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By Will Kimmey
Matt LaPorta enrolled at Florida as a catcher, but classmate Brian Jeroloman's skill behind the plate prompted a shift to the outfield to keep him in the lineup. LaPorta settled in at first base as a sophomore, and then spent all of fall practice at third base.
LaPorta said third was his favorite position, though he's likely to spend more time at first this season. Some scouts like him in an outfield corner, while a small minority would like him to try catching as a pro.
It's easy to find a consensus on LaPorta's best position: next to the plate. He led college baseball with 26 home runs, including blasts off first-round picks Cesar Carrillo and Luke Hochevar, as he bashed his way to a first-team All-America sophomore season.
Few were fence scrapers. Texas coach Augie Garrido said LaPorta was better at putting things into orbit than NASA. He's been working a bit more often than those aerospace engineers, too, with 40 career home runs in 395 at-bats, or one every 9.87 at-bats. He needs 16 home runs this season to break Florida's career record, set over four seasons by Ben Harrison.
"Obviously, you see the strength in that swing," said an area scout with an American League team. "That's just monster raw juice."
LaPorta's prodigious blasts often provided the same momentum-shifting power as a slam dunk in basketball; Florida was 21-3 in games in which he homered last season and 27-20 otherwise.
"I think some people think I either hit a home run or strike out," LaPorta said. "That's not it at all. I can hit the ball to right field and I do hit it to right field. When I just happen to hit it good, it goes out."
In addition to the homers, LaPorta led the Southeastern Conference in slugging percentage (.698) and RBIs (79). He won the league's 2005 player of the year award while boosting Florida to a conference title and then the championship round of the College World Series. That success earned him a spot on the U.S. national team, where he led Team USA with four home runs and showed his toughness by playing through a severely sprained left foot and chipped front tooth he sustained on the tour.
"It's not too often you get to play for your country," he said. "I just sucked it up."
If LaPorta were to replicate his 2005 offensive output this year, no one would be disappointed. Except maybe him. He's a tireless worker always striving to improve. Police arrived at McKethan Stadium late one night last season after someone reported hearing loud noises coming from Florida's ballpark. It turned out LaPorta was just honing his swing.
LaPorta continued that quest upon returning to campus late last summer. He has lost about 15 pounds by sticking to a leaner diet--eating more chicken and fish and vegetables while cutting out greasy foods--and added quickness by performing extra agility work with the strength coach twice a week. Both will help should LaPorta end up playing more at third base than Pat McMahon initially expects, though his range might still be limited to one or two steps either way.
LaPorta has also enhanced the video study he began last season with departed senior Jeff Corsaletti. He started by watching film of his own at-bats and moved on to checking out major league hitters.
"We've got study hall at school, and I'm on the Internet instead of doing school work finding out what these guys' approach is," LaPorta said. "I don’t do exactly what they do, but take little pieces of what they do and add it to mine."
LaPorta watched a lot of Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez this fall in an effort to make better adjustments on pitches on the outer half. He worked diligently during the fall to go the opposite field, taking steps toward closing a hole many college power hitters have there.
"He could ultimately be a Paul Konerko-kind of guy, that could be his path," the scout said. "I can see him hitting .250-.270 with 30-35 homers, and once he makes some adjustments, maybe does some zone hitting, he can raise that average up."
Those kind of numbers would put LaPorta on par with Albert Pujols, someone who always draws special attention from LaPorta. Watching the 6-foot-1 junior stand at the plate with his feet spread wide and his elbows bowed out to either side proves reminiscent of the 2005 National League MVP.
"Matt LaPorta, I think he looks just like Albert Pujols," Southern California righthander Ian Kennedy said after facing him during national team trials. "He's a good hitter with a really good plan and he studies his swing a lot--he watches film after film--and it shows."
LaPorta likes more than just Pujols' swing. He lists the Cardinals slugger's selfless team-first attitude in downplaying accolades and moving from position to position to play wherever he best helps the team. LaPorta, who wears a large gold cross around his neck, also admires Pujols' faith and desire to help others.
"I've read and heard stories about him," LaPorta said of Pujols. "He's a good Christian guy and a classy guy. There are a lot of guys who don't take advantage when they're a superstar to give back. If I have the opportunity, I want to do that. You can’t forget where you came from."
It's not surprising LaPorta emulates Pujols in each of these ways, too. He was named to the SEC's Good Works team for working with children in pediatric care, reading in elementary school classes and helping remove debris in a Hurricane Charley relief effort in his hometown of Port Charlotte, Fla.
Apparently, LaPorta already has figured out how to use his power for