This article was written by David Laurila
Mike Laga never did live up to his promise and become a star, but the erstwhile slugger does have his niche in Detroit Tigers history. A prolific home-run hitter in the minor leagues, Laga played parts of five seasons in a Detroit uniform, including the magical summer of 1984 when he appeared in nine games. While he was little more than a footnote in the championship season, the man who would one day be dubbed “Laga Beer” by ESPN’s Chris Berman delivered six hits in 11 at-bats for a team-best .545 average.
Born on June 14, 1960, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, Michael Russell Laga grew up in nearby Ramsey in a working-class family. His father was a television repairman, and his mother both a homemaker and, in the words of her only son, “transportation for me and my three sisters; I was always keeping them busy with sports, because I played baseball, soccer, and basketball, so it was constantly go, go, go.”
Despite his success on the baseball diamond, Laga went undrafted out of high school and enrolled at nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he played half of one season before transferring to Bergen (New Jersey) Community College. It was there that Laga’s smooth left-handed stroke began catching the attention of scouts, and in the January phase of the 1980 draft the Tigers took him with their first pick.
“It wasn’t until that actual phone call came from [Tigers general manager] Bill Lajoie that I realized, ‘Wow, this could be kind of neat, getting paid to play baseball,’” Laga remembered. “Before that, I was just playing. I never had great dreams of becoming a professional baseball player.”
Laga reported to spring training a few months later, and it didn’t take long for him to begin making an impression. “My first year I got assigned to A-ball in Lakeland,” he said. “I think I had been earmarked for rookie league ball, in Bristol, Virginia, but I did so well in spring training that they moved me up to the A-class.”
Laga adapted quickly to professional baseball, hitting a solid .273 with 12 home runs and 74 RBIs in 407 at-bats against Florida State League pitching. His home run and RBI totals led the team, with Lakeland Tigers teammate Howard Johnson ranking a close second in each category. He also logged an impressive .391 on-base percentage, but it was his emerging power that portended a future in the big leagues. Ironically, he credited a notoriously light-hitting shortstop for his home-run stroke.
“When I signed, I was mostly a line-drive hitter,” he said. “My first manager was Eddie Brinkman, and he really started working with me on getting the head of the bat out and being more aggressive at the plate. Once I got to Double-A, and Triple-A, I was hitting a lot of home runs because I had learned to do that. Eddie was also a funny man and really relaxed us. He made us enjoy the game rather than just trying to get better all the time.”
Brinkman’s advice about not taking things too seriously came in handy during Laga’s maiden season. In what can now be remembered as a funny moment, the nervous first-year player came to work one day without an important piece of equipment.
“We drove down to Miami for a four-game series,” Laga said, “and when I got there I opened up my equipment bag and realized that I had forgotten my glove. And not only was I our first baseman, I was one of the few left-handed throwers on the team. I ended up borrowing one from one of our pitchers, and got through the first inning with it, and then it rained for the next four days straight, so it turned out that I didn’t even need a glove. Boy, did I luck out there.”
In 1981, Laga turned his bat into a good-luck charm. With his power now in full force, he tore up the Southern League, bashing 31 home runs to go with a .289 average and 86 RBIs in 547 at-bats for Double-A Birmingham. Most impressively, his slugging average was a hefty .536. At the age of 21, Bill and Carole Laga’s son had established himself as one of the top prospects in the Tigers organization.
In 1982, Laga moved up to Triple-A Evansville, where his batting average dropped to .250, but the light-tower power — his ticket to “The Show” — was still very much in evidence. In just 444 at-bats, the lefty slugger set an Evansville team record by going deep 34 times to go with a .527 slugging percentage.
When the minor-league season came to an end, Laga got the call he was waiting for, and on September 1, he made his big-league debut at Tiger Stadium, going hitless in two at-bats with a walk against the California Angels. The next day he was back in the starting lineup and rapped out the first of his 84 big-league hits, off Angels right-hander Mike Witt. And he drove in his first two runs.
“I remember that my first hit was a double,” Laga said. “It was in the gap and rolling around in the outfield, and I probably could have very easily have made it to third base, but I was nervous and hyped up and just kind of stopped at second. Ironically, throughout my big-league career, I didn’t have any triples, so looking back, I should have gone.” A day later, Laga went deep for the first time, driving a pitch from Oakland’s Rick Langford into the Tiger Stadium cheap seats. Later in the month, on the 17th, in jaw-dropping fashion, he hit one even farther, off Boston’s Brian Denman.
Then, on the 29th, after a conversation with a Detroit sportswriter, Laga launched a bomb off a future Hall of Famer. “Because he knew that I was a home-run hitter, he asked me about the short porch in right field, and about how sometimes balls would go clear over the roof and out of the stadium,” Laga recalled. “I don’t know if the reporter was baiting me, or what, but he asked me, ‘Mike, do you think you can do that?’ and I said, ‘Sure, why not? It doesn’t look that far.’ The next day, when I went into the clubhouse, the guys were giving me a hard time about that. We were playing against the Orioles that day, and Jim Palmer was pitching, and he hung an 0-2 curveball that I hit over the roof and onto the lumber yard. They didn’t say much after I went back into the dugout besides ‘Congratulations,’ but after the game they were like, ‘OK, we’ll leave you alone now.’”
