacific League.
In December, on an off day in Mexico, he received a call that he had been invited to his first Major League camp.
“Honestly, it’s been such a blessing to be here,” said Colabello last week at Minnesota’s Lee County complex. “A year ago, I don’t know if anyone could have imagined I’d be here, but I’ve continued to work hard and believe in myself.”
He’s also doing his best to make believers out of the Twins.
Prior to his departure for Arizona last weekend, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Colabello had appeared in seven games, compiling a .333 average (5-for-15) with two doubles and three RBIs. He had a .412 on base percentage and .467 slugging percentage.
‘It was overwhelming at first, battling with 150 other guys to play pro ball and I was like the deer in the headlights.’
His hits included a game-winning RBI single against Pittsburgh.
“My manager for most of my seven years with Worcester, Rich Gedman, taught me how to cope when the game throws curveballs at you, but I kind of got a little away from that early last season in New Britain,” Colabello said.
In June, he visited close friend Bob Tewksbary who has a hitting facility in Nashua.
“I was pressing and letting things get to me,” he said.
Tewksbary, after analyzing his swing, reminded the right-handed hitting Colabello to be more aggressive.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to go out, go out doing your best and trust yourself,’ ” recalled Tewksbary, once Colabello’s teammate with the Tornadoes.
“Chris, first and foremost has always had the ability to hit and on the mental side, he’s learned to be a professional baseball player.”
Colabello, who told his dad he didn’t want to be a pitcher because he loved to take his hacks at the plate, hit his stride not long after his visit with Tewksbary.
Six years earlier, he received a minor league tryout from the Detroit Tigers, but was released after three weeks.
“It was overwhelming at first, battling with 150 other guys to play pro ball and I was like the deer in the headlights,” he recalled. “I thought I adapted pretty well, but getting released was an eye-opener.
“When I got to Twins minor league camp last year, I knew what to expect. But I had to wonder if that was going to be my last chance with a Major League team.”
Now, he sits next to Justin Morneau, the Twins star first baseman and former American League MVP in the Minnesota locker room.
“We spend time together every day, taking grounders and hanging out on the field. I’ve had a few questions for him,” said Colabello, “and he’s been awesome.”
He has also hooked up for dinner with Gedman — now the hitting coach for the Portland Sea Dogs, Boston’s Double A affiliate.
Colabello will return to spring training after the World Baseball Classic.
“I know cut-down day will come and I’m not sure what their plans are for me,” he said, “but as long as there’s a uniform on my back, I’ll be a pretty happy guy because I’ll know l have a chance to make it all the way to the top.”Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.