Homers LaPorta's chief strength
University of Florida first baseman approaching school mark
Matt LaPorta hit his first home run as a 5-year-old, and he hasn't slowed down since.
Granted, that was off of a pitching machine, but at the rate he's been sending balls out of the park at the University of Florida, you might assume he doesn't even notice the difference between man and machine.
Through Monday, the junior first baseman has 14 home runs, and he's just one shy of Brad Wilkerson's school-record 55 for a career, with three games left in the regular season.
"God has really blessed me in that area," said LaPorta, of his crushing hits. "But I have to work just as hard -- harder -- than anybody else. That's helped me a lot, too."
It's hard work that includes early-morning workouts before classes and, if warranted, staying after practice in the afternoon. But it is that same dedication that has pushed LaPorta from a freshman bench player to winner of the Gators' first Southeast Conference Player of the Year Award as a sophomore and earned him invites to the 2005 USA National Team and baseball's elite Cape Cod summer league.
"There's no question about it -- he works extremely hard, and his outstanding power comes from that," Florida coach Pat McMahon said. "He'd hit all night long if he could.
"He's very demanding on himself, and in my opinion, can play anywhere on the ballfield. He's a critical component to this team ... and I'm very proud of them."
Sometimes, statistics speak for themselves. In his first year at Florida, LaPorta hit .285 (37-for-130) in 50 games, with five doubles and 14 homers, earning first-team Freshman All-America honors.
His numbers jumped drastically the next year to .328 (87-for-265), with 16 doubles, two triples and an NCAA-best and single-season school-record 26 long balls. The breakout season brought in a plethora of awards, including First-Team All-America from five different organizations, first-team All-SEC, a place on the All-Tournament roster at both the SEC and NCAA tourneys, an appearance on the Xanthus-Dick Howser Trophy Watch List and SEC Player of the Year. He's hitting .247 so far this year (36-for-146), with a double and a team-leading 14 homers, despite missing 16 games with a strained oblique muscle.
McMahon said that LaPorta is also a standup member of the Gator community.
"He's the first to volunteer to go to children's hospitals and work Little League clinics," McMahon said. "He's a first-class young man in every way, just an outstanding individual."
Although admittedly his favorite home run was the first of the College World Series last season, LaPorta had to do some thinking before he answered, understandably so. He knocked out nine for the Yarmouth-Dennis (Mass.) Red Sox en route to a 2004 Cape Cod championship -- just shy of the league-high 11 -- and three in an intrasquad game during the 2005 USA Baseball National Team Trials. The homers he has hit may blend together, but LaPorta said that the encounters he had in those two leagues will be with him forever.
"[USA Baseball] was an opportunity I'll probably never, ever get to have again," he said. "To travel and be gone across the seas for two weeks and play with the talent I was playing with ... it was just amazing.
"And [Cape Cod] was a great experience, getting to play with the potential big-league baseball players," he said. "I enjoyed it, going out and playing every day. I left there with some great friends.
The draw of the Majors was never more apparent to LaPorta than when he was drafted in the 14th round by his childhood-favorite Chicago Cubs in 2003. But, he said, school came first. And off he went to the Gators.
Since then, LaPorta has made pitchers quake across the United States, Japan and Taiwan, led Florida to a national championship appearance in 2005 and knocked out 150 balls, by his estimate, since that summer day when he first conquered the pitching machine. His ultimate goal is -- and always has been -- to be a professional ballplayer, and as the 2006 First-Year Player Draft draws nearer, LaPorta can almost see his dream materialize into reality before his eyes.
"When I was little, I'd always talk about making it to the Major Leagues and being like all the greats I'd see on television," he said. "The love has definitely always been there."
As a youngster, LaPorta would bond with his grandfather in the living room by cheering on Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson each day after school until Little League practice began. At practices and games, though, it was mom who took over.
Using her son's weakness -- a love for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches -- as a tool for motivation, LaPorta's mother would tell Matt before each game that his reward for a home run would be just that. And so it began.
Years later, the 21-year-old insists he can now make his own sandwiches, but it hasn't changed his hankering for homers one bit.
"I just eat a lot more of them now," he said with a chuckle.
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.