By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
TAMPA — When Matt LaPorta was still a toddler, his mother Cindy knew her son was going to be a baseball star.
As a 2-year-old, the young LaPorta would play tee-ball in the backyard, and he’d send ball after ball over their big, wooden fence.
That’s when Cindy made a bold, and mostly true, prediction.
“I actually wrote it in his baby book at two,” she recalled. “I wrote in there, ‘A mother knows. I feel that he’ll either get a full scholarship to a Division I college for baseball, or he will play major league baseball one day.’ I wrote ‘mark my words!!’”
After graduating from Charlotte High School, LaPorta did in fact go on to play Division I baseball, and wasn’t drafted just once, but three separate times before finally playing professionally and competing for the United States in the 2008 Olympics.
The first time LaPorta’s name was called during the MLB Amateur Draft was in 2003 after a successful high school career with Tarpons. The Chicago Cubs — his favorite team — selected him with the 403rd overall pick in the 14th round.
LaPorta chose college over the pros that year, which is a decision he looks back at now, and knows was the right choice.
“It was a tough decision because I always wanted to be a professional baseball player. You think you have this dream that’s been answered,” LaPorta said. “I was just thinking short-sided if I took that opportunity with the Cubs. I was still maturing, and had a lot of growing up to do. College teaches you so much, and helps you grow up as a person. I was thankful I was drafted late, so that it made it an easier decision to go to college.”
While attending the University of Florida — actually, even before that during a recruiting visit — he met a girl named Dara. She’ll become important again in a few paragraphs.
LaPorta had a stellar career with the Gators for whom he played in 215 games, primarily as a first baseman and designated hitter.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-handed hitter batted .323 with 74 home runs and 206 runs batted in for Florida. Division I players aren’t eligible to be drafted again until after their junior season, which for LaPorta, was the worst of his four in Gainesville. He suffered an oblique injury that year, and admits he rushed things a little too much to get back on the field.
LaPorta went into that year expecting to be a highly sought-after prospect, but because of the injury, he fell again to the 14th round, this time being selected by the Boston Red Sox.
“Going back to school for my senior year was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” he said.
It wasn’t just important because he improved his value to teams, which he did by having one of the greatest seasons in UF history. He hit .402, had an on-base percentage of .582 that included 30 extra base-hits on the way to being named the SEC player of the year and All-American by five organizations.
Not only that, he re-connected with Dara, and the two began dating in the summer of 2007.
LaPorta was on top of the world, and as the seventh overall pick in the first round of the 2007 draft, he was selected for a third and final time, this time by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Between the three teams that drafted him, they selected a total of 146 other players those three years. Of the 146 players, only 27 of them ever played at least one game in the major leagues.
LaPorta is one of those 27, although he never played a single game for any of those three teams.
On July 7, 2008, the Brewers were in the middle of a playoff hunt, but would’ve been on the outside looking in had the season ended that day. They felt they were a starting pitcher away from being a championship contender, so the club made one of the biggest trades of the season.
The Brewers acquired one of the league’s best pitchers in CC Sabathia, in a trade that sent LaPorta to the Cleveland Indians. He was considered the centerpiece of what the Indians received, and this turned up the heat on his projected stardom.
“I think externally, there was a lot of pressure on the organization,” LaPorta said. “To me, there was not. Maybe subconsciously there was, but I always had the expectations of I want to be the best anyway. If you’re setting that expectation for yourself, there wasn’t necessarily that added pressure. It was the pressure I already put on myself to succeed.”
Before LaPorta could play even one game in the majors, he reached what is likely the pinnacle and highlight of his career as a member of the 2008 USA Olympic team.
On a team filled with future stars such as Stephen Strasburg, Jake Arrieta, and RA Dickey, LaPorta and the United States took home a bronze medal in what was the last time baseball was featured at the Olympics (it was recently announced baseball will return at the 2020 Games).
“I look back on all the great opportunities I had,” LaPorta said. “I’ve met so many great people. The places I’ve been. I probably never would’ve gone to Beijing, and I got to go there for the Olympics and represent my country. I remember being at the Olympics and thinking ‘If this is the highest level of my play, this is an honor.’”
The Olympics were just the beginning of what would be a memorable 18-or-so months for LaPorta, both personally and professionally.
Shortly after Beijing, he and Dara were married in December. He quickly advanced through the minor leagues, and in May 2009, the Indians called up their big prospect.
LaPorta played in 52 games that season and showed great promise.
Of the more than seven billion people on earth, millions of them dream at one point in life of being a major league baseball player. LaPorta was the 17,133rd person in the history of the world to have that dream come true.
Despite going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in his MLB debut, May 3, 2009, is a date he’ll never forget as he was surrounded by his family in Detroit.
“It was kind of surreal. It was something I worked my whole life for,” LaPorta said. “As a kid, you’re looking at baseball cards, you’re watching the TV, and hoping one day you’re on that field, and then one day you’re actually on that field. I was just trying to make sure I took it all in.”
LaPorta made the Indians’ opening-day roster in 2010, and between that year and 2011, had significant playing time, appearing in 217 games over those two seasons. He mostly played first base over his career, and holds a lifetime .993 fielding percentage while committing just 14 errors.
The injury bug hit LaPorta again in 2012.
He struggled in spring training, playing in agonizing pain with a hip problem. The Indians sent him back down to the minor leaguesto begin the season.
It was the beginning of the end of LaPorta’s career.
He made it back up to the majors in 2012, but spent all of 2013 in AAA trying to rehab from his hip injury. “Try” is the keyword there, as he says he was never able to get back to 100 percent.
The Indians didn’t re-sign LaPorta after 2013, and in 2014, the Orioles gave him a shot, but he didn’t make the team after spring training.
“I knew my career was coming to an end,” LaPorta said. “I still walk with a limp. I still have pain that I deal with on a daily basis with my hip. When they released me — even though I had a good spring training — I understood it. I just understood it.”
LaPorta tried to prolong his career, playing two months for the Campeche Pirates in the Mexican League, but life outside of baseball was becoming too significant to pursue an international career.
Dara was living in Tampa with their 2 1⁄2 year-old daughter, Sienna, and their 6 month-old twin boys Price and Maddox.
“It wasn’t fun,” Dara said, as she reflects on watching her husband make the decision to give up baseball.
“You question, you wonder, you hope you’re making the right decision. Luckily, his hip made the decision for us ultimately. As much as we saw it coming, it still felt sudden.”
Now 31, LaPorta is a loan officer, specializing in mortgages for SunTrust Bank in Tampa. His family recently grew larger, as he and Dara welcomed their fourth child, Tessa, about two months ago.
It’s a career he’s passionate about, although he never imagined it for himself.
It allows him to spend plenty of time with his family, something he wouldn’t have been able to do as a major league baseball player, and while you can take the man out of baseball, you can’t take baseball out of the man.
“I equate a lot of this business to baseball,” LaPorta said. “However hard you work will lead to how successful you’ll be. You can go out and carve the way for what you want. It’s great. If there’s a day I want to take the kids to Disney, we can go and do that.”
LaPorta set a goal for himself at a young age, and got to live that dream for a few years. Although it might not be what he envisioned as a high school star for the Tarpons, his second career as mortgage broker and family man appear to be just as fulfilling.
But he hasn’t made any bold predictions about his kids yet, the same way his mother did 29 years ago.