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On Sports

Chris Colabello's image takes hit with PED suspension

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Rochester Business Journal
April 29, 2016

I’ve always been a sucker for a good human interest story. I love tales of people overcoming huge odds to realize their dreams. And that is why I and so many others rooted for Chris Colabello.

Want a story about perseverance? Check out Colabello’s. More than 1,500 players were drafted the year he graduated from Assumption College. Colabello was not among them. Undaunted, he spent seven years toiling in the independent leagues, where the pay is poor and the bus rides are long. Most guys stop chasing the dream after a few years in baseball purgatory. Not Colabello. He stubbornly kept at it, taking batting practice until his hands bled, fielding extra grounders before and after games, ignoring the advice of friends and relatives who told him he should get on with his life.

His persistence paid off when the Minnesota Twins offered him a minor-league contract in 2012 at age 28. Colabello seized the opportunity. When he was promoted to the Rochester Red Wings the following spring, he took the International League by storm. In 89 games, he smashed 24 home runs, drove in 76 runs and led the league in batting average (.352) to become just the fifth Red Wing to win IL most valuable player and rookie of the year honors in the same season. He also earned a call-up to Minnesota, where he clubbed seven home runs.

This feel-good story about a genuinely nice guy who gritted his way to the top attracted national attention last season when Colabello batted .321 with 15 homers and 54 RBI to help the Toronto Blue Jays reach the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. “If you shoot for the stars and you miss, you might land on the moon,” he told the New York Times.

The folks at Disney must have been salivating over the prospect of bringing his story to the big screen. But last Friday, as one writer put it, this inspirational tale turned into a Shakespearean tragedy when the jarring, foul-tip-to-the-head news broke that Colabello was being suspended by Major League Baseball for 80 games after testing positive for using an anabolic steroid.

Say it ain’t so, Chris. Say it ain’t so. Actually, in a statement, Colabello said it wasn’t so. “I have spent every waking moment since (being notified on March 13) trying to find an answer as to why or how? The only thing I know is that I would never compromise the integrity of the game of baseball. I love this game too much! I care too deeply about it. … I hope that before anyone passes judgment on me they can take a look at the man that I am, and everything that I have done to get to where I am in my career.”

I want to believe him. I really do, because in my brief dealings with the guy and from what I’ve heard from numerous people who interacted with him daily, Colabello is one of classiest guys in sports. But sometimes even the good guys fall prey to temptation, especially when it comes to seeking an edge. Scores of athletes before Colabello have vehemently maintained their innocence after positive drug tests only to be later exposed as liars. And so, as much as I want to believe this guy outworked and outgutted others to get to where he is, I can’t help but be skeptical.

As I’ve written numerous times, athletes have been seeking edges since the dawn of competitive sports. And along the way many have been willing to pay any price to achieve their goals, even if it means selling their souls. There are stories of ancient Greek Olympians experimenting with herbs in hopes of running faster and jumping higher. The use of performance-enhancing drugs has become a recurring and vexing story in recent decades. It’s increasingly difficult to ascertain what is fake and what is real, particularly after renowned athletes such as Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, Tour de France champion cyclist Lance Armstrong and baseball sluggers Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez were revealed to be frauds.

The stringent drug policies currently employed by Major League Baseball and the International Olympic Committee have helped reduce PED usage, but it would be incredibly naïve to think the purge is anywhere near complete. Or that it ever will be. The sad reality is that as long as stats are kept and there’s obscene money to be made, athletes will continue to experiment with illegal ways to go for the gold.

And it won’t only be the elite talents who will continue to be tempted to make pacts with the devil, but also marginal talents like Colabello, who reportedly used Oral Turinabol, an anabolic steroid popular among East German athletes during the 1960s. If superstars like Bonds, McGwire and A-Rod are willing to boost their careers with banned substances, then why wouldn’t someone like Colabello, who fought a tougher battle to make it to the bigs, at least consider it? I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just trying to understand why he would have been seduced.

Colabello’s image clearly has been sullied, and his future in baseball could be in jeopardy. He is 32 years old and was batting just .069 with zero homers and one RBI through his first 10 games this spring. And now he’ll be wearing a scarlet letter for drug use. So sad. So disappointing.

I wish we learned that there was a mistake with his drug test; that someone mixed up his samples. I wish his seemingly marvelous journey from the bush leagues to the big leagues hadn’t been called into question. But it has. And this sucker for compelling human interest stories can’t help but feel as if he has been sucker-punched.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author and nationally honored sports columnist for the Rochester Business Journal. You can talk sports with him Monday-Friday from 3-7 p.m. on ESPN Rochester 95.7 FM, AM 950 or online at www.espnrochester.com.

4/29/2016 (c) 2016 Explore Greater Rochester; Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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