MIAMI – Chris Colabello, the Twins minor leaguer slugging for Italy in the World Baseball Classic, looks at his teammates and sees compatriots. Not necessarily because they, like he, end their surname with a vowel, but because so many of they, like he, are baseball vagabonds, several of whom share ancestral or organizational roots.
Pitcher Alessandro Maestri played with him as a kid in Italy, and Maestri’s father, a doctor, once saved Colabello’s life. The catcher is Drew Butera, an on-again-off-again Twin. The second baseman is former Twin Nick Punto. Colabello most identifies with former Twins first-round draft pick Dan Serafini, another player who has seen the inside of more bus terminals than clubhouses.
“He’s about passion, persistence, desire,” Colabello said. “Ultimately, I don’t know what makes us different. I think we all just have a deep-rooted love for the game. I can’t imagine my life without the game of baseball. It’s nice to be around someone who has gone through the same things and thinks the same way.”
Tuesday, Colabello hit a three-run homer in the first inning of a second-round game against the Dominican Republic at Marlins Ballpark. Italy would lose 5-4, but Colabello is using yet another improbable stage to prove he belongs in the game.
After growing up in Massachusetts and playing for little Assumption College, Colabello began a seven-year run with teams in the Canadian-American Assocation, an East Coast independent league, before the Twins signed him to Class AA New Britain last year and he produced 98 RBI in 496 at-bats.
He is 29 now, at an age when someone in his life must be advising him to learn computer graphics or barista skills. Instead, he’s taking a break from trying to make an impression in Twins camp to play in ballparks he never could have entered before without a ticket.
“I’m incredibly thankful to the Twins for letting me come [to the WBC],” he said. “From the first day we got here, this group of guys bonded right away. I don’t know if that’s an Italian thing or what.”
If Colabello is Crash Davis, the star of “Bull Durham” who sets the unofficial minor league record for home runs, Serafini more closely resembles Kenny Powers, the caricature of a baseball lifer in “Eastbound and Down.”
The Twins took Serafini as a high schooler with the 26th pick in the 1992 draft. California cool and sometimes outrageous, Serafini produced more nicknames than victories before the Twins allowed the Cubs to purchase his contract in 1999. His approach to baseball since has been anything but laid-back.
He has signed with six big-league teams. He has played in Japan and Mexico and in independent leagues. In 2007, after parting ways with the Rockies, Serafini was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
Serafini, now 39, was sick Tuesday and did not speak with reporters, but he has attributed the positive test to a substance a Japanese doctor used to help him recover from an injury.
Colabello is even closer to another Italian pitcher. His father, Lou, who was here to see his son homer Tuesday, pitched for Italy in the 1984 Olympics. He faced the U.S., and plunked a future Twin named Shane Mack, leading to a Will Clark home run and a USA victory at Dodger Stadium. “That day didn’t go so well for Dad,” Colabello said.
Colabello still feels tied to Maestri. The two were preparing for a game in Italy one summer. They would walk to the diamond, and the coach would drive their equipment. Colabello was sitting on the back of a car when the coach took off. He wound up hitting the pavement face-first and choking on blood.
Maestri’s father saved him. “I definitely owe my life to him and his family,” Colabello said. “Sometimes things happen for a reason and you do a 180 or 360 degree turn, and you wind up playing with the same guys you grew up with.”