Chris Colabello, Minor League Star
I was perusing mlbtraderumors.com today and saw a blurb on the Twins turning to Chris Colabello as a possible option at first base now that Justin Morneau has been traded. I’d never heard of Colabello, so I looked him up.
Turns out, Colabello is a former independent A star, who finally made it into organized ball at age 28 and played in the Show this year for the first time at age 29. He’s only batted .193 in 114 at-bats so far, but he’s also hit six home runs, and he had a fantastic year at AAA Rochester, posting a 1.066 OPS in 391 plate appearances this year.
What makes Colabello interesting to me is that fact that he spent seven seasons playing for the Worcester Tornadoes of the Canadian-American Association (“CAMA”) (he also played for CAMA’s Nashua Pride for roughly half of 2007). That is a long time to spend on one club in an Independent A League.
Not surprisingly, Worcester is effectively Colabello’s home town. He was born in Framington, MA, attended high school in Milford and then went to college in Worcester, at a small Catholic liberal arts college called Assumption. I had never heard of it, and I’m sure the major league scouts had never heard of it either, because Colabello went undrafted out of high school and college.
Colabello probably should have signed with a major league organization or, at the very least, moved up to a better Independent-A League, like the Atlantic League or the American Association, after batting .336 with a .974 OPS in 2008 at age 24. The Atlantic League, in particular, also plays in the Northeast and probably pays a bit better than a lowest-rung league like CAMA. However, it’s still playing ball for peanuts, and if you’re going to do that, I can see why Colabello would have wanted to stay at home in Worcester.
These kinds of players (i.e., guys who played for years in lower level leagues than they were capable of playing in because they were close to home) were a lot more common in the glory days of the minor leagues before 1950 than they are today. In particular, a lot of good West Coast ballplayers preferred playing in the Pacific Coast League to playing in the major leagues. The PCL drew pretty good crowds and played a longer schedule than major league teams (usually 26 to 46 more games a season, depending on the year). As a result, players who were good back-up players in the majors but stars in the PCL could make as much money or more playing at home.
A player named Thomas “Lefty” George won a total of 327 minor league games (against 287 losses) in large part because he played all or part of 16 seasons pitching for his home town team, the York (PA) White Roses, a team that played in three different class B Leagues (A or A+ ball today) during his many years with the franchise. As a young player, he started his professional career with the White Roses, and after twelve seasons in which he pitched unsuccessfully in the majors and successfully in the high minors (mostly the old American Association), he came out of a brief, one-year retirement to pitch for more than a decade for the White Roses. One would have to assume that George had business interests, such as a successful bar or restaurant, in York which made playing ball there so appealing.
More recently, the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Northern League and now the Independent-A American Association have done much better than most such teams at keeping some of their stars around for years. Local boy Donnie Smith spent eight seasons pitching for the Goldeyes between 1998 and 2006, and imports Brian Duva (1995-2000) and Max Poulin (2001-2008) played six and eight seasons for the Goldeyes respectively.
It’s worth noting that the Winnipeg Goldeyes have led whatever Independent-A league they were playing in in attendance for years. This is hardly surprising in that the Goldeyes are the only professional baseball team in a large market.
In fact, western Canadian metropolises are currently wildly underserved in terms of professional baseball. Vancouver, which was long a Pacific Coast League regular, now has only a team in the short-season A- Northwest League; and Calgary and Edmonton, also once PCL cities, don’t have professional teams at all any more. Canada is still producing plenty of professional talent, so it seems like an obvious area for expansion at least at the Independent-A level.