By KEVIN ROBERTS
In high school and college, there were times when Mark LaRosa was shown tough love by his baseball coaches.
At Southington High School, it was the legendary John Fontana dishing out the lessons. Down on the bayou at Louisiana State University, it was another legendary skipper, Skip Bertman, who did the lecturing.
“As a young, rambunctious boy, not unlike other young boys, there were a few times where [Fontana] had to crack the whip, and I loved him for it,” LaRosa said.
Fontana and Bertman were boisterous leaders, which fit right into the hard-charging southpaw fireballer’s personality. Fontana is one of LaRosa’s “favorite persons of all-time,” and he is fiercely loyal to the Southington legend.
“He’s a guy that would hug you and curse you out in the same sentence,” said LaRosa, “and I had the same makeup.”
Fueled by a desire to compete and a good fastball, LaRosa parlayed his energy into a brilliant 12-1 senior season in 1987 at Southington.
Blue Knight teammate Dave Majeski, a junior in 1987, said LaRosa was “the biggest, baddest punk, the why are you even bothering to step into the box against me” kind of pitcher.
“That attitude emanated off of him,” said his former teammate, “and we fed off of it.”
LaRosa went on to LSU and helped Bertman win the first of his five national championships in 1991, LaRosa’s senior season.
LaRosa was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 31st round of the 1990 MLB June Amateur Draft as a junior, but he returned to LSU. He was then drafted by the Montreal Expos in the eighth round of the 1991 MLB June Amateur Draft. LaRosa pitched in the minors from 1991 to 1994 until an elbow injury sustained during weight lifting ended the first part of his professional career. He did try to make a comeback with the independent Nashua Pride of the Atlantic League in 2005 before moving on for good.
It’s not surprising that LaRosa tried to come back, given the competitive fire that burns within him. He also had a gift to throw a baseball, and he tried to do everything he could with that gift.
“I’m very appreciate that God gave me the ability to do what I did,” he said.
LaRosa also praises Fontana for what he did for him and countless other Southington players.
“I don’t think people really truly appreciate what that guy has done,” LaRosa said.
That’s LaRosa—fiercely loyal to those he cares about. The Southington Sports Hall of Fame gets to return the love and loyalty this November when LaRosa is inducted with the rest of the Class of 2018. What else could they do for the guy who would stick his nose out for anyone he cares about?
And, by the way, LaRosa had the stats to back up the attitude. He once struck out future MLB all-star Frank Thomas at Auburn in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on second and third. Thomas of course is an Auburn legend and went on to a Hall of Fame career, mostly with the Chicago White Sox.
“If you’re in trouble, you wanted to put him on the mound, because I’ll tell you right now, he could throw that fricking ball,” Fontana said.
“He was a warrior, he really was,” Majeski said.
Fontana’s daughter hand delivered the hall of fame induction letter to LaRosa while he was outside with his boys Logan and Tanner.
“I really had no idea she was presenting me with the letter,” LaRosa said.
LaRosa was recently inducted into LSU’s baseball hall of fame, and now he’s heading into the Southington Sports Hall of Fame.
“A great honor…being inducted into your hometown’s Hall of Fame is awesome,” LaRosa said.
LaRosa is not just a baseball player who made it to the pros. At Southington High School, he captained the wrestling team and was ranked high in his weight class. He said that he loved wrestling, and it fit right into his tenacious competitive spirit. It’s also a reason why LaRosa battled his way to the starting position as running back on the football team.
Football has rubbed off on LaRosa’s sons Logan and Tanner, which he has raised with Lisa, his wife of 22 years. Logan and Tanner have each been captains of the Southington football team.
Of course, LaRosa’s biggest passion in high school was baseball, which he had played since he was eight or nine years old, and he turned into Southington’s ace in 1987. The transition began earlier in his career as a sophomore in 1985, and that’s when LaRosa realized he could do something with baseball.
“I grew into my body and I threw harder and harder,” LaRosa said.
The biggest thing about Southington’s battle-hardened warrior was his durability.
“Today, the guys will tell you they have an arm problem,” Fontana said. “He wouldn’t. He would go pitch with a sore arm because he was that kind of a strong guy that he wouldn’t let a little pain bother him.”
His teammates were glad that they weren’t the ones making the trip to the mound. “You definitely knew Mark wasn’t happy getting pulled out of the game,” Majeski said.
There were times that LaRosa would get almost to the point of an argument when Fontana was trying to pull his pitcher from the mound. That fiery personality helped Southington produce a terrific 19-2 season, and LaRosa was a huge part of that team’s chemistry.
“When he took the mound, you knew you had at least a chance to win,” said Majeski, “and he would push you to play hard with him and for him.”
LaRosa had 12 of the team’s 19 victories by the end of the season. He struck out 146 batters in 78 innings and allowed just 35 hits. LaRosa was effectively wild with 32 walks and gave up just 20 runs, 15 of them earned.
