Making the major leagues, winning the Rookie of the Year Award, and making All-Star teams were just a few of the goals and expectations Matt LaPorta set for himself when he was drafted in the first round by the Milwaukee Brewers out of the University of Florida.
Ranked as one of the top prospects in professional baseball, expectations were high for LaPorta, who tore up the minor leagues and earned the label of a potential franchise player. However, his career never panned out like most expected, in large part due to injuries.
LaPorta’s journey to a roller coaster career in pro baseball first began in 2003. As a senior at Charlotte High School in Port Charlotte, Fla., LaPorta batted .455 with 10 home runs and 53 RBIs. His performance and high ceiling caused the Chicago Cubs to draft him in the 14th round of the 2003 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Although it was his dream to play professionally, LaPorta decided to skip the opportunity to turn pro and attend the University of Florida to play baseball on scholarship and to pursue a degree in recreation and event management.
After his junior season with the Gators, LaPorta was once again drafted. This time it was by the Boston Red Sox in the 14th round of the 2006 draft. But just like in 2003, LaPorta remained committed to the University of Florida and returned for his senior year.
“Obviously it was a tough decision because I wanted to play professional baseball,” LaPorta said. “But, at the end of the day with my faith and trust in God led me back to college and finish off something that I started. I knew that my talent would get me to the big leagues at some point regardless if I was an 18-year-old kid, a junior out of college or a senior out of college.”
Entering his senior season with the Gators, LaPorta knew he needed to improve from his junior year, where he hit .259 with 14 home runs and 38 RBIs, to enhance his draft stock.
LaPorta was able to do just that, as he hit .404 with 20 home runs and 52 RBIs his senior year to earn Southeastern Conference Player of the Year for the second time in his collegiate career.
His performance also caused his draft stock to soar. The Milwaukee Brewers selected LaPorta with the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft, making him the second-highest Gator ever taken behind John Burke, who went sixth to the Houston Astros in 1991.
“I couldn’t believe it happened,” LaPorta said. “Everyone talked about how I was going to be a senior and that my stock was going down. I knew going into that season that I’d have to be one of the best players in the country in order to get picked high and I was. It was just an amazing experience to be chosen by the Brewers.
“I had played baseball against Ryan Braun and saw what he did. My expectations were to follow those footsteps. I was hoping to be a Rookie of the Year and make All-Star teams.”
After agreeing to a $2 million signing bonus with the Brewers, LaPorta was moved from his college position of first base to the outfield in pro ball.
Despite the position change, LaPorta had instant success in the pros. Splitting time between Rookie and Class A ball, LaPorta hit .304 with 12 home runs and 31 RBIs in 30 games in 2007.
In his first full pro season with the Brewers in 2008, expectations were high for the young outfielder. He began receiving comparisons to Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and Baseball America ranked LaPorta as the as the No. 23 prospect in baseball.
After earning an invite to spring training, the Brewers optioned LaPorta to Double-A Huntsville where he started the season off by hitting .288 with 20 home runs and 66 RBIs in 84 games.
Ranked as the Brewers top prospect, many thought LaPorta was a key piece for the future. But, with the Brewers in playoff contention and looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 1982, general manager Doug Melvin shipped a package of players headlined by LaPorta to the Cleveland Indians for star left-handed pitcher CC Sabathia on July 7, 2008.
“It was hard to believe that I got traded since I just got drafted in 2007,” LaPorta said. “It was hard, but I understood. It was something they needed to do.”
LaPorta finished the 2008 at Double-A with the Indians and even participated in the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a member of Team USA. He began the 2009 season at Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate, but after 18 games LaPorta’s dream finally became a reality.
On May 2, 2009, the Indians promoted LaPorta to the big leagues. A 25-year-old outfielder and highly touted prospect, LaPorta made his major league debut on May 3, but didn’t record his first hit until May 4 when he homered off Toronto pitcher Brian Tallet.
“That initial call-up to the big leagues was amazing,” LaPorta said. “It’s something you work hard for your entire life and to get the call to go up there was fantastic. I think we were playing in Durham, N.C. I remember walking home and calling my parents to tell them that we did it and made it up to the big leagues.”
In 52 games with the Indians in 2009, LaPorta hit .254 with seven homers and 21 RBIs. He showed flashes of his tremendous power potential, but he still underperformed in his first stint with Cleveland.
LaPorta experienced hip soreness towards the end of the 2009 season, and after the season he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left hip to remove bone spurs.
He spent 110 games with the big league club in 2010, but was unimpressive once again, hitting .221 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs.
“I don’t think the pressure from other people got to me,” LaPorta said. “I always had high expectations for myself. I always wanted to be the best. I put a lot of expectations on myself that I’m sure others weren’t nearly putting as much on me.”
Over parts of four seasons with Cleveland from 2009-2012, he hit a combined .238 with 31 homers and 120 RBIs in 291 games. LaPorta appeared in 22 games with the Indians in 2012.
Little did LaPorta know that the 2012 season would be his last appearance in a major league game. Following the 2012 season, LaPorta once again had arthroscopic surgery on his left hip.
He didn’t play in the majors in 2013 and after the season he became a minor league free agent. LaPorta’s time with the Indians was over after four injury-filled and disappointing seasons.
“I had played baseball against Ryan Braun and saw what he did,” LaPorta said. “My expectations were to follow those footsteps. I was hoping to be a Rookie of the Year and make All-Star teams. Those were always my goals. Injuries hampered that.
“You don’t produce well and then fall apart in the big leagues. Without question my hip injuries had a huge effect on my career and the path it took.”
LaPorta attempted a comeback, signing a free agent deal with the Baltimore Orioles on Feb. 7, 2014. But just a month and a half later, the Orioles released LaPorta on on March 21.
Shortly after his release, LaPorta signed with the Pirates de Campeche in the LMB Mexican League in May. He performed well, hitting .286 with seven homers and 24 RBIs in 32 games.
Despite the success, LaPorta decided to call it a career, retiring on April 12, 2015 at 29 years old.
“It was probably in 2013 when (I realized my career was about over),” LaPorta said. “I was rehabbing, and I’d come back and play for a week and my hip would kill me. Then I’d go back and rehab some more. That’s when I realized my career was coming to an end.
“I stopped playing in 2014. It was a hard decision, but I had so much pain. It was almost a relief to be able to step away from the game because of the amount of pain I was in. Don’t get my wrong, I miss it. If my hip felt good right now, I’d be back out there playing.”
LaPorta, 31, now resides in Tampa, Fla. with his wife and four children. He works at SunTrust Mortgage, Inc. as a loans officer and also owns 18 franchise units of Pie Five Pizza, a fast-casual pizza restaurant, in the Tampa area.
After his retirement, he started the NowUp Foundation to work with former players who need assistance to successfully transition to their new lives outside of baseball.
Besides working on growing his foundation, LaPorta doesn’t have a burning desire to get back into baseball. Although his career didn’t work out like he’d envisioned, he’s happy with what he’s doing and enjoying spending time with his family.
“I think there always might be that time when I want to get back,” LaPorta said. “I have twin sons and they are young. Maybe I will end up coaching them. Right now, I don’t see myself getting into it. I think I’d like to coach, but the game is demanding. I have four kids and my family is the most important thing to me. Coaching takes a lot away from your family time.”