10/20/2003 1:57 PM ET
LaForest almost out of the woods
Catching prospect's long road leading to Tampa Bay
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Bad advice and a bad back haven't kept Pete LaForest down. (Tampa Bay Devil Rays)
To say that Devil Rays catching prospect Pete LaForest had a whirlwind of a season would be akin to saying a couple of people lost power on the East Coast in August.
LaForest was excitedly preparing to attend his first big league camp in Spring Training when the Canadian native began having visa problems. Seems as if the 25-year-old received some bum advice about obtaining a student visa to be in the United States, even though he wasn't a student. He took the advice, and as a result, wasn't allowed back into the U.S. after he returned to Quebec following the 2002 season.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into a couple of months. LaForest missed all of Spring Training before finally making it to Florida to get some work in extended Spring Training. From that point on, things started looking up. LaForest started with Orlando in the Double-A Southern League, moved up to Triple-A and eventually got his first taste of the big leagues in September. He collected his first of two big league hits in his first game.
"They say things happen for a reason," LaForest noted. "I don't know what the reason was, but it worked out well. It makes me appreciate things more. I don't take it for granted. I've been working so hard to get there."
It was not the first time LaForest has faced a large obstacle in trying to attain his ultimate goal of playing in the Major Leagues. LaForest was originally drafted and signed as a high school third baseman by the Expos in 1995. He managed just six at-bats in the Gulf Coast League before eventually having his contract voided due to a back problem.
"I saw doctors; they said I had nothing," LaForest said. "I thought I was screwed. You don't have a 17-year-old with back problems. You don't invest in that. I had to prove to them I was all right."
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He did this against the advice of someone in the Expos organization who told him he should quit baseball because of his back. In a cruel twist of irony, the same executive who gave him that bit of medical advice later signed him with the Devil Rays and gave him the bad student visa guidance.
LaForest couldn't hook on with any organization in 1996, despite lighting it up with the Canadian National 18-and-under team. So he headed to community college to try and get some more exposure. Luckily for him, he did so with current Angels pitcher Steve Green.
"He was bringing in 30 to 40 scouts a game," LaForest said. "That gave me some extra exposure. Finally, at the end of spring 1997, I had three offers. I went on my own and dealt with it. I figured I'd go with the Devil Rays. They were an expansion team and I thought I had a chance to go somewhere."
Slowly but surely, LaForest moved up the Rays' chain, thanks largely to his skills with the bat. His back has been completely fine, and with the exception of 2001, he's been relatively injury-free. He moved behind the plate for the first time in 2000. In 2002, he hit a combined 23 home runs.
This year, he hit 17 homers, was named to the All-Star Futures Game World team in July, and made his big league debut. Then he was invited to the elite Arizona Fall League for the second straight season. During his brief time in the desert, LaForest played nearly every day for the Mesa Solar Sox and hit four homers in nine games. That's a far cry from 2002, when LaForest did a lot of watching. It was an experience the budding catcher didn't particularly enjoy, but one that he now sees as invaluable.
"I caught a lot of bullpens, which helped me a ton," LaForest said. "When you're an everyday guy [during the regular season], you don't get to work on things. I had six weeks, just catching four or five bullpens a day, not having to worry about the hitter or anything. I needed that.
"I was mad because I wasn't playing, but it helped me. I needed to make my receiving a second-hand thing, where I didn't have to think about it. That was my biggest thing. Now it's not a big deal anymore."
Once again, LaForest's playing time in the AFL is over, but this time he's not upset. LaForest left the Solar Sox because he was named to the Canadian Olympic qualifying team. Like Team USA, Team Canada is training in Arizona before heading to Panama for the qualifying event, which begins Oct. 30.
"It's going to be awesome," said LaForest, who began workouts over the weekend. "It's going to be quite an experience, just the trip to Panama, and that tournament. It sucks it's with all the good baseball countries and we're going to have to eliminate five or six of them. But I can't wait to get going."
After finally making it to the big leagues eight years after he was originally drafted, LaForest undoubtedly can't wait for 2004 Spring Training to roll around. This time, he plans on making it to big league camp on time, and not just to show what he can do. He'll be fighting for a spot on the 25-man roster, even though Tampa Bay already has a young starting catcher in Toby Hall.
"It means nothing to me. I'm not here to compete against Toby Hall," LaForest said. I'm here to compete to get a spot in the Major Leagues.
"I could care less about Toby. He means nothing for my career. As long as I play in the big leagues, that's my goal. You never know what can happen [with trades or injuries]. All I can worry about is myself and doing my job in Spring Training. If I just worry about myself and do the little things, things will work out."
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