On this grand stage, LaNinfa illuminated the night as he went three-for-four and was named most valuable player of the game thanks to a fourth-inning, three-run home run that gave the CGCBL a lead that propelled it to a 6-3 victory at Povich Field.
Not bad for a guy who hadn't taken an official at bat in the college ranks. A herniated disk in his back had forced LaNinfa, 20, to sit out the entire 2003 season and relegated him to being a cheerleader on the Mississippi State University bench.
"Sitting out and not being able to play was tough," LaNinfa said. "After playing every game for 10 years, I couldn't bear to watch the team play without me."
Although he had to sit and watch his teammates battle, the 203-pound LaNinfa spent the summer of 2003 with the Bethesda Big Train to refine his skills that he felt may have evaporated in the redshirt season.
Fortunately, LaNinfa had no trouble picking up from his high school days in Venice, Fla., where he finished his three-year varsity career with 88 runs batted in and a .394 batting average.
In 2003, LaNinfa helped the Big Train to a 22-18 record and finished third in the league with five home runs and tied for fourth with 20 RBI.
After a great summer with Bethesda, reality set in. It was time for the return to Starkville, Miss., and many questions abounded.
Was the redshirt freshman year really behind him? Was there a place for him on the team? And most importantly, was the season with the Big Train worth it?
If the first three games of the MSU season were his first tests, LaNinfa's bat answered with a resounding yes as he became the first Bulldog to belt a home run in each of his first three games.
"It was awesome to do it, but I almost wish I hadn't done it," LaNinfa said. "Everyone then expected so much of me all year and that was a lot to ask. That next week I just had to focus on putting the ball in play. Getting this record was a great feeling and it was great to get people to know who I was as a player."
This season, he started in 33 games as designated hitter and finished with a .267 average, five home runs and 22 RBI for the Bulldogs. MSU played 22 games against nationally ranked opponents this year and competed in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the toughest conference in NCAA Division I and one which placed four teams in the final eight of the College World Series in 2004. Considering all that, LaNinfa has much to be proud of in his first official season of college baseball.
"I can't even explain how competitive the SEC is," LaNinfa said. "It's one of those leagues where you have to work all year long to make it in the league and to stay in the league."
While playing for MSU may seem like a daunting task at times, LaNinfa doesn't have to look far to find guidance.
LaNinfa is one of the many blessed to be coached by Ron Polk, one of college baseball's finest coaches. Polk, who has amassed 1,232 career victories in his storied career and is currently the 12th-winningest coach in NCAA Division I history, has long been known to help guide players to greatness on and off the diamond.
"He really knows so much," LaNinfa said of his Bulldogs coach. "He always knows what to tell you and when. He has so much experience and has worked with so many big-time players that it's hard not to be impressed."
As many players struggle in the CGCBL to adjust to wooden bats, LaNinfa has had minimal difficulty with the change this year. He is second on his squad with a .280 average and also leads the team with five RBI and one home run. As he splits time between designated hitter, first base and outfield, the Big Train have coasted atop the CGL with an impressive 8-1 record.
LaNinfa has many accolades to his name and although there is no official recording, LaNinfa is also credited with the longest home run in the six-year history of Povich Field as he blasted a shot to right field against the Reston Hawks last year. Big Train assistant coach Sal Colangelo jokingly estimates the blast at 528 feet.
Between the All-Star Game MVP, the moon shot off the Hawks and all the homers in between, one thing is clear: Povich Field has been kind to this budding star.
Brett Hodgkins is a 2004 graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in journalism.