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The curious case of Chris Colabello

After the former Twin tested positive for an oral steroid in 2016, those skeptical of his heartwarming story jumped into full I-told-you-so mode. But the odd circumstances of Colabello’s case suggest it may merit a closer look.

Chris Colabello
A right-handed batter with a powerful swing, Chris Colabello wasn’t a Twin for long — parts of 2013 and 2014. But his intriguing backstory made him a fan favorite.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The beard, flecked with white, didn’t last. Chris Colabello, the former Twin, shaved it before the Kansas City T-Bones, his current team in the independent American Association, left town after last weekend’s series with the St. Paul Saints. 

He also coaxed a teammate into giving him a haircut, reviving the modified Mohawk he sported with the Toronto Blue Jays, his last major-league club. (Meager independent ball salaries mean everyone tries to save a buck.) Soon Colabello will rejoin the Italian national team, which he played for twice at the World Baseball Classic, as it tries to qualify for 2020 Olympics In Tokyo. He wanted to look ready.

“Our women qualified today,” Colabello, 35, said last Saturday at CHS Field, referring to the Italian national softball team. “They’re a wonderfully talented team. I’m happy for them because they’ve worked really hard. To have both us of be represented at the Olympics would be pretty special.”

A right-handed batter with a powerful swing, Colabello wasn’t a Twin for long — parts of 2013 and 2014. But his intriguing backstory made him a fan favorite. 

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Raised in a working-class town in central Massachusetts and undrafted out of college, the 6-foot-4 Colabello banged around a Northeast independent league for seven seasons before the Twins signed him to fill a roster spot at Class AA New Britain. He was 28, and no one’s idea of a prospect.

Yet Colabello hit so well at New Britain in 2012, and then early the next season at Class AAA Rochester, that the Twins promoted him to the big leagues in May 2013. He shuttled between Minnesota and Rochester for two seasons, shining at times for a bad Twins team. 

His best stretch came in early 2014, when he broke Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s club record for RBI in April with 30, and delivered the most touching moment of a dreary Twins season. On his Italian-born mother Silvana’s birthday, April 23, he homered in Tampa Bay while Marney Gellner of Fox Sports North interviewed her in the stands

But a nagging right thumb injury limited Colabello’s production, and he chose free agency when the Twins tried to outright him to Rochester. Picked up by Toronto, he batted .321 the next season with 15 homers, adding two more homers in postseason. He seemed to have found a home.

Then on March 13, 2016, Colabello learned he tested positive for a trace amount of Turinabol, an old-school oral steroid developed by the East Germans for systematic doping in their Olympic program in the 1960s, 70s and ’80s. 

Colabello said, then and now, he has no idea how it got in his system. Tests of his nutritional supplements and even his dog’s medication turned up nothing. His appeal was denied. Two months later he began an 80-game suspension under MLB’s drug policy, then spent the rest of the season in the minors. Toronto let him go, and he split 2017 between the Cleveland and Milwaukee organizations in Class AAA. He never played another major league game. 

Those in baseball skeptical of Colabello’s heartwarming story jumped into full I-told-you-so mode. Of course he’s a juicer, they said. Who comes out of nowhere at that late age without pharmaceutical help? He cheated, he screwed up, he got caught. End of story. And everybody says they didn’t do it. Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for the steroid Winstrol after emphatically telling a congressional committee he never juiced, ruining that defense for everyone. 

The presumption of guilt left Colabello a wreck. He lost weight. On the field, he couldn’t concentrate. In 2017 he reluctantly started seeing a psychiatrist. “The hard part about it was, people had a connotation as soon as they say, suspension for PEDS (performance enhancing drugs),” Colabello said. “They don’t look beyond that. They go, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”

Or does it? The odd circumstances of Colabello’s case suggest it may merit a closer look.