“Mark was in charge, and we followed right behind him,” Majeski said.
LaRosa would pitch all the time if he could. That even applied to an all-star game between Connecticut and Massachusetts at Fenway Park in Boston. The rule was that each pitcher would take the mound for just three innings before passing the ball to the bullpen. Of course, LaRosa was never much for rules. The Southington all-star shut down opposing batters for three innings…
“…what happened was, we lost a couple guys that couldn’t go to the game, so we didn’t have a pitcher,” said Fontana. “Well we got to the ninth, and the game was tied. So they brought him back in. He finished the fricking game. He shut them down.”
It was no surprise that colleges coveted the southpaw, including schools from Division I and Division II. He was wooed by many, but as soon as he stepped onto the LSU campus…LaRosa was sold.
“I said this is where I’m going,” LaRosa said. “I want to compete at the highest level.”
And he did. LaRosa helped the Tigers to the promised land, the College World Series, on three different occasions. LaRosa’s team went to the College World Series in 1989, 1990 and 1991. After a pair of 2-2 stints in 1989 and 1990, LSU dominated the field in 1991, went 4-0 and won the first championship.
“Going into the College World Series, all that, the SEC championships, it was all the same,” LaRosa said. “We knew what we wanted to accomplish.”
LaRosa departed LSU with three SEC championship rings and one national championship ring. The Tigers weren’t ready for the big time in 1989 and 1990, but they were really prepared in 1991. LSU could thank a rigorous conference schedule for getting it ready for the postseason.
“When you get into those games, every game, you’re playing an SEC opponent,” LaRosa said.
The southpaw said that the schedule set them up for the playoffs. The workouts were hard. The practices were physical, and the games were all-out wars. When the postseason came, LSU was ready to embrace the battles ahead, mentally and physically. It gave them a sort of swagger.
“We did so much mental preparation before the game,” LaRosa said. “We wanted to be those gladiators”
It’s not that LaRosa didn’t have personal success with LSU before the magical 1991 season. He won back-to-back regional games in 1990, including the championship game against the University of Southern California, which sent the Tigers to the College World Series.
One of his favorite memories was beating future MLB all-star Chuck Knoblauch’s Texas A&M team twice in their own park in 1989 to win the Central Regional and advance to the College World Series.
In 1991, everything came together for the Tigers. Lyle Mouton, College World Series MVP Gary Hymel, and seemingly the rest of the LSU lineup were on fire at the plate, and the Tiger pitchers shut down the opposition for the most part. LaRosa pitched in three of the four games and his totals were four innings, five hits, three strikeouts and three earned runs.
LaRosa stays connected to his LSU teammates to this day, nearly three decades after their magical run. At a recent reunion in Louisiana, the players spent hours reminiscing and busting on each other, LaRosa said. “It’s just boys being boys again,” he said.
LaRosa was teammates with Ben McDonald, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 MLB June Amateur Draft by the Baltimore Orioles. In June 1991, LaRosa got his chance with the pros when was selected by the Montreal Expos in the eighth round of the MLB Amateur Draft. He pitched for Jamestown in the New York-Penn League in 1991, then took the mound for West Palm Beach in the Florida State League and Albany in the South Atlantic League in 1992. He spent all of 1993 with West Palm Beach, then pitched for West Palm Beach and the Gulf Coast League Expos in 1994. LaRosa never got above A+ in the Expos organization and finished in Rookie ball.
LaRosa’s first professional stint ended in frustration when he suffered an elbow injury while weight lifting. He believes the freak injury kept him from having a potentially very productive professional career. LaRosa attempted a comeback with the Atlantic League’s Nashua Pride in 2005 and pitched in 40 games, but he retired for good after that.
The biggest thing the left-handed hurler took away from pro baseball was friendship. LaRosa calls pro players like Brad Ausmus and Darren Bragg some of his “closest dear friends.”
“I am loyal, and I take friendships and camaraderie very seriously,” he said.
LaRosa is still involved with baseball and has given pitching tips to current Southington High School hurlers like Ryan Henderson. He said that he’d do it for anybody that needs help, and he’d do it for free.
“That’s because of Fontana,” he said, citing all of the time and energy that Fontana and his other coaches put into his own development. He is more than willing to share his thoughts, doing so in his simple, direct and honest style.
So why is LaRosa a Southington Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Class of 2018?
“I think that people who know me, who played with me, would say I was a bulldog. I wanted the ball,” LaRosa said.
His former mentor at Southington High School would agree, and Fontana added this praise: “I just think you got to look at his overall body of work,” said the coach. “Not only [Southington], but he pitched for then the best team in the United States for about 10 years, LSU. Then he gets in the College World Series, which they won [in 1991].”
And, oh yeah, he also made it to the professional ranks.
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named LaRosa as a member of the Class of 2018. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com.