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Turning down $1M contract, Colabello has no regrets

Slugger opts to battle for spot with Twins, maybe Triple-A instead of deal in Korea

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

Baseball's witching hour is fast approaching, and lifers like Tom Kelly and George Toma can feel it in their blood. Ditto everyone else who hangs around Spring Training camps.

Pop your head into a Major League clubhouse and you can tell that mid-March is gone and late March has arrived. There are a lot of empty lockers and blank nameplates, for one thing, and a noticeable drop in idle chatter.

The 20 or 22 guys on every team who know they're on the Opening Day roster have pretty much had enough of Florida and Arizona. The other 10 or so guys still in play for jobs are like old men chopping vegetables. They don't want to be distracted from the job at hand because things could turn messy with one slip.

Yet somehow the brow of 30-year-old Chris Colabello remained unfurrowed on Friday. He turned down $1 million to play baseball for Korea's LG Lions so that he could chase a job backing up Joe Mauer, and he has received no promises from the Twins, despite hitting .375 during Spring Training for a team that is looking for hitting. Shouldn't he be surfing the Web for rumors?

"At the end of the day, whether it's in the big leagues or Triple-A, I'm going to have an opportunity to go out and play baseball," Colabello said with a convincing calm. "For me, that's awesome. I look back to where I was three or four years ago, if somebody told me I'd be coming down to the wire here with a chance to make the Opening Day roster, worst-case scenario is you're going to Triple-A, man, I'd take it."

Ron Gardenhire, the Twins' manager, says that Colabello has "probably been our best hitter this spring." He's worked hard to shorten his swing to handle late-inning heat, but historically it has been tough for inexperienced players to contribute off the bench. That perhaps is the biggest issue that clouds his status, especially with Josh Willingham guaranteed $7 million and veterans Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett in camp on Minor League deals.

One thing that's clear is Gardenhire respects Colabello.

"This kid's worked very hard to get a chance to play in the Major Leagues," Gardenhire said. "He has busted his [rear end], won a lot of uphill battles. I don't think you can put a challenge in front of him that he's afraid to take on."

Colabello spent seven seasons in independent ball dreaming about some day getting a chance. It came when the Twins signed him to a Minor League contract two years ago, and he's hit everywhere he's been since then -- well, except the 55 games in the Major Leagues last year, when he batted .194, albeit with seven home runs.

Counting two for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, Colabello hit 33 homers last season. He provides power in a game where it is in short supply, which is why the LG Lions of the KBO wanted to add him to a team that had gone 74-54 last season. The deal would have been lucrative for both Colabello and Minnesota, which would have sold his rights, but he said, 'No, thanks.'

And he won't be sorry he did, even if he opens the season back in Rochester, where he hit .352 in 89 games last season.

"I'm in a position where I'm still afforded the luxury of being a little kid," Colabello said. "My family and my fiancee are really supportive of whatever decision I make, and I think they'll continue to support me because they know my decisions are [always] thought out. When people start talking about money to me, well, I never really thought about this game as a means to make money. It was never that for me. It was an opportunity to do what I love to do."

Imagine that. A player who looks at baseball the way you would if you had a chance to play.

"This game has never not been fun for me," said Colabello, a right-handed hitter who in a pinch can play the outfield and third base. "Every time the lights come on, you step between the lines, it's everything I could ever imagine it to be -- whether it's in the big leagues, Triple-A, Double-A, even in the [independent] Can-Am League. The lights come on, umpires meet at home plate with the coaches and you run on the field. You get goose bumps and butterflies and things like that, because you are in a position where you get to compete. ... I love to play."

Colabello had a one-pitch afternoon in the Twins' 9-1 loss to the Mets on Friday at Hammond Stadium. He replaced Mauer as the designated hitter in the eighth inning, with flame-thrower Jeurys Familia on the mound. Colabello swung at the first pitch, a fastball, and grounded to second baseman Omar Quintanilla, starting a double play.

He had also hit into a double play coming off the bench on Thursday night, so this had to be disappointing. But for Colabello, the picture is always bigger than the last few at-bats.

"For me, every day is about coming to the field and working hard and getting better," he said. "Trying to have a competitive at-bat every time I have an opportunity. I can say I've had competitive at-bats and that I've played the game the way I know how to."

Whether that is enough to land him a job, it's too early to tell. But Colabello knows he's on the right path, and will never second-guess his decision to turn down a sure thing.

"I don't think it was that hard [of a decision]," he said. "My heart never went that way. I've followed my heart my whole life. I use my head too, but I follow my heart. ... It has never steered me wrong."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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