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Oral steroids break down quickly in the body, and for years Turinabol residue could only be detected for about a week. Improved testing introduced in 2014 lengthened the window to four to six months. That’s how about 80 athletes, almost half of them Russians, were ultimately disqualified from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics when the IOC re-tested their samples. Even today, Turinabol is available online. Baseball began testing for it in 2014.  

Drug testing starts in spring training. All players know this. In 2016 Colabello reported to camp early, with pitchers and catchers. That meant taking his physical and drug test early. A juicer knows how long a specific PED remains in his system. As Colabello said, if he was using Turinabol, wouldn’t he report as late as possible to be absolutely certain it cleared? And why, he said, would someone who reached the majors without using PEDs suddenly start taking them and jeopardize his career?

Since 2016 more than a dozen major- and minor-leaguers tested positive for Turinabol. Colabello and his agent, Brian Charles, contacted all of them. One player, it turned out, used a tainted supplement. The rest, like Colabello, could not explain their positive tests. Neither could three UFC fighters similarly flagged, two-time light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones among them. There is no obvious connection among them all.

MLB, like the Olympic movement, makes no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug use. What goes in your body is your responsibility. Most athletes accept that as the price of fair play. Independent organizations like NSF International test nutritional supplements for banned substances, and athletes are expected to only use approved products. Colabello said he did. 

That’s why, three years later, he still seeks answers, with the help of his agent, medical researchers and friends. “I told everybody when it happened, in my first interview, that I wasn’t going to stop until I figured it out,” Colabello said. “And I haven’t stopped. And I’m a lot closer now, thanks to a lot of people and a lot of time and a lot of phone calls and a lot of energy. A lot of negative energy, a lot of positive energy, whatever you want to call it.

“It’s been draining. Other people (who tested positive) have thrown their hands up in the air and gone, what the heck. I’ve tried to help those guys through it, because I know what it did to me. It literally impaired my ability to play the game. I always used to tell people, my greatest tool is my brain. And if you take my brain away, it becomes really difficult to do (anything).”

Unable to land a job in affiliated ball in 2018 — there wasn’t much market for free agent first basemen/DHs in their 30s — Colabello played briefly in Italy. Last May he returned to his independent ball roots, signing with the Sugar Land (Tex.) Skeeters in the Atlantic League, managed by former major-leaguer Pete Incaviglia. But Colabello wasn’t happy there, and in late June he joined the T-Bones, managed by Joe Calfapietra, an old friend from the independent Can-Am Association. Calfapietra managed the New Jersey Jackals when Colabello broke in with Worcester in 2005.

“We always stayed in touch,” said Calfapietra, who recently won his 1,000th game in independent ball. “He was always a guy I admired. 

“I don’t know how many years he played, seven or eight, before he got his first opportunity. Two years later, he’s in the big leagues in the middle of a very good lineup. So he brings that. He’s not a guy who came here out of the big leagues, like some other guys. He’s gone through the day-to-day grind of playing independent baseball with that dream in mind, to get that opportunity. That’s a special thing in itself.”

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Today Colabello is much the same hitter Twins fans remember, with power from left-center to right. Colabello exhibited that Monday night, homering to right-center in a 6-3 loss to the Saints. Through Tuesday he had four homers and 17 RBI in 33 games while batting .263. 

Colabello still loves to play. And he hopes to be an Olympian like his father Lou, a left-handed pitcher for Team Italia at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. 

Baseball was dropped from the Olympic program in 2008 and returns this time as a demonstration sport, though with only six teams. Italy can make the field by winning next month’s six-team Africa/ Europe qualifier on home soil. A second-place finish earns it another chance at a final qualifier next spring in Chinese Taipei.

“I’ve always said, getting the opportunity to wear the Italian jersey meant so much to me on a national level, on a global level, and also on a personal level because it’s something my dad did,” Colabello said. “I think it would be pretty cool to say, when everything’s all said and done, (I played in the) ALCS, the WBC and Olympics. That would be pretty sweet.”