Why the San Diego Padres Made a Lifelong Commitment to This Ex-Pitcher
October 1, 2015 | Inspiring Stories
By Lisa Wirthman
San Diego Padres minor league pitcher Matt LaChappa was a tall, lanky left-hander with big-league promise when he was drafted as the team’s second-round pick in 1993.
On the field, LaChappa had two pitches—an average fastball and an above-average curveball. He also had a great command of the ball and an ability to throw strikes, said Fred Uhlman Jr., Padres vice president and assistant general manager, who joined the team in 1995.
Off the mound, LaChappa was a quiet leader with an upbeat attitude who inspired others with actions rather than words. "His teammates gravitated toward him,” Uhlman said. In every aspect, he had the potential for a big-league career, he added.
But in 1996, just shy of LaChappa’s 21st birthday, tragedy struck. While warming up in the bullpen, he suffered a massive heart attack caused by cardiomyopathy, a condition that makes it harder for the heart to pump and deliver blood.
Now 40, he is in a wheelchair with limited communication. Yet he also has a priceless smile and an infectiously positive outlook that continues to inspire fans and players far beyond the pitching mound.
A Padre for Life
In a business that’s often seen as cutthroat, the Padres embraced the idea of doing well by doing good. The team has signed LaChappa to a minor league contract every season for the past two decades, giving him access to health insurance and a small income.
“Professional sports are about wins and losses at the end of the day, but for us it’s more about people,” Uhlman said. “This is just a story about relationships, connections and doing the right thing,” he added. “Matt being a Padre for life is without a doubt the right thing.”
LaChappa, a Native American who grew up on the Barona Indian Reservation, was just 12 when he set his sights on a baseball career.
“Everybody looks at the money nowadays, but in Matt’s time, the dream was to play professional baseball,” said his father, Clifford LaChappa. “That was the dream, and he accomplished his dream. He worked hard at it.”
When LaChappa arrived to sign his contract, family and tribal members surrounded him.
“I thought ‘this is incredible that so many people have such love and respect for this kid,’” said Priscilla Oppenheimer, the Padres’ director of minor league operations until she retired in 2005.
At the end of his signing, LaChappa’s mother, Linda, who has since passed away, told Oppenheimer: “You take care of my son.”
“I will,” Oppenheimer said. It’s a promise she’s kept to this day. Although LaChappa will never play professional baseball again, he’s never stopped being a Padre.
Tragedy in the Bullpen
LaChappa’s parents were in the stands the day everything changed. He was warming up in the bullpen with the Padres’ minor league team in Rancho Cucamonga, north of San Diego, when a heart attack caused him to suddenly fall to the ground.
By the time Oppenheimer got to the hospital, LaChappa had suffered a second heart attack. He remained in a coma for nearly six months.
“It was a shock. You don’t expect somebody in his condition to go down and be affected for life like that,” Oppenheimer said.
LaChappa’s family and tribe members took shifts so that someone was always at his side. “It brought the family so close, and the ballplayers, and the community,” his father said. “There was so much support for him because he was a very exceptional young kid.”
He gets teary even now recalling the day his son came home. “He was smiling. He just showed the light he didn’t have for six months when he just lay there,” he said. “It was precious.”
The elder LaChappa has one piece of advice for any person or family affected by a disability: “Take it one day at a time.”
A Life Well Lived
Today, LaChappa has a great life, his father said. He can take steps and talk. He can use his arms and he can kick. He goes to movies, basketball games and to the gym for workouts. He watches the Padres on TV and is surrounded by a loving family.
“You never see him feeling sorry for himself,” said Oppenheimer. “He could be lying in bed and wallowing in self-pity, but not at all.”
LaChappa has carte blanche to come to games and watch practices, inspiring a new generation of players and staff with his winning attitude. Put a baseball in his hand and he will still make a curveball grip.
“He exudes enthusiasm and happiness,” said Uhlman. “It’s a great lesson—not just for athletes, but for anyone in life—that you don’t take anything for granted and you appreciate everything that you have, especially the relationships.”
On a recent visit to Petco Park, major league players who had never met LaChappa came over to chat and take pictures with him. “He’s like a symbol of courage and the goodness of what baseball can do,” Oppenheimer said.
Although LaChappa’s legacy is different than the one he planned, he may be making a bigger impact.
Today, the Matt LaChappa Athletic Scholarship Foundation helps struggling high school athletes pay for college. The Padres also named a local Little League field in his honor, called Matt LaChappa Field. About 40 of his nieces and nephews came to the dedication, inspired by his hard work, determination and positive outlook, to play the game he still loves.
“It didn’t happen the way we all dreamed and wanted,” Oppenheimer said. “But what people will remember is how brave and strong he is and how he persevered.”
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.