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The Globe and Mail

Kelly: Chris Colabello was an anomaly until he tested positive for a PED

Chris Colabello isn't just a ballplayer. Until it all fell apart late Friday afternoon, he was a heroic anomaly. He was the exception that proved the rule – that you cannot gut your way to the top level of professional sports.

But Colabello did. The Toronto Blue Jays first baseman spent four years playing at the college level. They drafted 1,500 players the year he graduated. Colabello was not among them.

He kept playing in the independent leagues. They are baseball's frontier country, populated by no-hopers and guys who can't let go.

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Most of them stay there a few years. Colabello played seven. He didn't get his first big-league shot until he was 29. Last year, at the age of 31, he broke through with the Jays.

As the team advanced into the postseason, his hardscrabble route to the bigs made him a minor celebrity.

"If you shoot for the stars and you miss, you might land on the moon," Colabello told the New York Times.

If Disney had adapted Colabello's story, the run into October was the closing scene. Instead, his journey has become Shakespearean. Last year was only the second act. Now, the tragedy.

On Friday, it was announced that Colabello had tested positive for an anabolic steroid – a very old-school way to enhance performance. He has already appealed unsuccessfully and will be suspended 80 games.

In a statement released through the MLB Players Association, Collabello denied fault: "I have spent every waking moment since [being notified] 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 the game of baseball too much!"

You'd like to believe him, but even that exclamation mark looks suspicious.

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In another statement, Jays general manager Ross Atkins unlinked arms with his player by saying, "We're confident [Colabello] will return ready to compete and will have taken the steps needed to ensure that this does not happen again."

Translation: "He did it." It's likely that the word used most in coming days to describe this development will be "disappointing." Colabello is a decent player and a far more than decent guy. Failure beats the ego out of you, and few pros have failed as often or for as long as Colabello. Nobody will take the knives out for him. Instead, they'll shake their heads. But "disappointed" suggests surprise. After all we've seen, that would be a stretch.

If established superstars with tens of millions in the bank do banned drugs to give themselves a mid-career edge, how could a guy in Colabello's position resist? He'd been so close for so long.

Most of us can understand how someone in his position might find his way to a shady doctor or a mail-order pharmacy. You don't have to agree with it, but surely you can see how it might happen.

There will be some looking for a head on a plate. Nothing kicks off a carnival of sanctimony like a positive drug test, and especially in baseball.

Since I am not Chris Colabello, I don't feel qualified to judge his choices. Only his colleagues have that right. And none of them worked half-as-hard to get where he's got.

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Colabello's teammates have rallied to him because that's what teammates do. Out of earshot, they'll be wondering if the guy they play with was the genuine article or the chemical enhancement of a pedestrian player. The Jays executive will (and must) be more ruthless. Colabello is only under contract for this year. He's been miserable so far – two hits in 10 games.

Clubs and their fans go to great lengths to forget the missteps of a star (Exhibit A: A conspicuous lack of conversation about Marcus Stroman's 50-game drug ban as a minor-leaguer).

But at best, Colabello is a role player. It's quite possible this is it, and that he'll be out of baseball in short order.

When I first heard about Colabello's suspension, my mind drifted to another former Blue Jay who was also an unlikely big-leaguer – utility infielder Howie Clark.

Clark played 10 years in the minor leagues before he was first called up. Ten years! In the off-season, he worked barges in the Port of Long Beach. Like Colabello (and unlike most big-leaguers), Clark had actually proved he played baseball for the love of the game.

Also like Colabello, he was an unusually bright and thoughtful guy. He had perspective. You'd often find him in the clubhouse to talk, not for a story, but because he was fun to talk to. Clark was a mediocre major-leaguer, but he shone in his own way.

Clark was 34 years old, still plugging away, when he was named in the Mitchell Report. His name was buried in the small print, just a few paragraphs in the midst of hundreds of pages. As he had his whole career, Clark hardly registered. But it hit me like a rock.

"Not Howie," I thought.

Followed by, "Of course, Howie."

He wanted to be a big-league ballplayer and would have done anything to get there. Even things he didn't want to do.

Clark admitted he'd used human-growth hormone. He called it "a mistake." A few months later, he was out of baseball for good.

Clark didn't have Colabello's golden moment. The New York Times didn't do a story about his rise to the top, because he'd never quite got there.

However this turns out, I hope people will remember Colabello as I remember Clark – as a guy who wanted something so much, he did not know how to give up on it.

It's still a great sports story. But now that it is compromised and complicated, it's a great human one as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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