By JOHN GORALSKI
Ted Williams recognized the pitch just before it was released, and he swung around in the Pawtucket dugout to face a wide-eyed Russ Laribee. The legendary hitter began hurling a litany of questions at the Southington star, and Laribee stumbled over himself to try to get out each answer.
What do you think he’s throwing? What are you going to do if you get in there as a hitter? How often does he throw that pitch? Laribee struggled to answer each question, but Williams was already onto the next question as soon as Laribee’s lips began to move.
Teammates must have rolled their eyes a lot during that spring of 1981 when Laribee and Williams began to pick up a full head of steam at the end of the bench. Williams, the mentor batting coach, would be throwing out questions a mile a minute, and Laribee, the student, was one of the few people that could actually keep up.
For most baseball fans, this would be a fantasy camp dream. For Laribee, it was just another day at the office.
“He would never let you relax during a game,” said Laribee, one of Williams’ prized pupils in the minor leagues. “He would constantly be quizzing you to keep your head focused on the game. To hear a guy like that give you advice as if he was playing the game and reliving the moments he was in there through you—just to share that with you—it was an honor to be sitting there.”
But Williams wasn’t a coach that wasted his time on empty projects. The hall of fame legend must have seen something in Southington’s left-handed slugger. After all, Laribee had leapfrogged a number of high-priced prospects in a mad dash through the minor leagues just to earn his spot on the AAA roster.
“He was a big fan of mine, and he was great for my ego,” Laribee said. “He used to tell me that I can’t miss if I keep swinging the ball the way I was swinging it. He used to like the way it jumped off my bat. He told me that I had a great eye, and I wasn’t swinging at bad pitches.”
Williams was only confirming what Southington fans had known for years. Laribee could spot the seams on a fastball in much the same way as the Red Sox great. What fans might not have known is that, Southington’s prized lefty learned how to hit by accident from a mother trying to keep her young son busy in the backyard.
“She didn’t know what she was doing, so she sort of picked up the bat with a left handed swing,” Laribee said with a laugh. “The first time I picked up the bat, I did it the same way as her. I became a left handed hitter because of that. My mom taught me how to hit because, the first time I learned how to hit, I just tried to copy her.”
For coaches and teammates, it seems a fitting start to a Southington player that seemed to soak up advice like a sponge at every level. He had the eyes of a hawk, the hands of a boxer, and a minor league career that fell just short of the shadows at Fenway Park. Laribee was the kind of player that coaches loved to have in their lineup.
“He was a very quiet kid with a loud bat. That’s the best way to describe him,” said former Southington High School baseball coach John Fontana. “He was almost that forgotten kid in the back of your mind, but he would come up with guys on, and you knew he was going to hit the ball.”
Perhaps it was no accident that Laribee was confident at the plate. Athletics was in his blood. His father played football for the Southington Gems. His brother played semi-professional softball in a local league. Laribee grew up in a neighborhood on the south end of town that featured everything that an up-and-coming athlete could want.
“I was fortunate because we had a neighborhood full of kids at that time, and a lot of us were within a year or two of each other,” he said. “There were always enough kids around to get a game going, whether it was basketball, baseball, or football. The streets were quiet—the side streets, at least—so we were able to play football in the streets. There was an old horse corral, and we built our own fields. We put together a pitcher’s mound, a backstop. I must have been playing sports every day of my life back then, and we played everything.”
But it was baseball—right from the start—that consumed Laribee’s dreams. He would pitch, play the infield, or roam the outfield. He would play shortstop or catcher—whatever was needed.
“That’s the sport I loved, and I figured it I was ever going to be good I should stick to that,” he said. “My dream was to go all the way. I didn’t quite make that, but that was my passion. I just loved baseball, and I spent a lot of time playing it.”
Laribee was a standout right from the start, but it wasn’t easy to get noticed in a town like Southington.
In Little League, he was sidelined by a late birthday and forced to play a lower level while his classmates rallied just short of the Little League World Series. Jealous, feeling left out, Laribee vowed he would never be on the sidelines again. When he reached Kennedy Junior High School, he battled his way onto the roster each year. When he reached the high school as a sophomore, it didn’t take long for him to make the move from junior varsity to be the upper field. Once he got there, he started every game.
“He was a hell of a hitter. Very seldom did you see him strike out, and he could put the ball wherever he wanted. He had power in all fields. He was just a good ball player,” said Fontana. “Every time he hit the ball, he hit rockets.”
When he got the chance, Laribee always made the most of it. At Southington High School, he managed to hit .300 every spring. In his senior season, Laribee exploded with a mind-blowing .470 batting average, but that wasn’t all. On the mound, he was nearly perfect (7-1), striking out 137 batters in just 70 innings. On the bases he was uncatchable, managing 23 steals in 25 attempts over the course of his varsity career.