Overall, Laga had 23 hits in his first taste of big-league action, including nine doubles and three home runs, in 88 at-bats for a .261 average. The future loomed bright for the young power hitter. Or so it seemed.
Laga had high hopes for the 1983 season, but instead of establishing himself as a big-league run producer, he languished in Evansville, hitting a disappointing .231 with just 16 home runs in 355 at-bats. “My expectations were that I wanted to stay with the team,” Laga said. His slugging average was just .439 against American Association pitching that year. “I’m sure that it affected my mindset to have broken the [Evansville] home run record one year, and gone up to the big leagues and done (all right), and then gotten sent back down. I’m sure that sometimes it was hard for me to focus. But I did understand the situation. At that point, the Tigers were a very competitive team and were trying to get where they ultimately were in 1984, which was a team with wire-to-wire great players.”
Despite his disappointing performance at Evansville, Laga again got some playing time late in the season, but this time got only 21 at-bats over 12 games. He did little to impress, producing just four singles, for a .190 average, while striking out nine times.
Laga got married after the season, but little else changed for the aspiring power hitter in 1984. Once again unable to earn a spot on what would soon prove to be baseball’s best team, Laga left spring training with his ticket punched to Evansville for the third straight year. He was able to rebound with the bat, hitting .265 with 30 home runs and a .508 slugging percentage, but Laga remained in Triple-A until September. When he finally did join Sparky Anderson’s club, he saw action in just nine games, and of his six hits, four came off the bench in his only at-bat of that particular contest. His pinch-single on September 7 ignited a three-run 10th-inning rally against the Blue Jays in Exhibition Stadium. For Laga, it was emblematic of both his 6-for-11 cameo performance and the Tigers’ remarkable season.
“I remember Alan Trammell getting real mad at me,” said Laga, who surprisingly didn’t receive a World Series ring for his efforts. “He was saying, ‘Hey, can we get this guy some more at-bats so we can get his batting average down?’ He knew that when everybody looked at the stats for that year they were going to see: ‘Mike Laga .545.’ He was kidding, of course, about not wanting to see my name above his, but it just happened that everything worked out for me with the at-bats I did get. I remember one time up, in Toronto, I got the crap jammed out of me but blooped the ball over the second baseman’s head for a base hit. Of course, everything went right for the whole team that year. To start out 35 and 5, and then crush everybody in the playoffs — all the bounces went the right way and all the balls stayed fair for us; all the breaks happened in the Tigers’ favor that year.”
Laga was on the cusp of his 25th birthday when the 1985 season got under way, and with Darrell Evans not getting any younger, the time appeared ripe for the young slugger to earn a spot in the Detroit lineup. Once again it was not to be. The ageless Evans continued to knock home runs out of Tiger Stadium, while Laga had to settle for hitting his — 20 in 430 at-bats — for Detroit’s new Triple-A affiliate in Nashville. It was a situation Laga would find himself in throughout his career, as his path to the big leagues was continually blocked by All-Star performers at his first-base position. For a player who had nothing left to prove at the Triple-A level, it was a frustrating series of circumstances.
“As a younger kid hitting 30 home runs a year, I was one of those guys where it was, ‘You don’t want to get rid of this guy, because he might come back and hurt you,’” Laga said. “But yet, you can’t exactly move guys like Evans, Jack Clark, or Will Clark because they’re All-Stars. So I kind of got stuck. Had I been with a team that was losing 100 games a year, maybe I would have played more and got better chances.”
There was no September call-up for Laga in 1985, although he did get a brief opportunity earlier in the season, starting nine games between May 15 and May 26, all on the road. Despite a pair of home runs, he did little to state his case, producing just six hits in 36 at-bats.
In 1986, Laga earned a spot on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster for the first time. With Evans, by this time 39 years old, getting many of his at-bats as a designated hitter, Laga received a number of starts at first base in April. He struggled early, going just one for his first 14, but then he began to heat up, stroking seven hits in his next 17 at-bats, including three home runs. One of them came on April 29 at Tiger Stadium when he homered in the seventh inning to break a 1-1 tie and give Detroit a 2-1 win against the Kansas City Royals. It was his last home run, and last RBI, in a Tigers uniform.
Laga appeared in just five more games before injuring his wrist, and then on September 2 he was announced as the player to be named later in the August 10 deal that brought Mike Heath to Detroit. Laga was now a St. Louis Cardinal.
Laga made a good first impression with his new team, going deep in just his second at-bat, but it was a ball he pulled foul, the following day, that would attract the most attention. On September 15, Laga became the only player ever to hit a ball completely out of Busch Stadium (the version that opened in 1966).
