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Mudville: May 25, 2022 7:59 am PDT
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LaFountain L’Grande

Jim LaFountain’s record-setting efforts at the University of Louisville should have been a precursor to what appeared to be a potentially explosive career in Minnesota. Instead, injuries, some of which were the result of pushing himself too hard, short-circuited LaFountain’s career and ended his journey before it really had a chance to begin.

The New York State native was an All-American at Louisville in the mid-70s and his record-setting performance on March 24, 1976, made headlines across the country. LaFountain connected for three grand slams that day against Western Kentucky, two in one inning, and drove in 14 runs in a game that was shortened to five innings after the Cards jumped out to a 26-4 lead.

LaFountain was the first player in NCAA history to hit two grand slams in one inning, a record that has been equaled several times since, and remains the only player in NCAA history to hit three grand slams in one game. His 14 RBIs eclipsed the previous record of 12, which had been set nine years prior. LaFountain’s mark has since been topped by Florida State’s Marshall McDougall, who hit six homers and drove in 16 runs – both current NCAA records – against Maryland on May 9, 1999.

While his performance against Western Kentucky provides a wonderful what-if scenario surrounding LaFountain, his life and his story are not defined by that one day. Rather, his is a tale of dealing with heartbreak and rebounding to have an incredible life outside of baseball. LaFountain went on to become an award-winning body builder and earn three Master’s degrees. He also owns one of the most prominent fitness centers in upstate New York, a business that celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2021.

And it all began because some his high school buddies strong-armed him into going to college.

A STAR AT MOHAWK VALLEY

LaFountain was a three-sport start at John F. Kennedy High School in Utica, N.Y., dominating in basketball, baseball and football. He loved basketball the most, though, spending more time on the court than he did on either field. However, as his high school career moved along, it became apparent that a future in basketball, at least a meaningful one, wasn’t going to happen.

“My sport was basketball, I lived on the court all summer,” LaFountain, 67, said. “I had always been a 6-foot-, 200-pound guy but by the time I was a senior I had become a muscle guy. I would hang out under the basket and rebound and dunk and I became more of a thug. I rebounded and put balls back in and saw the writing on the wall.”

That writing didn’t seem to include college, though. LaFountain was working at a service station after graduating from high school. He said he enjoyed tuning up cars and that he thinks he didn’t even want to go to college. But the night before the fall semester was about to start, several of his friends showed up at the gas station and convinced him to take a ride the following morning.

“My friends showed up to gas up their car and they said come with us,” he said. “We will be here tomorrow at 7:45. So I went with them [to Mohawk Community College] and signed up. I knew I wanted to own a fitness center so I started [majoring] in business. That didn’t go o well. So, I got into electrical tech and then I tried to drop out but the baseball coach convinced me to stay, telling me I could get a scholarship [to a four-year school]. He built me up as a baseball player and gave me a lot of confidence.”

“All I wanted to do was sign a pro contract but I was playing so crappy. He took me back to little league. Willie Stargell said, ‘it’s playing ball, it’s not work, it’s ball.'”

LaFountain went on to have two spectacular seasons at Mohawk Valley, so good in fact that he was eventually inducted into The Mohawk Hawk Valley Baseball Hall of Fame. He hit .444 in 1973, good enough for 11th on the school’s all-time single-season list. His love of weightlifting and working out began to become an issue, though, one that would ultimately change his career trajectory.

“I lifted weights and that was really taboo in those days,” he said. “I’d sneak into the weight room and work out three or four times a week. At the junior-college level you could overpower less-than-stellar pitching. When I got to Louisville, they discouraged weightlifting but the football coach would let me come in and work out with the football team. I would stay late and come in early.”

His time at Mohawk Valley was enough to get LaFountain a tryout with the Pirates before he headed off to Louisville. There were two other players at the tryout and LaFountain was offered a contract for $10,000. LaFountain, after discussing the situation with his father, opted to continue his college career. His dad’s logic – it’s only $10,000 and a college education is worth so much more.

HEADING DOWN SOUTH

So, LaFountain headed to Louisville though his success at Mohawk Valley afforded him the opportunity to continue his collegiate career at other four-year schools like North Carolina, North Carolina State and Kentucky. However, freezing rain in North Carolina and snow in Virginia, respectively, impacted his decision on where he would go.