At the plate, he was a dominant force, rallying for a hit in 23 consecutive games during his senior season (1974). That streak sparked the interest of college coaches and major league scouts.
“I never really gave it a heck of a lot of thought until I started reading about it afterwards,” he said. “I just remember getting up there and treating every at bat the same. I was never really thinking about getting a hit to keep the streak going. I just went up there focused and put the ball in play hard and run.”
It was no surprise that Laribee was thrust into the spotlight. The Chicago Cubs offered him a free agent contract after graduation. Fans were waiting for Laribee to accept the Cubs’ offer, but the young slugger shrugged it off for a chance to play at the University of Connecticut.
“I thought that, if I was good enough, I would have a chance (at the major leagues) no matter where I would go,” he said. “I didn’t think I was ready, and I really believed it would be a mistake. My father left it up to me. Coach Fontana didn’t try to tell me that I should or shouldn’t, and I really did appreciate that. They let me make the decision, and I really think that—at the time—I made the right one.”
Laribee played his first season at the Avery Point campus where coaches helped him perfect his swing to maximize power. The next spring, Laribee transferred up to the main campus where he battled his way onto the varsity roster. Over two seasons with the Huskies, Laribee rallied for a .304 batting average with 24 extra base hits.
His .575 slugging percentage in his junior season drew the attention of scouts once again. This time, the Red Sox organization drafted the Southington slugger during the 1977 June amateur draft.
“I just remember that he was a big kid that could run like a son of a gun, and he could put the bat on the ball,” said Andy Baylock, an assistant baseball coach for the Huskies. “He could run, and he was a pretty fast kid. When you can run like that, and you can put the bat on the ball, you’re obviously going to make yourself into a pro prospect.”
Laribee said that, at first, he felt like a fish out of water. At the Red Sox camp, he was surrounded by warm-weather players that were used to playing 80 to 100 games each summer. For a player from the Northeast, this can be overwhelming. In his longest season, Laribee played in only 35 games.
“I was really concerned that I wasn’t going to be up to the level of some of these other kids,” he said. “I figured all I could do was go up there and work my butt off. The surprising thing about everything was that after I spent a week there, I started believing I was better than everybody there.”
Once again, it didn’t take long for him to get noticed. By the end of the 1977 season, Laribee had worked his way up to MVP of the Red Sox A- franchise in Elmira, N.Y. The following summer, he buoyed himself to the top of the roster at the A division program in Winter Haven, Fla. In just his third season, Laribee returned home to play for the Bristol Red Sox (AA) at Muzzy Field.
“It really was different. Maybe there was a little bit of pressure there, because I got off to a really slow start in my first year. I was hitting under .200 by mid-May,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong, but looking back, maybe there was a little pressure playing in front of family and friends. I was right here in my back yard. Gradually, everything started coming together and I had a really nice year.”
And that’s where things began to stop making sense. Laribee was tagged as a top 25 prospect in the Red Sox minor league organization. He was invited to a premiere instructional league each year in Florida, but when the Red Sox opened the 1980 season, Laribee was back in Bristol.
“I always thought that, with the year I had in Bristol that was basically better than anybody else on the team, they sent me back? It was almost as if they said that they didn’t believe in me, so let’s see you do it again,” he said. “Not only did I think I was better than those guys that they sent to Pawtucket, I always felt that I had proved that by playing on the same field on the same team and the same set of circumstances. I was actually pretty disappointed that they sent me back there again.”
But Laribee didn’t complain. Instead, he paced the Bristol team with a .302 batting average, 13 home runs, and 17 stolen bases.
The following year, he was finally called up to Pawtucket. At mid-season, he was leading the infield as the No. 4 hitter, but coaches moved him out of the lineup to make room for future hall of famer Wade Boggs. Suddenly, Laribee was the odd-man out as the AAA office shuffled in the high-priced prospects despite Laribee’s solid numbers.
His release came the following spring, but it was too late to audition for other programs. To keep himself in shape, Laribee played a year in Italy, securing 26 home runs over 40 games, but he never got another chance at the minor league circuit.
“I was keeping in shape. I was running, running, running. I lost weight, and I was in better physical condition than ever because I wanted to be in shape when that call came. It never did,” he said. “A lot of strange things happened, but I’m a lucky guy because I got to experience some things that many kids—just like myself—dreamed about doing. I was fortunate that I had enough God-given talent that I was able to fulfill a lot of those dreams.”
Southington fans have never forgotten the storied run through the minor leagues, so it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Laribee as a member of the Class of 2015. On Wednesday, Nov. 11, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“There are so many names and so much history in Southington, so to think that somebody is out there preserving that stuff is great,” he said. “To be part of that preservation is a special honor. There are a lot of guys that have come through before me, and a lot that will come after me. To be part of that is such a special feeling.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.