“We were playing the Mets, and going against Ron Darling,” Laga remembered. “He tried to throw a fastball up and in, and I just turned on it. I hit it clear over the light tower and up and out of the stadium. Gary Carter was the catcher, and we were just standing there when this little roar started in the crowd, with people clapping and standing up. I didn’t know what was going on. … I looked at Carter and said, ‘What’s going on? What’s all this noise about?’ He said, ‘You just hit the ball out of the bleeping stadium!?’ [Laga actually used the word “bleeping” in recounting the tale.] About five seconds later they put up on the scoreboard that it was the first ball ever hit out of Busch Stadium, either fair or foul. It was kind of neat, and not too many months go by where somebody doesn’t mention that to me.”
Laga was in the Cardinals’ starting lineup 11 times in September, but outside of three home runs and the loud foul ball, his bat was mostly quiet. In 46 at-bats, he had just 10 hits to go with 18 strikeouts.
In 1987, for the second consecutive season, Laga was on an Opening Day roster. Unfortunately, there was little playing time to be had behind Jack Clark, and despite homering in his first game, by the end of April he was sent down to Louisville, having come to the plate just 13 times. Back in Triple-A, Laga proved yet again what he could do when given regular at-bats: hit for power. The powerful first sacker went deep 29 times in just 418 at-bats, hitting a career-best .304 with a sizable .605 slugging percentage. Following yet another September call-up that featured limited at-bats, Laga went a combined 4-for-29 with one home run for the 1987 Cardinals. Starting just a handful of games, he saw most of his action as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement.
The 1988 campaign proved to be one of the most frustrating of his career. With Jack Clark having left the Cardinals via free agency, Laga came into spring training slotted to back up the newly acquired Bob Horner at first base, but once again things didn’t go his way.
“In the spring of ’88, I separated my shoulder and broke my collarbone,” Laga said, “and I ended up being out until mid-July. It wasn’t until the first week of July that they even let me start moving my arm. That’s when they said, ‘OK, you can start swinging the bat gently now,’ and within a week they had me out of rehab and in the big leagues. They said, ‘Listen, we don’t care what you hit; we want you here for your defense,’ and that was all I could give them, because I had no strength in my shoulder, or arm, at all.”
Laga went on to start 24 games between mid-July and mid-August — the longest stretch of big-league playing time of his career — but the results were predictable. Unable to swing the bat with any authority because of the injury, he struggled through the worst power outage of his career, belting just one home run in an even 100 at-bats. He hit just .130.
Released by the Cardinals in November, Laga signed as a free agent with San Francisco in January 1989 and spent the 1989 and 1990 seasons in the Giants organization. Following his career pattern, most of his time was spent in Triple-A, as he accumulated just 47 big-league at-bats, hitting .191 with three home runs over the two seasons. As always, his minor-league power numbers were good. In 758 at-bats as a member of the Pacific Coast League’s Phoenix Firebirds, Laga went deep 45 times. In what turned out to be his final season of professional baseball in the United States, he hit .298, with a .589 slugging percentage, for Phoenix in 1990. Overall, he had played 11 minor-league seasons, mostly at Triple-A, hitting .267 with 220 home runs and an eye-opening .506 slugging percentage. Laga’s big-league career had spanned parts of nine seasons and he finished with a .199 average and 16 home runs.
Looking for a change of scenery after being released by the Giants near the end of October, Laga spent the 1991 and 1992 seasons playing in Japan, with the Daiei Hawks. It was a unique experience, and one that he enjoyed. “It was a whole different mindset of baseball,” said Laga, who hit 32 home runs for Daiei in 1991. “The ball still has to go over the plate, and you have to hit, run, and play defense, but the Japanese fans are a whole level above American fans. They have songs for each player, and when that player comes up they play the song. They have flags, there are cheers, and if it’s 15-0 in a monsoon they’re still there cheering their team. There are times when any player isn’t going to play well, but as long as you’re busting your butt, they appreciated that. I look back at that those two years in Japan as a wonderful time.”
Laga returned home before the 1993 season and, still just 32 years old, signed with the Atlanta Braves, who were looking for someone to back up first baseman Sid Bream and serve as a left-handed pinch-hitter. The veteran slugger appeared to be a good fit for that role, but the up-and-coming Ryan Klesko won the job thanks to an outstanding spring training, and Laga was assigned to Triple-A. It was an assignment he was willing to accept, but the Braves changed their mind and asked him to play in Mexico, where they had a working agreement with a team in Nuevo Laredo/Laredo. Laga refused the assignment, and was subsequently suspended, which resulted in several months of inactivity while the issue was litigated. The situation was resolved by midsummer, but by then Laga had made a decision: His playing days were over, and he would go to the University of Massachusetts to finish his degree.
Residing in Western Massachusetts in 2010, Laga remained involved in the game he played professionally for more than a decade. Employed as a loan officer for Applied Mortgage, he also spent his spare time running the Mike Laga Youth Baseball Association of Northampton. He and his wife, Robyn, have a daughter, Ashley, and two sons, Kyle and Jake.
Laurila, David. Interview with Mike Laga, September 2008.
Laurila, David. Interview with Mike Laga, October 2009.