As soon as he heard the unmistakable “thwack” of a wooden baseball bat striking a ball, the blond-haired toddler began cackling and hopping up and down in place.
“Is that funny?” Christian Colonel said while preparing to swing at another ball from his pitching machine. “A groundout to shortstop?”
It's doubtful that Colonel's son, 2-year-old Cooper, understood the question. But whether or not he did, the tyke shrieked in joy anyway. That in turn put a grin on Colonel's face.
“This little man right here, he's the biggest motivation I have,” Colonel said. “When I'm tired in the morning and I don't want to work out, I think of Cooper and I think of what kind of a lifestyle I can provide us, and that makes me come down here and work a little harder.”
Facing the most uncertain offseason of his seven-year minor league career, Colonel, an American Falls native, needs all the motivation he can get. Colonel, whom the Colorado Rockies drafted in the fifth round of the 2003 draft, has played out his rookie contract and is a free agent for the first time in his life.
Free agency can reward a player who is fresh off an eye-popping campaign. Or it can cruelly punish a player who had a down year at the wrong time. It's hard to slot Colonel's up-and-down 2009 season in either of the two categories, which is probably why Colonel's next few months might prove a little more unpredictable than most other free agents'.
“I'm excited — very excited — first and foremost, but I'm a little nervous,” the 27-year-old Colonel said. “Officially, I don't have a job right now, so that's kind of stressful. But with my past and the numbers I've put up, I've talked to my agent, and everything should be A-OK. Everything should take care of itself. I should get a job.”
The season began in promising fashion when Colonel survived one cut after another with the Rockies' spring training squad. He had batted .308 the year before in his first Triple-A go-round. He had familiarized himself at a variety of different positions at Colorado's request. It seemed like all his hard work was finally going to pay off when he remained on the big league team's roster even on the final week of the preseason.
Then came the bombshell: On the last day of camp, the Rockies told him they were once again sending him down to the Triple-A Colorado Springs (Colo.) Sky Sox.
That sent Colonel on a tailspin. At the Triple-A All-Star break in mid-July, his batting average stood at a mediocre .248, 91 games into the season.
“I was just fed up with my season,” Colonel said. “I was disgusted. I was mad for throwing a good opportunity away. I'm like, 'The rest of the season, I'm just going to play with a carefree attitude.'”
As simple as it sounds, the adjustment made all the difference to Colonel's swing the rest of the season. In the 50 games he played after the break, Colonel batted .321, leaving his average at the end of the season at a respectable .279. Colonel also ended up with 69 RBI, the second-highest total in his career.
Colonel readily admits his power numbers — seven home runs, 17 doubles — disappointed him. But they don't worry him. Just two seasons ago, Colonel led the Double-A Texas League with 47 doubles, and he knows players don't simply forget how to hit balls into the gaps.
“It wasn't a season I'm used to having the last two years, but it ended up being a good season,” Colonel said. “A lot of minor leaguers would love to have a .280 year with 70 RBI. We'll just build off of that and get them next year.”
One big adjustment Colonel has to make this offseason is getting used to the fact that his name has lost some luster in baseball circles. Colonel knows executives no longer view him as a prospect, as an early round draft pick. He is now a 27-year-old who has played out his rookie contract without having received a big league call-up.
But you know what? Colonel's perfectly fine with that.
“No need for that,” Colonel said. “That's just a bunch of hype. I just want to get to the big leagues. I don't care if I'm a prospect or not.”
That's a path that much-less-heralded players have tread before Colonel on their way to the major leagues. Last season, infielder Bobby Scales made his big-league debut with the Chicago Cubs at the age of 31. He hammered a single off reigning Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum in his second at-bat and quickly became a fixture in the Cubs' lineup. In 2006, the Philadelphia Phillies granted catcher Chris Coste his first big league at-bat at the age of 33.
“Christian still has a lot of years left in him,” Colonel's agent, Chris Sisto, said. “I don't think anyone should be that concerned about his age and that he hasn't been called up to the big leagues yet.”
And so they'll wait. Baseball's free agency period began last Friday, but other than an exploratory call from the Atlanta Braves, Colonel and his agent haven't heard anything else. Colonel has little idea how his winter will shape out.
Things are a little different this offseason. But one thing remains the same: Colonel knows he can still play baseball, and he's going to keep trying to.
“I said last year that it was the most important offseason of my life,” Colonel said. “Well, actually, this one is the most important offseason I've had.”