It was sunny and 70 degrees the day he visited Louisville. The Cardinals swept a doubleheader from Michigan the day LaFountain visited. That and the fact that head coach Jim Zerilla, who was 43rd-round pick by the Mets in 1966, had him put on a uniform and go out and take batting practice made an impression.

“To me, him coming there was a little more than that [the weather],” said Zerilla, whose career also included stints as a scout for the Padres and Cubs and as a manager in San Diego’s system. “When you’re a college coach you get correspondence from all kinds of people. And, at that time, Louisville wasn’t as big as it is now. The thing that got me was that he wrote a personal letter. It was not a copy or a mimeograph and it was signed by him.

“When I got that letter, I immediately reached out. It was just so different than most other people who contact you do it. It was something that just touched me and had me thinking gee, I’ve got to contact this kid. What he’s talking about with the weather did happen; it just happened to be a beautiful day. But he and I had a great conversation when he came to visit and he ended up coming to school. Prior to that letter, though, I didn’t know anything about him.”

Zerilla, Louisville and the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference would find out about LaFountain soon enough though. He arrived on the Louisville campus in August and the weather was just a bit different than it was in the spring on his initial visit. LaFountain said he didn’t think he had ever been anyplace hotter.

The heat, however, did little to deter him. LaFountain quickly established himself as a player that needed to be in the lineup.

“It was a huge jump in terms of competition,” LaFountain said. “The thing that I think was really an asset for me was that I didn’t look at baseball or practice as work. It was always fun. I would stay on the field longer than anyone and practice longer because it didn’t seem like work and that got me up to speed with the better competition.

“There were six catchers there and seven or eight first baseman so I really had to perform. You couldn’t load because the coach was a real hard ass. You couldn’t loaf to first base if you walked kind of thing. It was an intense experience.”

Zerilla, however, came to view recruiting LaFountain as a bit of a coup. Louisville baseball was not well-known or even very good in the early 70s when Zerilla became the coach. LaFountain’s arrival, however, shifted the outside perspective of the program as well as having an impact in the clubhouse.

“He was a really talented guy that had not gotten much exposure from being in the Utica area,” Zerilla said. “When he got to Louisville, he just worked his butt off so hard all the time and was never a complainer. Guys flocked around him; he was a real leader. And, of course, the one fantastic day he had was icing on the cake as far as who he was and how everybody looked at him.

“He made a change in the program. He came at a time that, when he got there, we were pretty bad. But he came in and was the first All-American Louisville ever had in baseball and was a real influence on the program.”

LaFountain, however, also arrived at Louisville with a knee condition about which he wasn’t even aware and a shoulder condition that he knew about all too well. He had torn his right ACL as a 13-year-old. It was the first time he had worn metal spikes and the spike got caught underneath him while he attempted to slide. He spent several weeks in a plaster cast following surgery and rehab, at the time, consisted of lifting a bucket of water with his right leg.

Zerilla said that when LaFountain was examined at Louisville it was discovered that he had no ACL in his right knee.

“I don’t know how he caught as many games as he did with a knee like that,” Zerilla said. “So, we got him to first base and took that off him.”

As for the shoulder, he injured that earlier in the year before he went to Louisville. LaFountain was playing for a team in Cooperstown when he suffered the injury.

“I didn’t warm up and it was 40 degrees out or something and I heard a pop,” he said. “I had torn my rotator cuff. I rehabbed that for two months before I went to Louisville and I thought it was kind of a miracle. I learned a lot about rehab.

“The first year was a real challenge with the heat and my shoulder. It didn’t affect me at the plate but I disguised it throwing sidearm. I had to change my arm angle and rehab like crazy. I don’t think I was ever 100 percent from a throwing perspective but I got by my junior year. That was the biggest challenge.”

THE RECORD-SETTING DAY

The biggest challenge that LaFountain had as he headed into his record-setting day against Western Kentucky was a slump. He was hitting only .110 with a homer and a handful of RBIs through 11 games.

Louisville had faced a South Alabama squad coached by Major League veteran Eddie Stanky just a few days prior and Lafountain did not have a good day. He struck out four times and was lost at the plate. That was never more obvious to Zerilla as that game progressed.

“He wanted to do well so badly that if he didn’t, he would get frustrated,” Zerilla said. “I’ll never forget this, and we talk about it a lot. We were playing South Alabama and he had a run of maybe 10 at-bats where he wasn’t going well. He had some strikeouts. He had a 3-0 count and fouled off a pitch and then called time and walked toward me at third base and said, ‘Coach Z, I’m not hitting’. I said I know that because you’re standing here talking to me. Go back to home plate and do what you can do.

