Chris Colabello: Too Real For Hollywood

So, there is this guy. He’s a ballplayer. Not a particularly great or notable one, but still a ballplayer. He’s so desperate to keep playing that after college he moves to the land of his ancestors: Italy. He plays baseball there, is pretty good. Falls in love with a local. Marries her, they spend their days split between Massachusetts and Italy. They have a son.

That son follows in his father’s footsteps, growing up and playing baseball on two continents. Trials and tribulations- of his own making and of fate’s- seem to keep him from reaching his true potential, and after college he, like his father, finds his baseball career seemingly at an end. Except instead of across the sea, the son stays near home: Independent Ball. The last hope or only shot of the truly baseball-desperate. Pitiful salaries, long bus rides, no fame… only dreams.

He spends seven years there, occasionally leaving to represent Italia, the land where he grew up and where his mother was born. Most would quit, or at least consider other options. This guy doesn’t. He keeps going, and finally, when he’s in his late 20s, he’s doing so well he cannot be ignored. A major league organization signs him, and at age 28 he begins his first Minor League season, nearly four years older than his average teammate.

And he is a revelation, as he becomes one of the best hitters on a team with some of the farm system’s best prospects. The next year, in AAA, he does it again and is named MVP in the league, becoming a fan favorite in a Upstate New York town in a season that began with him pacing his ancestral home to it’s best showing in the history of the World Baseball Classic.

Except…. it’s not the end. He was called up. He doesn’t do all that well in his first stint in the show, but it’s a dream that he had scraped and clawed for so long, finally achieved. That offseason, with no guarantees of a roster spot the next season, he is offered a big money deal from a team in Korea. He could make more money than he ever has. He refuses, as it would mean shutting the door, perhaps permanently, on his Major League dreams.

At first, it seems he made the right decision. He gets a roster spot and starts the year on a historic tear, breaking the team RBI record for April that had been set by a legendary man. He hits a home run in front of his parents as they are interviewed on television, a birthday gift to his mother.

But then… it falls apart. April proves the exception, and in late May he is sent down to AAA… even as the program-covers that greet fans at the Major League ballpark bear his face. He goes back and forth like a yo-yo, but ultimately he spends more time in AAA than he does in the show.

For some, this would be the end. Those gasps of major league greatness would be all there would be. Not for him. The next year, after a good start in AAA, he goes to a third country: Canada. He never recaptures that April, and he doesn’t play every game… but he doesn’t need to. He’s another bat in a lineup of big bats. He has a career year, and he is a mainstay in the starting lineup during the postseason, where he hits two home runs.

It seems, perhaps, that he has finally arrived. But then, the next season, he starts on a slump. Some wonder if he might again get sent down. And then, late in April, the slump becomes the least of his worries.

He’s suspended for 80 games for using a Performance Enhancing Drug. An old one. East German. And suddenly, a story that seemed too extraordinary for Hollywood becomes one that is too real for Hollywood.

It’s the story of Chris Colabello, son of Lou Colabello. His has been a story of near-biblical persistence and long odds. A story that brought him from Italy and Massachusetts, through New Britain and Rochester and Minneapolis and Buffalo, and finally to Toronto. That he suddenly is caught using a Cold War-era PED in some ways casts a shroud of doubt on all of it.

There is, of course, no way of knowing if that is the case. It seems unlikely that he would have been using such a obvious and classic steroid for so long without getting caught. After all, this is a player who would have been subject not just to the MLB tests of the past few years, but also tests in the minors and in overseas competitions.

Perhaps he was using something else this whole time.

Perhaps it was just a mistake. It could have been a accident or (for the more conspiracy-prone) an act of malice by a trainer or pharmacist.

Or maybe, having finally truly tasted the highest heights of his profession, Chris Colabello thought he needed to do anything and everything he could to stay there, or perhaps even go higher. And perhaps, like Icarus, he got too close to the sun.

I don’t know. Nobody, aside perhaps from Colabello himself, knows.

And perhaps that is why his suspension is so unsettling to myself and many other baseball fans, particularly fans of the Twins and Blue Jays. An icon of hard work and perseverance, suddenly found to have been taking the easy way out. Over a decade of work, seemingly thrown away.

What this means… I’m not sure I’ll ever know. I’m not sure if we’ll ever know.

Perhaps it just means that Chris Colabello, like all of us… is human.

Bizarre Baseball Culture: Dash Dartwell’s PED use for justice

In Bizarre Baseball Culture, I take a look at some of the more unusual places where baseball has reared it’s head in pop culture and fiction.

Steroids and other performance-enhancers are, to sports, a plague. They provide some players an unfair advantage, threaten the integrity of records, and could also endanger the long-term health of the user. The great struggle of 21st century sports has, in many ways, been the struggle against PEDs.

But, as today’s installment of Bizarre Baseball Culture shows, the the view that PEDs are bad goes against human nature and human fantasy. The human experience, the human dream, has always been about becoming better. It is one reason why, for example, that larger-than-life heroes have been popular since ancient times.

So it is perhaps not surprising that fictional superhumans (who by their nature are better than human) have often gone hand-in-hand with PEDs (which by their very nature make the user better than the average human). Steve Rogers, for example, became Captain America after being given a Super-Soldier Serum by the American government. Bane, the villain who once broke Batman’s back and appeared in less-steroidy form in The Dark Knight Rises, got his great strength from a drug known simply as “Venom”. Even Popeye, with his spinach, could be said to be using some type of performance enhancers.

