- C, 3B
- August 18, 1960
- 5' 10"
- 180 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 9-09-1984 with PHI
- Allstar Selections:
- 1987 GG
He was part of a controversial trade in 1987, which saw himself, Andy Van Slyke and pitcher Mike Dunne come over from the Cardinals for the Pirates best and most popular player Tony Pena. The hardest part of the trade for new Pirate catcher Mike LaValliere was that he would be given the responsibilities if filling the enormous shoes left by the former Pirate all-star.
While the trade turned out to be wildly successful, eventually helping to vault the Bucs from last place into the 3 time NL eastern division champions, Spanky, as LaValliere was known as, immediately made fans forget Pena by not only showing Pittsburgh his enormous defensive skills, but surprising them with his unexpected offensive contributions.
There was about a 10-yard spot between the infielder and outfielder where many of Spanky’s flairs went. He eventually hit .300 his first season as a Buc while dominating the league defensively. LaValliere led all major league catchers by throwing out 43% of all runners attempting to steal. For his efforts, Mike became only the second Pirate ever, his predecessor Pena being the first, to win a gold glove.
Not a bad season for the Charlotte native who was originally signed as a third baseman by the Phillies before starting a Cardinal rookie record 108 games behind the plate previous to his trade to the Bucs.
Despite a sub par 1988 season in which LaValliere’s average fell 39 points, Mike was named to the Sporting News National League post-season all-star team. As disappointing as his batting average was, he hit a sparkling .337 with runners in scoring position.
Trying to comeback the following season and bring his average back up over .300, Mike tore a ligament in his left knee in a collision with the Expos Rex Hudler on April 25th. The injury required Arthroscopy surgery and put Spanky on the shelf for most of the season. He came back with a vengeance and hit .325 over 60 games to end his abbreviated campaign at .316.
After going 1 for 17 to start the 1990 championship season for the Pirates, LaValliere went on a tear in May hitting .405 although he ended up following a solid season with a disappointing one as Mike ended up hitting only .258 despite the fact the left handed hitter, hit an uncharacteristically good .375 against southpaws.
True to form he followed a bad year with a solid one as he raised his average to .289 and led the NL in fielding percentage behind the plate with a .998 mark. Spanky also went the last 94 games without an error and would stretch it to 101 games in 1992, finally ending on April 23rd.
Mike filed for free agency in the post-season of 1991, and the Bucs came to the plate to secure his services, signing LaValliere to a three-year pact. With his new contract in hand, Mike started off 1992 hot with 11 hits in his first 25 at bats for an early .440 average. Again the good season, bad season pattern followed him, as he would slump to .256.
With six seasons behind with the Bucs as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, LaValliere became embroiled in a controversy with Pirate management in 1993, in particular with General Manager and former major league catcher Ted Simmons. Mike criticized the front office for braking up the team to quickly and then claimed Simmons was wrong for saying his skills had eroded and he couldn’t play anymore. The were shots in the paper saying that Mike was overweight and was making no effort to lose it and was in fact done as a serviceable major leaguer.
To no one’s surprise, LaValliere was released on April 11th after one game with the Bucs as Pirate management decided to eat the last $4.5 million they owed him over the next two season of his contract. He ended up signing a minor league contract with the White Sox by the end of the month and despite the fact he played sparingly over the next few seasons, he did hit .281 in 139 at bats in the White Sox banner strike shortened season of 1994. After hitting .245 in only 98 at bats the following year, Spanky’s major league career was at an end.
Although his days in Pittsburgh ended on a sour note, he was a fine player for the team and an important cog in the championship engine that was the Bucs in the early 90’s. He was also a man that came through in the clutch and successfully replaced a Pirate icon, Tony Pena, when no body ever imagined he could.
- Mike LaValliere