“He had had a lot of success and had to learn how to deal with struggling. That was Jim. He was frustrated.”

LaFountain turned to Stan Prager for answers. Prager was not only Louisville’s assistant coach he was a psychology professor and Lafountain’s psychology advisor. Prager, who passed away in December, also served as a sports psychologist for several of Louisville’s teams, including the 1986 men’s basketball team that captured the NCAA title.

The discussion that the two had heading into the game against Western Kentucky proved to be invaluable for LaFountain, whose minor was psychology.

“He asked me a question, ‘Why did you start playing baseball?’,” LaFountain said. “I said for fun. He said ‘Are you having fun now?’ and I told him no, I hate this f—ing game. He taught me how to visualize. And a game later… he really shifted my perspective. All I wanted to do was sign a pro contract but I was playing so crappy. He took me back to little league. Willie Stargell said it’s playing ball, it’s not work, it’s ball.

“That got me out of my funk. I just had to see the ball early and keep my hands on top of the strike zone. If I tried to muscle it, I won’t hit through the ball. I narrowed it down to those two things and it helped.”

The two teams played a doubleheader that day and Western Kentucky took the opener, 12-11, setting the stage for LaFountain’s spectacular nightcap. Zerilla decided to move LaFountain from cleanup to sixth in the lineup for that game to help take some pressure off and perhaps allow him to see a few more fastballs. The strategy worked and the difference was noticeable immediately.

LaFountain blasted a two-run homer in the first inning. He came up again in the second and belted his second homer, this one a grand slam. LaFountain came up early in the third inning with the bases loaded and once again went deep for his third homer and second grand slam of the game. He wasn’t finished, though. He connected for his second grand slam of the inning a short time later, cementing his place in the NCAA record book while effectively ending his slump.

Mohawk Valley Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee and former Minnesota Twin Jim LaFountain visiing students in Utica, NY in 2019. (Photo via Facebook / Upstate Cerebral Palsy)

“I got in the batter’s box [the first time] and I hadn’t hit a homer in 11 or 12 games,” LaFountain said. “But on the first homerun I saw the ball like a grapefruit and I hit it probably 420-430 over the left centerfield wall. Every subsequent homer I hit, I just replicated that first at-bat. I didn’t understand why my last time up they would even pitch to me with the bases loaded.

“Later in the third inning, I was so focused during my second at-bat, I didn’t even know the bases were loaded. I just shortened my stroke, got a good pitch to hit and drove the ball as far as I could. The dugout was kind of wild. I couldn’t believe they pitched to me. They tried to knock me down in my third and fourth at-bats. After the third grand slam, everything felt good but I just wanted to get back in the dugout. They ended up calling the game after that.”

LaFountain’s four-homer, 14-RBI game was national news. He got calls from newspapers around the country after the story hit the wires. The local television station was on hand for Louisville’s next game. LaFountain says he remembers hitting a homer in that game as well and ‘from that point on I just simplified everything’.

That simplification helped him finish the season with a nation-leading 84 RBIs. He concluded his Louisville career with 30 homers and 121. He was a two-time All-Metro Conference player and during his senior year he was named as an Academic All-American.

Life seemed good for LaFountain as the draft approached but he proved to be his own worst enemy in the weeks leading up to the draft. His thirst for working out and his competitiveness got the better of him and he wound up hurting his shoulder.

“Before one of those [late season] games I was lifting weights with the football team and I benched 405,” LaFountain said. “That’s when I heard a pop in my shoulder. This was right before the draft and I had to throw everything sidearm so I think the scouts thought I was damaged goods. So that [lifting weights] wasn’t a good thing to do.

“My roommate was a football player and there was all this rah-rah stuff. He loved to workout. I got a t-shirt from the football coach that said I was a member of the 400 [-pound] club and my younger brother said that was a $75,000 t-shirt. Hurting my shoulder cost me a lot of money.”

LaFountain subsequently went undrafted and signed as a free agent with Minnesota though he wasn’t even sure he would be able to play because of his shoulder.

THE SHORT PROFESSIONAL CAREER OF JIM LaFOUNTAIN

The Twins assigned LaFountain to Elizabethton of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League, a squad managed by former Major League pitcher Fred Waters. Waters spent parts of two seasons with Pirates [1955-56] and retired after 14 years of pro ball in 1962. Waters was well-respected by the Twins and spent 22 years managing their rookie-ball teams, winning 719 games and three league titles. He was an old-school skipper and didn’t seem to care for his new first baseman.