But few stories actually have an athlete using a PED… but I have found at least one, featuring the obscure hero Dash Dartwell (sometimes called “The Human Meteor”), a college athlete who has gotten “Metabo-tablets” from a biochemistry professor that make him superhuman until the pill’s effect wears off.

Amazing Man Comics #22, the issue from May 1941 which contains this story (it starts on page 41), can be found here. Go below the jump for the rest of this installment of Bizarre Baseball Culture.

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Worry: Will U of Miami grads simply be assumed to be guilty?

One thing that noticed- and worries me- in the recent wave of PED news is that many of the players have a big connection: The University of Miami.

Ryan Braun played for the University of Miami.

Yasmani Grandal played for the University of Miami.

Danny Valencia played for the University of Miami.

Cesar Carrillo, a minor leaguer who has been connected to BioGenesis, went to the University of Miami.

Alex Rodriguez has been a major financial donor to the University of Miami baseball program- their park even bears his name.

Jimmy Goins, named in the Biogenesis reports, is the strength and conditioning coach for the University of Miami.

I’m hardly the first to notice this, look at what Tim Brown and Jeff Passan wrote at Yahoo!:

The early portion of MLB’s investigation has focused on the web of connections to the University of Miami, where Braun attended college. Carrillo, a pitcher in the Detroit Tigers organization, was Braun’s road roommate for three years. Jimmy Goins, a strength-and-conditioning coach at the school and alleged client of Bosch’s, worked with Braun during his three years at Miami. Goins has denied a connection to Bosch.

And this leads to my concern: Will others consider former Hurricanes players to be guilty until proven innocent? Will a new star who comes to the majors, having played at “The U”, have whispers behind their back?

Because that would not be healthy for the sport. There still needs to be evidence, one cannot just assume that because player X went to college Y he must be on PEDs. And we must never forget that.

The PED Double Standard

As you all definitely know, baseball was hit by a steroid scandal yesterday.

You may have also heard that such a thing struck the NFL, where news again surfaced that Ray Lewis had used a type of “deer-antler spray” that contained a type of illegal hormone for muscle growth. I say “again” because this actually isn’t news, it had first been reported in 2011.

Of course, you probably never heard that, because use of PEDs in the NFL is usually overlooked, or just dismissed, or, in some cases, openly rewarded. Yesterday, for example, Ray Lewis simply said that he’d “never tested positive” and then that was it. ESPN did cover it, but it was nowhere near the level of what would have happened if, say, the same thing had happened to a MLB player the day before the World Series were to start.

(Also, they don’t test for the PED that Lewis is accused of, since the NFL doesn’t have blood tests, so Lewis’ denial, while technically true, isn’t exactly a declaration of innocence.)

It doesn’t stop there (go below the jump):

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The End of A-Rod

Today was the end of the Age of A-Rod. Oh, he might not realize it yet, although I suppose he might, but I would be shocked if he plays again, and if he does play, I doubt he will even be a shadow of the shadow of his old self. Because, today, he was named in a Miami New Times (a news weekly in… Miami) report on an anti-aging clinic called Biogenesis. In addition to Alex Rodriguez, the New Times noted mentions in files that indicate that Melky Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal, Bartolo Colon, Nelson Cruz, Gio Gonzalez as well as Jimmy Goins, the strength and conditioning coach of the University of Miami baseball team. Gonzalez and Cruz, to the best of my knowledge, had never been linked to PEDs before today, although Gio Gonzalez’s case is seemingly connected to things that may not be banned and they listed no specifics on Nelson Cruz.

However, make no doubt, this is a story that, at least initially, is all about Alex Rodriguez. Remember, in 2009, he had claimed that he had ceased using performance-enhancers in 2003, but this report seems to suggest otherwise. This also likely means that he was using PEDs during the 2009 postseason, the one postseason where Alex Rodriguez hit like the elite player he was during the regular season.

And so, Alex Rodriguez, who already could be out the whole season due to his injury, and who has a gigantic albatross of a contract, now has been shown to possibly be a liar and a continued cheater. The New York Yankees, no doubt, want him to just sort of disappear, and are no doubt going through his contract looking for something, anything that could provide them an out. It’s doubtful that they can.

But it’s possible they won’t need to: with his injury, Rodriguez could, maybe, decide to call it a career. While it seems unlikely that he will, it could be the only way he’ll be able to escape this on anything even remotely resembling his own terms.

Time will tell what happens.

Further Thoughts on Melky Cabrera’s Steroid Suspens— HOLY COW, ANOTHER PERFECT GAME!

Well, as I said yesterday, Melky Cabrera, having a career year that seemed too good to be true, apparently… was too good to be true. He was busted for PEDs- increases testosterone, to be more exact. His suspension severely hurts the Giants and casts a serious pall upon his season thus far, including his All-Star MVP.

But, lucky for Melky Cabrera, Felix Hernandez proceeded to throw a perfect game, totally distracting everybody from the fact that, well, Melky Cabrera had been busted for PEDs. And not only did he throw a perfect game, he struck out 12 doing it! That’s almost in Cain/Koufax territory! I mean, just look at what the AA Mariners in Jackson, Tennessee (including Felix Hernandez’s brother) did when they saw it. There is nothing that gets baseball to come together quite like a good perfect game. Perfect games to baseball fans are what NASA landings are to space geeks, what a 3-overtime playoff game is to NHL fans, and what the Winter Olympics are to fans of curling. It instantly gets our attention, all of our attention.

So, well, Melky Cabrera is one lucky person. Well, other than having his free agent stock plummeting and missing the rest of the season. But at least he wasn’t the biggest story of the day. So, uh, good for him.