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Posted: Sunday July 13, 2008 5:16PM; Updated: Friday November 7, 2008 1:35PM
Joe Lemire Joe Lemire >
INSIDE BASEBALL

LaPorta's bat the stuff of legends

Story Highlights

The Sabathia trade has brought the spotlight on LaPorta's burgeoning career

The No. 7 overall pick in 2007 could become the best player of a stellar class

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Matt LaPorta, likely the No. 1 prospect in the Indians' system, is a prime candidate for Team USA in this summer's Olympic Games.
Matt LaPorta, likely the No. 1 prospect in the Indians' system, is a prime candidate for Team USA in this summer's Olympic Games.
AP

NEW YORK -- Everyone has a favorite Matt LaPorta home run story. There's the one about the dented baseball, the one about the clutch bomb in the College World Series and the one that inspired the pitcher to offer his services for LaPorta's batting-practice. But none are as compelling as his performance in a high school home run derby five years ago.

As a senior at Charlotte High in Punta Gorda, Fla., LaPorta had already established himself as one of the state's premier power hitters when he competed in a home run derby in Sarasota. With his coach, Mike Metcalf, on the mound, LaPorta looked at him and said, "Let's go." Quickly the exhibition turned into a quick-hands drill, with Metcalf chucking pitch after pitch and LaPorta re-cocking his swing without bothering to watch where each ball landed. Soon there was a steady barrage of baseballs leaving the yard, a contest-winning 28 in all, with several in rapid-fire succession.

"At one point -- and people don't believe this, but it's on film -- he had four balls in the air at one time leaving the yard," recalls Metcalf, now an assistant at Florida Southern.

It's a feat that seems to exceed the bounds of what's physically possible, but others swear it's true. "He's not exaggerating," says SNN Channel 6 sports anchor Antawan Smith, who broadcast the event. "It looked like a video game. We always knew this kid had power, but he put on a display."

Corroborating video evidence is lacking, however, as SNN, which sponsored the derby, can no longer find the raw footage of the event, just the edited highlight that appeared on the evening news. Even the slugger himself isn't so sure there were quite so many simultaneously airborne balls. "I don't know if it was four --probably about three," recalls LaPorta with a laugh.

Still, there's no doubting that raw power LaPorta generates from his wide, crouched stance. At Florida, he became the SEC's only two-time conference player of the year. The Brewers selected him No. 7 overall in the 2007 draft. And the Indians made him the centerpiece of their return package for sending CC Sabathia to Milwaukee. On Sunday, he played first base for the U.S. Team in the Futures Game at Yankee Stadium.

"It doesn't really add any pressure because my job is still to go out and perform on the baseball field and help my team," said LaPorta about being dealt for a Cy Young winner. "Whether it's the Indians or the Brewers, it doesn't matter."

LaPorta has just completed a roller-coaster week that catapulted him to a near-household name. His fellow teammate with Double A Akron and in the Futures Game, Wes Hodges, told him the other day, "You're the same dude you were a week ago. Nothing's changed except that you got traded, and now everybody knows who you are."

Standing in the home dugout before the Futures Game on Sunday, LaPorta seemed awestruck playing in the Bronx -- "I'm shaking because I'm here in Yankee Stadium," he said -- but all other signs pointed to him already having reached the big time. There was the interview with Erin Andrews to open ESPN2's broadcast, the microphone MLB.com asked him to wear during pregame warmups and the cage-side chat with Peter Gammons. (Then again, the PA announcer introduced him as "Mateo LaPorta," much to his confusion.) In the game itself, LaPorta went 1-for-3 with a groundball single and drew a ninth-inning walk to bring the tying run to the plate in the U.S. Team's 3-0 loss to the World Team.

His high school coach as a sophomore, DaveTollett, who is now the head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University, used to work with LaPorta's mother, Cindy, and remembers watching LaPorta as a very young ballplayer.

"He was awesome," Tollett says with a laugh. "He could hit it a long way in Little League, too."

But what impressed Tollett the most was that when the 12-year-old LaPorta attended high school games, he wouldn't run around and play with the other kids -- instead, he'd sit in the stands and pay attention to the game, hoping to learn more about the game.

"I still haven't coached a kid yet that had more work ethic or drive than Matt," says Tollett. "When I pulled into the school at 6:30 in the morning, there were a couple of things that were guaranteed, and one of them was that Matt LaPorta would be in the batting cages hitting. He would even hit on Christmas Day."

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