“It was rumored that he hated college kids and I think he didn’t like me because I was an All-American,” LaFountain said. “I was totally distracted by it the whole summer. I promised myself I would never let another human being do that to me again.”

LaFountain hit .226 in 199 at-bats with nine homers [sixth in the league] and 22 RBIs. It was enough, however, to earn him a promotion to Visalia of the Class-A California League in 1977.

“It was much different the next year,” Lafountain said. “I had a great spring [in ‘77]. A lot of pitchers were just working themselves into shape and I led the organization in every offensive category. [Former Cincinnati Reds great] Roy McMillan was the manager and he was one of the all-time nicest guys I ever met. This was also a co-op team with the Braves and the Rangers and it was a lot of fun.”

LaFountain surely was having fun. He was among the league leaders in all offensive categories, hitting .335 with nine homers and 31 RBIs through 38 games [155 at-bats]. He would not play in a 39th game, though. In fact, he wouldn’t ever play professionally again after re-injuring his right knee while trying to break up a double play against the Lodi Dodgers. It happened in much the same way he originally injured the knee nearly a decade earlier.

“I was sliding into second base and my spike got caught and there was a big pop,” LaFountain said. “Next thing you know, I’m in the hospital for the night. I went to see Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles and he said he could operate the next morning but that we needed permission from the Twins. But the Twins didn’t want anyone but the team doctor doing it and he was out of the country and wouldn’t be back until the end of August. I think if the Twins had given permission it might have salvaged my career.”

LaFountain stayed in Visalia through early August and then returned to Utica [N.Y.] before heading to Minnesota to have surgery. Once able, he said he rehabbed as much as possible before heading to Spring Training in Melbourne, Fla. the following March. He had been assigned to the Toledo Mud Hens of the Triple-A International League based on his half-season performance with Visalia.

“During Spring Training my knee was sore all the time,” LaFountain said. “I would take a handful of aspirin before a game and aspirin and beer just to go to sleep. There was an airport and hotel next to the Twins facility in Melbourne and I went into the batting cage near the airport one day and my knee gave out again.

“I was never the same after that. I couldn’t stand for long periods of time and I had no real rotation in my knee. I just knew I couldn’t play anymore. I got a letter from the Twins saying they were refusing to release me in case I ever wanted to come back. It was just a relief, though, to not have to go through that [the aspirin-beer regiment] every day.”

Zerilla was as disappointed as anyone about the unceremonious end to LaFountain’s career. He envisioned a big career for his former player, especially since he could have been a designated hitter with Minnesota.

“Of all the guys I have seen, he could hit the ball as far as anybody,” Zerilla said. “Offensively, the guy had as much power as anyone that ever held a bat. He had the skills. He just had to have the mind to not make it too tough on himself and if he did that, he had a great opportunity to play Major League ball.”

POST-PLAYING DAYS

LaFountain ultimately headed back to Louisville and got married in 1979. His wife, Cindy, was a gymnast at Louisville and her scholarship covered married housing so that’s where he stayed while teaching math at a local high school. He also kept lifting weights.

“I was still into weights and some of the guys I lifted with dared me to enter the Mr. Louisville contest,” LaFountain said. “I got second and I got second in the Mr. Kentucky contest. It was weird but I got to stay competitive without getting hurt. It [1979] was one of the best years of my life.”

Ultimately, the couple moved back to Utica and opened All-American Fitness, celebrating its 40th anniversary earlier this week [Jan. 19]. The LaFountains had three children, including son JT, who would also play baseball for Louisville before spending three seasons [2005-7] in the Yankees system.

“He was a better player than I was,” LaFountain said. “He was a switch hitter, All-State two years in a row. He had a lot of offers for college from places like Georgia, Jacksonville and Coastal Carolina. He decided to go to Louisville against my advice. Louisville played on crappy turf and it was an injury waiting to happen. I didn’t like that plus the fact he’d have to live up to what I did. Some of his professors were my professors and he got a little bit of that.

“But he loved Louisville and met his wife [Audrey] there. They moved there. She was a professional softball player in Chicago and Philadelphia for a year.”

James LaFountain is still going strong in upstate New York. He has a successful business, eight grandkids and the memories of a spectacular albeit too brief career.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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