Today is Matt LaPorta's 30th birthday. As humans go, that is not particularly old. If you're lucky enough to have been born and raised in a relatively prosperous country, at age 30 you're only a little more than a third of the way through the lifetime you might reasonably expect to have. If you're a professional athlete though, 30 marks sort of an unofficial beginning of the end. You may have some good years left, and in rare cases you might even have your best years still ahead of you, but more likely you're in a decline that will never end.
Those of us reading this are (for the most part anyway) fans. As fans, many of us are prone to viewing professional athletes as a commodity of sorts. As for those on our favorite teams, the short version of things is that if they perform well, we like them. If they perform poorly, we don't like them. There are exceptions to that, but Matt LaPorta in Cleveland was not one of them.
LaPorta, you likely recall, was the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia trade. At the time, reasonable people thought the deal was a reasonable move for the Indians, given that before long they were going to lose Sabathia for nothing more than a draft pick unless they dealt him away first.
LaPorta instantly became the Tribe's top prospect, one with many hopes pinned to him. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the #30 prospect in baseball that offseason. Baseball America ranked him at #27.
In 2009 he was sent to Columbus, where he destroyed the ball during the season's first month, earning him his MLB debut on May 3. He homered in his second game with the Indians, a game-tying shot in the 7th inning. He was sent back down three weeks later, and went on to finish his Triple-A season with a .917 OPS, 3rd best in the International League. He was promoted again for the final month and a half of the season, and during that time he hit 6 more home runs and put up an OPS of .805.
He'd had some hip soreness late that season, and in October he had surgery to remove bone spurs there. He spent most of 2010 and 2011 with the Indians, but didn't hit quite as well. He wasn't bad at the plate, only a little below average, but below average at the plate doesn't cut it for a first baseman. Every time he went down to Columbus for a stretch, he killed the ball again, but eventually fans stopped believing it would translate. Eventually, they were proven right. LaPorta struggled through 2012, spending more time in the minors than with the Indians, and posting the worst numbers of his career at both levels. In 2013 he was never called up, and when the season ended his time with the Tribe ended with it.
In a total of 1,068 plate appearances for the Indians, LaPorta batted just .238/.301/.393, with 31 home runs and 223 strikeouts.
I understand the desire to rip LaPorta for failing to live up to the hype around him. At times I even participated in that ripping. At the same time, there is almost certainly no one who was as frustrated with his struggles as LaPorta himself. A tremendous high school and college player, a top ten pick, one of the highest-rated prospects in the world, it would have been hard for LaPorta not to assume he was headed for greatness, or at the very least solidity, and enough money that neither he nor his children would ever have to worry about things.
LaPorta was signed by Baltimore last winter, but let go six weeks later, the team having seen enough to decide he wasn't good enough to keep. He wound up joining up with a middling team in the Mexican League for 32 games during April and May, in which he hit 7 home runs and slugged .555. Despite that relative success, LaPorta decided to call it quits on professional baseball. In July he and a former college teammate took over 18 units of a pizza franchise in the Tampa Bay area.
By reaching the level he did, LaPorta was once among the 500 or so best in the world at what he did, which means he was better than most of us ever will be at our chosen craft. Despite that, he is viewed by many as a failure. That's a shame, because he accomplished a lot (winning an Olympic medal, among other things), and so far as I know, he was never involved in any sort of incident that should cause him to be looked down upon for anything beyond a low MLB batting average.
I wonder if LaPorta feels old today. I hope that he doesn't. I hope he recognizes that most of his life is still ahead of him, maybe even his best years. I hope Pie Five Pizza is as delicious as he says it is, and that he gets years of satisfaction from his newly chosen vocation.
I wish Matt LaPorta a very happy birthday. He deserves it.