Bristol American Legion baseball coach LaPenta has used lessons learned during time in Chicago Cubs organization

Published on Friday, 19 July 2019 16:37
Written by ZACK CARPENTER

@ZACKCARPENTERBP

BRISTOL - Jerry LaPenta’s stay in the Chicago Cubs minor league organization may have been brief, but what he learned over those summers helped set the foundation for his second career in baseball - coaching.

“My biggest thing I learned is teaching the kids to play the game the right way and to respect the game,” said LaPenta, the Bristol American Legion baseball head coach. “Be humble.”

It was a trait LaPenta honed after graduating from UConn in 1986 as one of the most successful hitters in Huskies history and the ups and downs plenty of players go through in the minors that followed.

When he left Storrs, LaPenta held 13 total program records. His senior season he had a .375 average, 15 home runs, 45 RBI, enough to get him signed by the Cubs, where the left-handed hitting corner infielder began his professional career playing in the New York-Penn League. 

But trudging through a grueling schedule on cramped bus trips and sleeping in small hotel rooms at just $850/month made him see that life in the minor leagues wasn’t exactly glamorous. Three years later, LaPenta’s playing career came to an end.

“It’s a lot harder than people think,” LaPenta said. “It’s a business. You learn to appreciate it as a business. The travel can wear you down. You’re playing 144 games in 160 days. It’s a difficult life, but it’s also rewarding.”

Through that life is where he developed friendships with guys such as former Yankees manager Joe Girardi, current Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey and Jerome Walton, the 1989 National League Rookie of the Year.

But perhaps more disheartening and taxing than the travel was making friends who would soon be cut by the team. Or the realization that even two straight 3-for-4 performances with a couple doubles and a home run wasn’t good enough.

“It was the first time I remember in my life where I had any type of anxiety playing baseball because you have to perform every day,” LaPenta said. “If you wanna stay where you’re at, you had to go 1-for-3 or 2-for-4. If you went 0-for-3 or 0-for-4, you HAD to go 2-for-4 to keep pace.”

Playing for the Single-A Peoria Chiefs in 1987, LaPenta “made a vow to never look stats again unless they were three weeks old because it didn’t serve me any purpose other than putting pressure on yourself.”

That mentality helped lead to a breakout season in which he hit above .300 for most of the summer before finishing with a .280 batting average with nine home runs, 21 doubles and 52 RBI in 119 games. He played in 79 games in 1988 with the Chiefs, earning the nickname “The Pizza Man” for his propensity to always deliver. The moniker came from Joe Bosco, who spent that summer with the Chiefs and penned the book “The Boys Who Would Be Cubs” which chronicled that 1988 season.

LaPenta’s run with the Chiefs helped him ascend to the Double-A Pittsfield Cubs the following season, where he reached a new level of competition and pay at $1,300/month. 

“In the minors, it’s not about the money. It’s playing for the dream,” LaPenta said. “Ninety percent of the guys who play in the minors won’t see a major league field. It’s a tough life, and a lot of guys can’t handle it. I played with a lot of guys who had talent and couldn’t work their way through it.”

And, unfortunately for LaPenta, there wasn’t much success to be had. 

While in Pittsfield, LaPenta suffered an oblique injury. Fearing he would get sent back down to Peoria, he kept the injury to himself, trying to battle his way through it and finished with a disappointing .205 average in 27 games. 

Without much money invested in LaPenta, an undrafted senior out of the Huskies baseball program, the Cubs decided to release him at the end of spring training in 1989 before he got the chance to embark on his fourth professional season. It’s a day he still remembers 30 years later. 

“You go in and your laundry bag’s not in your locker, and you know something’s up,” LaPenta said of his final day arriving to the facility. “When you’re a guy that’s not a big, top draft pick, as long as you put the numbers up, you keep moving [up]. That’s what I did. But then I got hurt and struggled a little bit. Then they had to make room for other guys.”

That’s what he was told when he got called into the office to receive the news.

“‘We know you can hit, but we just don’t have any spots for you,’” LaPenta recalls a member of the organization telling him. “I understood. … It was disheartening. I went through a bit of a depression for maybe a month trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life.”

LaPenta gave some thought to playing professionally in Italy but eventually decided to forego that option. That’s when a position as a scout with the Cleveland Indians opened up, and he seized the opportunity, becoming an Indians scout in the New England territory for five years. 

That opportunity eventually led him back to UConn, where he was an assistant for his old head coach, Andy Baylock, for nine seasons until 2003. He then became a coach for his daughter’s travel softball team and his son’s little league team. That’s what led to him becoming an American Legion coach. 

In 2011, when his son was an eighth-grader, LaPenta was asked to become head coach of a newly formed Bristol Junior Legion team. Wanting to coach his son and give back to the community, LaPenta took the reins and led Bristol to a state championship in its first season. He then took over the Bristol Senior Legion program in 2013, and he has remained in that post ever since, able to teach his players the same valuable lessons he learned during his years in the minors. 

“I’m really a proponent of not disrespecting my kids on the field,” LaPenta said. “If I ever [have issues] with them, I always make sure I take care of it in the dugout or in the locker room so it’s not a scene.”

LaPenta is reminded of his minor league days periodically. About every six months or so, he receives a baseball card of himself in the mail from his days as a Peoria Chief or Pittsfield Cub from loyal, card-collecting Cubs fans seeking his autograph. He just received one such card about two weeks ago. 

“It’s kind of amazing. There’s a huge Cub network out there,” LaPenta said. “There are Cubs fans who collect minor league cards from every team. People are just crazy about the Cubs.”

Even though LaPenta only had a three-year stint in the organization, some Cubs fans still haven’t forgotten him, and he hasn’t forgotten those days either. That includes one of the most valuable lessons he learned decades ago, and it’s one he’s still grateful for:

“You never know what opportunities are gonna open up for you.” 

Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or zcarpenter@bristolpress.com



Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol Central, Bristol Eastern, General Sports, St. Paul on Friday, 19 July 2019 16:37. Updated: Friday, 19 July 2019 16:40.