Many people were surprised to hear Matt LaPorta's name called with the Brewers first-round pick on draft day, but his accolades while playing for the University of Florida certainly warranted the selection.
A talented catcher coming out of high school, selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 14th round of the 2003 draft, LaPorta decided to honor his commitment to Florida where he was named the SEC player of the year twice in his career, carried the Gators to a second place finish in the 2005 College World Series and finished his collegiate career with the ninth most home runs in NCAA Division I history.
In addition to LaPorta's ability on the field and at the plate, he receives high marks for his character and makeup off the field with a strong work ethic and desire to be a positive role model. He received the Daniel J. Silva Sportsmanship Award as voted by the umpires of the Cape Cod League after the summer of 2006 which exemplified his professional and enthusiastic approach to the game.
Currently a member of the West Virginia Power, power is LaPorta's calling card, and a week before he made his professional debut with the Helena Brewers, in which he hit a towering home run in his first at-bat off of former teammate Bryan Augenstein, he talked me about his approach at the plate, his career at Florida, moving from first base to the outfield and his aspirations for the future.
Patrick Ebert (PE): First of all, congratulations, and welcome to the Milwaukee Brewers organization. How does it feel to be on the cusp of starting your professional career, and do you have any specific thoughts about being a Milwaukee Brewer?
Matt LaPorta (ML): It feels great to be a part of this organization and to get ready to get out there and get going. I'm really excited to be a Milwaukee Brewers because I have a lot of family that lives in Indiana and the Chicago area, so they'll be able to come see me once I get to the big-leagues.
PE: I heard that you grew up as a Cubs fan. Does it hurt at all being a part of a team that is a big rival of the Cubs?
ML: No, I really just enjoyed watching the Cubs with my dad and my grandfather and it was more for the enjoyment of doing something like that as a family.
PE: I think many to most Brewers fans that follow the draft were surprised to hear your name called with the seventh overall selection. Can you enlighten us at all to the scouting process, and at what point did you know that the Brewers were as serious as they were about drafting you as high as they did?
ML: They called me on Sunday (before the draft) and talked to (my agent) Bob Brower and wanted to know if I would do a work-out down in Tampa with their high-A ballclub. At the time I was out of town, so I flew back in and did the work-out. They wanted to see how I could move in the outfield, and I guess I did alright. Up until the draft we knew they liked me, but there were some other guys on the board in front of me that they (the Brewers) were interested in, so we had to take a wait and see approach. Right before the draft started they called Bob and asked if I would sign at slot and become a Milwaukee Brewer. The rest is history.
PE: How is the rehab on your quadriceps going, what are you currently working on and is there an estimated timetable for your professional debut?
ML: It's going well. It's a tedious process, but the guys here are taking care of me, making sure that I do everything as far as physical therapy is concerned to get me healthy. I try not to put a timetable on it because then you start thinking that you have to get better by a certain point in time. You need to let nature take its course.
PE: What are your thoughts of the Brewers plans to send you to the Arizona Fall League?
ML: IF that happens that would be great. I would be very thankful for that. It just will feel good to get out and start playing ball instead of rehabbing. Its something to look forward to.
PE: There are quite a few readers at Brewerfan.net that are big proponents of the modern slugger, the kind that not only hits for average and power, but also one that has a very selective eye at the plate by drawing a bunch of walks. Can you share you overall approach to hitting, what you're looking for and what you're trying to do from at-bat to at-bat?
ML: I really just try to get up there and relax. It's really as simple as "see the ball, hit the ball," knowing what you want to hit, and then hitting it. If you get something that you don't like, you don't need to swing at every single pitch. That's something I've learned over the past few years. Just because you have two strikes on you doesn't mean you still can't make great contact and be a great hitter in those situations.
PE: So do you employ a different approach with two strikes?
ML: No, I really just stick with the same approach. It doesn't matter what the count is.
PE: I watched quite a few of your games this year after seeing quite a few Florida games in past years as well, and it seems as though you started to lay off outside pitches as opposing pitchers seemed really hesitant about coming inside to you. Was that something you specifically worked on, and was that change of approach not only a big part of your huge season, but also a big reason why your strikeout numbers were drastically reduced during this past year?
