Former San Francisco Giants first baseman Mike Laga is the subject interest of Tony The Tiger’s feature “He Was A Giant?” (photo from pinterest.com)
HE WAS A GIANT? Mike Laga
Mike Laga – 1B – 1989-90 – # 21
By Tony The Tiger Hayes
He was a Giant?
Mike Laga, a persevering big lug from New Jersey whose hapless baseball story could have served as inspiration for any number of Bruce Springsteen blue collar anthems, never could catch a break in an itinerant 13-year professional career.
Despite producing Ruthian minor league numbers and receiving gold stars for his determination, Laga never got an opportunity to play a full season in the majors.
Laga would introduce himself to SF fans with a sizzling debut performance in 1989, but like his stops in Detroit and St. Louis, Laga never received much of an opportunity going forward for the Orange & Black.
In parts of two seasons backing up Will Clark with SF, Laga would appear in 40 games, batting .191 with three HRs.
Why Was He A Giant?
Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson once championed Mike Laga by saying of his young Detroit Tigers charge: “He will make you forget about every power hitter who ever lived.”
That verbose prediction never materialized, but Giants manager Roger Craig, a former Tigers coach, remembered Laga fondly and recommended the Giants ink the left-handed hitter as backup 1B and pinch hitter for the 1989 season.
Before and After
Creaming minor league pitching was never Laga’s issue. By the time he received his first big league call up in 1982, he had already slammed 77 home runs in three minor league campaigns. He would go on to sock a total of 255 minor league bombs. In parts of nine big league seasons, Laga would muscle 16 balls out of the park.
At times, Laga was not shy about voicing his big league frustrations. After spending three seasons toiling for Detroit’s Triple-AAA franchise in Evansville, IN, Laga had had enough.
“I hate it in Evansville,” he blurted one spring. “I don’t want to go back!”
He got his wish, but only because unbeknownst to Laga, the Tigers had moved their top minor league affiliation from Evansville to Nashville.
He Never Got His Own Bobblehead. But…
In his debut game with SF, Laga would deliver the kill shot in a remarkable win that was the baseball equivalent of the movie “The Expendables.”
After the Giants fell behind early at Cincinnati (9/4/89), Giants manager Craig began removing most of the starters in favor of backups and September call-ups such as Laga.
In the end, when the Giants had overcome a 8-0 deficit to beat the Reds 9-8, Craig would call the riveting victory: “the biggest game I ever won as a manager.”
“I’ve got a lot of guys. I want to give them a chance to play and boy did they ever play,” crowed Craig. “The Killer B’s (the backups) did a hell of a job, but the Killer C’s (the call-ups) won it.”
Trailing 8-0 heading into the seventh, the Giants were literally situated behind the eight ball when their bats began rumbling to life as Will Clark and Terry Kennedy crashed solo long balls off Reds starter Tim Leary.
But then Craig pulled both Clark and Kennedy, seemingly satisfied that the Giants had at least made a decent effort in what appeared to be an inevitable blow out.
Laga, who subbed for Clark, received his first Giants at bat in the eighth with two outs and infield understudy Ernie Riles on first base.
The burly 1B turned on a Leary fastball and crushed it deep into the Queen City night for a home run to make it an 8-4 game.
The Giants were now officially on a roll and that roll would not be slowed.
Flame -throwing , but wildly erratic reliever Ernie Camacho came on to face the Reds in the eighth and he struck out the side, fanning Mariano Duncan, Ron Oester and Herm Winningham in tidy fashion.
Then the Giants bats went back to work in a furious ninth.
With Norm Charlton now on in relief, super utility-man Greg Litton led off with a pinch single. Pinch hitter Candy Maldonado, scalded a line drive but it was right at Luis Quinones at second for an out.
Next, end-of -the – bench guy, Donnell Nixon slashed a single to center field , with Litton stopping at second. Grizzled pinch hitter Bob Brenly reached first on an error by 3B Chris Sabo to load the bases.
John Franco was then summoned to pitch to gray beard Chris Speier – yet another SF pinch hitter – and the veteran infielder ripped a single to center to make it 8-5.
The Reds flop sweat was now starting to form a puddle on the Riverfront Stadium artificial turf.
Catcher Bill Bathe – baseball’s version of Moses – was next, AND, he singled up the middle to plate two runs – making it 8-7.
Rob Dibble came in to face Riles, and yep, the lithe hitter slapped a knock to center to plate Speier and send pinch runner Scott Garrelts to third.
Down a touchdown and a two point conversion just three innings prior, the surging Giants had boomeranged to tie the flailing Reds 8-8.
It was the star- crossed Laga’s turn next, and with steam virtually pouring from Dibble’s nostrils, the new Giant tattooed a sharp two-hopper between first and second base to plate Garrelts with the go ahead run.
The Reds would go on to load the bases off closer Steve Bedrosian in ninth with one out. But Bedrock would retire Sabo on a pop up and negate Dave Collins on a routine grounder to close out a most miraculous 9-8 victory.
After the game the Giants clubhouse turned into a grand jubilee.
“Everybody was screaming and hollering. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m hoarse from all the yelling,” said pitcher Jeff Brantley.
“That was just a great win,” said Kennedy. “No matter what happens, this game will have a place in Giants lore.”
Keeping with his untimely history however, the man of the hour was no where to be found when his teammates began the merrymaking with chats of “Lags, Lags, Lags!”
“I was outside doing a radio interview,” a disappointed Laga said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Wherever Laga traveled in his Major League career his path was blocked by players with deep Giants ties.
At the time of his first major league call up in 1982, aging ex-Giants Enos Cabell and Mike Ivie we’re sharing the 1B position.
While passing those two veterans was not seemingly insurmountable for 1983. But Cabell repaired his swing and rebounded with a career high .311 campaign in 1983, keeping Laga in the minors.
Cabell soon skipped Motown, signing with his former Houston team.
But instead of turning to Laga, the Tigers aggressively pursued SF slugger Darrell Evans who seemingly found the fountain of youth in 1983 – belting 30 HRs while based at Candlestick Park. The Tigers also made a key trade during spring training acquiring star reliever Willie Hernandez AN ex-Giant, the steady and slick fielding 1B Dave Bergman from Philadelphia.
In 1984, a dominant Tigers team would win the World Series with Evans and Bergman, sharing 1B/DH duties. Again Laga would spend most of ‘84 in the minors.
Laga moved on to St. Louis in 1986, but without the DH in play, he was limited to 1B duty. The only problem was, the former Giants slugger Jack Clark was firmly entrenched at 1B. Clark was gone in 1988, but in a 40 game trial with the Cardinals, Laga did not produce.
By the time he reached SF, Laga was pretty much labeled a 4A player. And with Will Clark in front of him, he had no shot of seeing any meaningful action.
It wasn’t until 1991 when Laga received a shot to play in the majors- however it was the major leagues of Japan.
Laga flourished for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of the Pacific League, playing in 124 games and batting .236, 32, 81.
At last there were no former Giants blocking his path – not even ex-Yominuri Giants.