When pitchers and catchers report to spring training camps next month Jeff Smith will officially begin his fifth season as manager of the Eastern League New Britain Rock Cats, the only former Rock Cats player ever to manage the team.

Yesterday, at the Rock Cats annual Hot Stove Luncheon at Central Connecticut State University “Smitty” had a chance to reflect a bit on how he’s grown into the job over the years, and one story in particular came to mind, that of Minnesota Twins outfielder/first baseman Chris Colabello, the Milford, Mass. product who spent the 2012 season with the Rock Cats.  “Chris was about 0 for 30 in spring training camp”, Smith recalls of that spring in Fort Myers, “And I just sat down with him and said, ‘Chris, you’re on the team.’  He hasn’t stopped hitting since.”

Colabello remembers he spent the entire spring until that reassurance from Smith in a sweat, watching the coaches on the observation tower, wondering if he was going to be the next to be told, “Thanks for coming.”

Chris Colabello’s story goes deeper than that of a young prospect hoping to just get a chance to play in the minor leagues, a chance to show the powers above that he’s worthy of a move up.  When Colabello entered his first training camp with the Twins he was 28 years old and had never played for a major league affiliated team, a veteran of nine years in the independent leagues.  When Smith said once he calmed Colabello down he never stopped hitting, he was serious.  Colabello drove in 98 runs with the Rock Cats that summer, earning a promotion to triple A Rochester last season, where he didn’t stick around long.

On may 22nd, at age 29, Chris Colabello was a major leaguer, with the Minnesota Twins, the one major league team that saw something in him worth developing, and he won them a game in Houston with a grand slam.  He appeared in 55 games with the Twins and this could be the start of something big.  “I was very blessed to get the opportunity to just go out and play”, Colabello said of the year in New Britain that gave him his first crack at moving up a real major league organization, “Smitty just ran me out there every day and my age was actually a positive for me.  I’ll remember New Britain for a long time.  2012 was the kick off to my career at the ripe old age of 28.”

New Britain has been the kick off point for more than a few major leaguers, with more than 20 former Rock Cats currently playing in the majors, more than a 120 making major league rosters since the Twins took over the local franchise 20 years ago, a greater success rate than any other organization.  The line is sure to continue this year.

Also on hand yesterday was lefty Ryan O’Rourke of Worcester, who pitched in 17 games with the Rock Cats last season and will be a mainstay of this year’s bullpen.  On the way is 20 year old outfielder Byron Buxton, the second pick in the 2012 draft who earned the accolades of MLB.com last season as the top prospect in all of baseball.

29 days to pitchers and catchers.  There’s no better way to speed up the warming process than talkin’ baseball on a cold day in mid January.

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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