ML: Absolutely. I can't say it's something I've been working on, but it is something that I have had in my head knowing that I have to lay off those outside pitches since that is how a lot of teams would pitch to me. It was kind of like a switch that really clicked, as I'm even more relaxed at the plate knowing that I don't have to swing at those pitches.
PE: After your huge sophomore season, in which you were named the SEC player of the year when you led the nation in home runs, and also finished second at the College World Series, you and the entire Florida Gators team seemed to suffer a pretty big set-back during the 2006 season. Being in the middle of that lineup, were you pressing too much at the plate and trying to do too much, or did the nagging injuries really take their toll?
ML: A lot of guys got injured on our team that year and it was tough. Some guys were about to get drafted so they were probably thinking about that in the back of their heads. Once we started losing it was like we tried to do too much, and you can't play baseball like that.
As for me, when I got hurt I came back and tried to do everything, trying to repeat my sophomore year, and I just couldn't do it, it wasn't possible to come off an oblique injury missing as much time as I did. It caused me to not do so well. But I'm thankful for the experience because I learned a lot from it.
PE: Speaking of the oblique injury, did the injuries you suffered your junior year help you deal with the ones you encountered this season?
ML: Definitely, because I knew that it was something that I had to work through but that everything would be alright. It's not life threatening, you just had to put the time into rehab and get back to 100 percent.
PE: And you bounced back incredibly well this season, being named SEC player of the year for the second time. How big of an honor was that?
ML: It was really great, I was so excited. I was talking to my roommate saying that I hoped I would get it just before I got the phone call. Honestly I didn't think I was going to get it. I had good numbers, but our team just didn't do that well.
PE: How big of an honor is it to not only be the all-time home run leader at Florida, but also to be ninth on the all time career list at the college level?
ML: It really has been a blessing. God has blessed me in college. I remember sitting down in high school debating as to whether or not I would even go to college, and I felt that God wanted me to go to college for whatever reason. I went to college and struggled my freshman year and didn't know what was going on. God really guided me through my college career and I'm grateful for that.
PE: What was the highlight of that career?
ML: It really was a mixture of everything. The entire ride was great, it's hard to put my finger on one thing. Going to the College World Series was an amazing experience and something I will never forget. I loved that atmosphere, the fans were great.
PE: Were you ever close to signing with the Boston Red Sox after they took you in the 14th round a year ago?
ML: Yes and no. We had a few talks, but we just didn't think it was the right fit at the time so we went our own ways, no hard feelings.
PE: What's your take on moving to the outfield upon beginning your professional career?
ML: I think it is a great opportunity because I caught in high school and my freshman year in college, played first after that, and now being able to help a team out by moving to a different position is great. As long as I'm hitting that's all that really matters.
PE: Currently in Arizona working out at the Brewers spring training complex, how well do you get to know the players living and working out in such close proximity, and are other players such as Bill Hall, who is currently rehabbing with the Arizona Brewers, pretty open to the younger guys?
ML: I met him (Hall) when I came up to Milwaukee to sign my contract. When he got down here we talk every day in the dugout and in the weight room. We don't really talk about baseball, it's more about getting to know one another.
PE: Are there any players at the big-league level that you have modeled any part of your game after?
ML: I used to try to model my game after Albert Pujols. I have kind of gotten away from that because the way he swings the bat just isn't normal. He's unreal. I try to use some of the things he does, and I like to look at a lot of other swings as well and try to incorporate the things I like into mine.
PE: What do you see for yourself in the future?
ML: It's really hard to say. Hopefully I'll be playing in the big-leagues and making an impact for the Brewers.
I'm in a position right now where a lot of people look up to me, and I hope that I can be first-class in everything I do because there is always someone watching you. Those little kids eyes, they look up to you, and I just want to be the type of person that can be their idol by showing them that this is the right way to do something, and they don't have to worry about seeing my name in the newspaper for doing something bad. Unfortunately it's a shame, as I wish there would be more press on TV and in talk shows about some of the good things players and people in general are doing instead of all of the bad stuff that is covered.
PE: Do you have any famous last words?
ML: I thank God for being such a big part and a blessing in my life.
PE: Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes to you and your career.
ML: Thank you very much.
Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and Brewerfan.net, and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.