An open letter to Matt LaPorta's ninth-grade guidance counselor ... Dear (well, let's leave it anonymous), Matt thanks you.
That might come as a surprise. You might expect to hear that Matt is still as angry with you now as he was that day 10 years ago, when you gave him a failing grade for the paper he wrote on what he wanted to be when he grew up. You remember the assignment, no doubt. All the freshmen at Port Charlotte, [Fla.], High School were asked to research their chosen profession, how much education they'd need to achieve it, how much money they could expect to get paid and even what kind of clothes they'd have to wear to work. Some kids wrote about becoming lawyers or firefighters or bankers. Matt wrote about becoming a Major League Baseball player. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, I hope it happens,'" LaPorta said. "It was what I wanted to do. Some people want to be a doctor. I didn't want to be a doctor. I wanted to play Major League Baseball." Matt did all the required research and turned in what he thought was a reasonable report. You responded that Matt's dream was "unrealistic" and told him that if he didn't rewrite the paper with a different career path, he'd get an F. Now, in your defense, Matt certainly had the odds stacked against him. Heck, even among those players fortunate enough to be selected in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft (as LaPorta would be in 2007), only about 66 percent make it to the Majors, and even fewer have lasting careers there. The mathematics, then, were in your favor. Matt's conviction was not. "If anybody believes in their dream or their goal, nobody has the right to shoot it down," LaPorta said. "There are going to be people out there that are going to shoot it down and say negative things about it. But if you followed what these people said all the time, where would you be? You'd almost be lost, because you wouldn't have a clear focus. I had a clear focus." Little kid, big talent While Matt always had baseball skills, it took some time for that focus to develop. Matt was an active kid growing up. In addition to Little League baseball, he also played football and took part in a traveling soccer team. He even won a BMX bike racing championship when he was 7 years old. Baseball, though, was the sport in which he excelled. "You knew right from the beginning that he was going to be good in baseball," his father, Vince, said. "When he was 2 years old, we gave him a Wiffle Ball and a bat, and he used to hit it out of the backyard. He just had that good hand-eye coordination and a lot of power." The electric company would get a glimpse of this when street lights would have to be replaced in Matt's neighborhood after he had used a bat to belt small rocks into the sky. And kids on Matt's teams would get a glimpse of it when he'd pound pitches over the wall in Little League games. One summer day, Matt's home run hitting was the hot topic among those gathered at a Little League game in Port Charlotte. Matt's sister, Nina, who was 5 at the time, heard all the ruckus and found a pay phone near a concession stand. She dialed the only number she knew -- 911 -- because she had been taught to call it in case of an emergency or something really important. "The police showed up at the Little League field," Matt's mother, Cindy, recalled with a laugh. "They said they were looking for a little child that may be in need of help. But she just wanted to tell them all about Matt hitting a home run." Yep, even at 10 years old, the kid had pop that stops the cops. Of course, not every kid with Little League talent makes it to the big leagues. You knew this when you marked Matt's paper with the dreaded F. But not every kid has Matt's hunger, either. Vince had helped to instill that in him shortly before high school with a conversation about moving up from the Little League to the Senior League fields.
"You're going to the big field," Vince had said, "and this is where a lot of the guys that you played with in Little League aren't going to be able to play. What's going to separate the good and bad is who puts the extra work into it. There's always somebody out there practicing, hitting the ball off the tee in the backyard, taking extra ground balls. The guy down the street, if he's out there, is getting better. If you're not, you're lagging behind."
That conversation left its mark on Matt. In high school, he'd show up at 6:30 a.m. so he could hit in the batting cage before classes began.
"Ask any teacher that was there at that time," Vince said, "and they would tell you, 'There's Matt LaPorta, hitting in the cage.' He truly worked hard to be at that top level."
Follow that dream
In giving Matt that failing grade, you essentially told him that his hard work in baseball would amount to bupkis. And when you offered him the opportunity to write about another career, he turned it down. He preferred being saddled with the F over shifting his focus.
"I wasn't going to let her talk me out of my dream," Matt said. "It just wasn't going to happen."
Where many parents might have been upset with their kid for making such a decision, the LaPortas were pleased.
"That was an honorable thing for my son to do, and I commend him for it," Cindy said. "That was one F that I was very, very proud of."
You remember Cindy, right? Of course you do. Because shortly after the incident with Matt, she showed up at your office to talk about what transpired. Cindy was, as you'll recall, pretty riled up, because as a special-education teacher, she spends her work week telling kids with learning disabilities that they can achieve their dreams, no matter the odds against them.
"For me to have another professional at my level tell my son he can't achieve his dream, that's bothersome for me," Cindy said. "That's popping the bubble of what I spend my day trying to do."
The two of you chatted as professionals and eventually agreed to disagree.
"Within a few hours," Cindy said, "we had the transfer papers."
Matt switched schools as a direct result of the disagreement over the career-path paper. He moved on to nearby Charlotte High School, where, after his senior season in 2003, he was a second-team all-state selection in Class 5A by the Florida Sports Writers Association and was drafted as a catcher by the Chicago Cubs.
LaPorta turned down the Cubs' overtures and instead opted to accept a scholarship at the University of Florida. He was a two-time Southeast Conference Player of the Year and a two-time consensus All-American.
In 2007, the Brewers made Matt the seventh overall pick in the Draft. And one year later, the Indians made him their prized acquisition in the trade that sent the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, CC Sabathia, to Milwaukee.
The Indians didn't just get a great talent. They got a great person who relies on his faith to get him through trying times, such as when his grandfather, Clark, passed away in the midst of the whirlwind that came with the trade and Matt's ensuing selection to Team USA in the Beijing Olympic Games. Or when Cindy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last fall.
"He's a very faithful kid," Cindy said. "Whereas some of us may try to take it all on our own and worry and try to control the situation, Matt kind of turns it over to Christ and gives him the power and the control. He has a Christian sense of maturity that many of us are still striving for."
Matt always strived to make it to the Major League level. And in May, that's just what he did, as the Indians called him up from Triple-A Columbus. His first hit came May 4 at Toronto's Rogers Centre on -- you guessed it -- a home run.
After sending LaPorta back down to Columbus to get some more seasoning, the Indians recalled him in August for what promises to be a more extended look. He's become a fixture in the Tribe's lineup, and he figures heavily into the Indians' plans at either left field or first base for 2010. They view him as a potential cornerstone bat.
|"If anybody believes in their dream or their goal, nobody has the right to shoot it down."|
|-- Matt LaPorta|
And so, just as he forecasted a decade ago in a freshman composition, Matt is a Major Leaguer. He defied the odds and proved his big dreams weren't so unrealistic, after all. The LaPortas love to tell the story about that paper and what it meant to Matt. And Matt himself is using it as inspiration for a scholarship he's planning at his high school (not the one where the two of you crossed paths, of course, but the one he transferred to and graduated from). He wants to use the scholarship to encourage kids to follow their dreams and not let anyone get in the way. Some people have suggested to Matt that he write a letter like this one. Or they tell him to give you a call or mail you a copy of one of his big league paychecks. Don't worry, though. That piece of mail isn't coming. "You know what, I'm not here to prove points," Matt said. "The way I look at it, she knows. I don't need to rub it in somebody's face." Really, Matt prefers to thank you for the inspirational F. And come to think of it, the Indians thank you, too.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.