'Padre for life' LaChappa hosted by club at Petco Park
Former Minor Leaguer who had heart attack in A ball takes in BP, game vs. D-backs
SAN DIEGO -- It took a little help, with his dad under his left arm and his nurse under his right, but Matt LaChappa ditched his wheelchair for a few precious moments on Monday, as he stood and watched the Padres taking batting practice at Petco Park.
LaChappa beamed as Padres players wandered by to shake his hand or stop to talk to him, and he kept his wide smile even as he watched the team work on infield ground balls, the most mundane drill of all.
It mattered little to LaChappa, a former Padres Minor League left-handed pitcher who suffered a heart attack in 1996 but has been tenured a basic Minor League contract with insurance benefits by the team every year since.
Smiles, the whole time.
"He's having time of his life today," said Priscilla Oppenheimer, who spent 25 years with the team and was the director of Minor League operations when LaChappa had his heart attack.
The smile, Oppenheimer said, was as genuine as it gets.
"He's a ham," she said, smiling.
LaChappa, 39, was at Monday's game between the Padres and D-backs with his father, Clifford, as well as other family members. Oppenheimer was there, too. She's the one credited with first asking why the team couldn't continue to offer LaChappa a contract with insurance benefits each year.
No one, she said, pressed her on the issue.
"It was the right thing to do, the right and proper thing. He's such a good kid, a good player. I was so happy when we did that," Oppenheimer said. "And I'm so happy the Padres have kept it up after all these years."
Matt LaChappa is, Oppenheimer said, a "Padre for life."
He was a Padres fan as a kid, growing up on the Barona Indian reservation. He's a native San Diegan, who attended El Capitan High in nearby Lakeside. The Padres thought so highly of him that they drafted him in the second round in the 1993 Draft.
"He was a tall, lanky, left-handed pitcher with a fringe-average fastball, but he had an above-average curveball, which was his out pitch," said Padres assistant general manager Fred Uhlman Jr., who has been with the team since 1995.
"He had good command and really above-average poise and mound presence," said Uhlman. "He was really mature for his age. He was definitely a prospect. The needle was definitely pointing up with Matt."
In April 1996, while pitching for the team's Class A Advanced affiliate in Rancho Cucamonga, Matt LaChappa was down in the team's bullpen, warming up for a relief appearance. After a pitch, he stopped and clutched his chest and then fell to the ground. The team's trainer, Jim Daniels, got to him fast, performing CPR for 20 minutes until help arrived.
"When it happened, the heart didn't pump enough oxygen to his brain," said Clifford LaChappa. "But he can talk, he can kick, he can speak, but it's slow. There's rigidness, stiffness and he's unable to walk. But he knows what's going on. We watch the games together."
Clifford LaChappa, wearing his own Padres jersey with the family's last name stitched across the back, stopped and smiled.
"When you're going through a bad day, when things aren't going right, you look at Matt," Clifford LaChappa said. "We are so lucky to have him. He's such a loving kid. We enjoy him the way he is.
"I tell everyone that Matt has a million-dollar smile. But someone said, 'No, it's a priceless smile.' He loves being here. He's been smiling the whole time."
Before watching Monday's game from a suite, Matt LaChappa had his fitted Padres hat on and gripped a baseball in his left hand most of the afternoon, much like he did when he pitched. There are still a few folks in the organization who remember LaChappa, and several more who have met him during trips to Petco Park and have been warmed by his story.
The organization has even opened a Little League field in Lakeside in LaChappa's honor: Matt LaChappa Field.
"When this first happened, we weren't sure if he was going to live or die," said Clifford LaChappa. "But the Padres made such a commitment to making Matt a Padre for life. For them to do that, it shows you that sports aren't just about winning, it's also about caring for the players."