Legend of LaPorta (cont.)
Playing pro ball was always a goal, and the competitive drive was instilled by his father, Vince. "When I was younger my dad always told me, 'Hey, you got to keep working because there's somebody out there working harder than you,'" LaPorta says. "I never wanted anybody to be better than me, and I didn't want anybody working harder than me."
LaPorta was a good enough high-school catcher that the Cubs drafted him in the 14th round in 2003 (though Lastings Milledge beat him out for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's area player of the year), but he instead chose to accept a scholarship to Florida, where he was shifted to first base. "He was an outstanding defender at first base for us," says former Florida coach Pat McMahon, now the manager of the Staten Island Yankees. "Matt possessed major-league power to all fields -- not just pull power but all fields. And he had flexibility defensively from a tools view." In the minors, however, he's been stationed almost exclusively in the corner outfield spots, as it's no secret that his bat is his meal ticket to the majors.
No matter which position he played or which uniform he wore, the character of LaPorta, a devout Christian, made a lasting impression on all his coaches. Tollet used LaPorta as his babysitter ("and my kids loved him"), Metcalf invited LaPorta to his wedding and McMahon apologized to a reporter for his gushing praise of LaPorta. "Sorry if I get too long-winded -- Matt is such a special young man," said McMahon.
While at Florida, McMahon called a Saturday morning workout and was surprised that LaPorta approached him to say he might not able to attend because of a prior commitment. At first, McMahon responded sternly, until he learned the nature of LaPorta's commitment. "He didn't want to talk about it, but he was going to the [hospital's] cancer ward for kids," says McMahon. "Matt was not only the first guy to volunteer to go, but he brought players with him."
LaPorta became a college star as a sophomore, leading the nation in home runs with 26. He was projected to be a top pick when he became draft-eligible, but an early-season oblique injury sidelined him for 13 games. He didn't regain his peak form and ultimately slipped to the 14th round of the draft (picked by the Red Sox) but chose to return for his senior year.
As a senior, LaPorta batted .402, hit 20 homers and walked 55 times in 52 games for a .582 OBP (combined with an .817 slugging percentage, his OPS was an astronomical 1.399). In one three-game series against Tennessee, he had 14 plate appearances -- and was walked 10 times. Nine were intentional. In the Friday night opener, he was intentionally walked all five times he strode to the plate, including in the bottom of the first inning with no on and two out.
"His senior year was just a phenomenal offensive year, not only with power and hitting for average but he was taking pitches and got the walks," says McMahon. "The discipline to walk and that strike-zone awareness is critical as he moves up the ladder."
Thus far LaPorta hasn't had much difficulty with minor-league pitching. In 84 games this summer playing for Milwaukee's Double A team in Huntsville, he batted .288 with 20 homers and 66 RBIs and 45 walks for a .402 on-base percentage; in his first four games with Cleveland's Double A affiliate in Akron, he was 6-for-16 with a home run and four RBIs.
With LaPorta, of course, there will always be the home runs. As a high school sophomore, with Charlotte trailing Sarasota 1-0 in the final inning, LaPorta hit a two-run homer to dead center of Ed Smith Stadium that cleared the trees and landed in the parking lot. Someone retrieved the ball for LaPorta, who was so excited that he interrupted Tollett's conversation with the opposing coach after the game.
"Matt comes up to me and says, 'Coach, look there's a dent in this ball,'" recalls Tollett. "Both of us just started laughing. He was so proud of that. It didn't matter if I was talking to Jesus, I think he would have interrupted us."
An Auburn killer in college -- he was 17-for-36 with eight home runs and 17 RBIs in his last nine games against the Tigers -- LaPorta hit one particularly mammoth blast off Auburn's Evan Crawford that went over the trees beyond the left-center field wall of Gainesville's McKethan Stadium.
"We got the tape and would sit at home and watch it about once a month," says former Auburn pitcher Luke Greinke. "We'd just sit and laugh about how far he hit it. Crawford actually called LaPorta and said he'd be his B.P. thrower in the big leagues, if he needed him."
LaPorta actually prefers a homer he hit as a UF sophomore in 2005. Facing Arizona State in a College World Series elimination game, with the winner advancing to the championship series against Texas, LaPorta blasted a homer for the Gators' final run in a 6-3 win.
He's been with his new team for only four games, but already he's given the fans in Akron a LaPorta home run story of their own. On Friday night, with the Aeros trailing the Reading Phillies 2-1 and down to their last out, he parked the game-winner to left field.
The legend grows.