Every year since 1993, the Padres have signed Matt LaChappa to a Minor League contract. The lanky left-handed pitcher was a third-round draft pick out of El Capitan High who showed a 90-mph fastball and a killer curve. None of this is that interesting except that LaChappa hasn't thrown a pitch in almost 20 years.
LaChappa's whole life—not just his baseball career—changed one night in April 1996. While warming up in the bullpen for a start in Class A Rancho Cucamonga, he suffered a heart attack brought on by a virus around his heart. It left him brain-damaged and confined to a wheelchair. But even though he would never play baseball again, the Padres didn't release him. In fact, they've signed him to a contract every year since.
"It's our way of saying to Matt that you're a Padre for life," Priscilla Oppenheimer, the Padres' then-director of Minor League operations told the Orange Country Register.
Minor League deals are not the sort of million-dollar blockbusters the guys in the Bigs make. A basic contract like the one LaChappa is likely signed to pays just $3,000 to $7,500 for a five-month season. But more importantly, it ensures LaChappa retains his health insurance so he can receive necessary medical care.
"It is Highmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and they've really been supportive through all this," Oppenheimer said. "I'm sure they could get out of it if they chose."
Oppenheimer, who is credited with championing LaChappa's case to the team, is no longer with the Padres, but her legacy lives on. "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 told MLB earlier this season. "And I'm so happy the Padres have kept it up after all these years."
Not only does the franchise continue to support LaChappa financially, they honor him on the baseball field as well. They renamed a Little League Park they helped renovate in Lakeside "Matt LaChappa Field." They honored him at Petco Park, where they wheeled him out to the mound so he could watch his brother throw out the first pitch. And they retired his uniform back at Rancho Cucamonga, where his father threw out the Opening Day first pitch a few years back.
Through it all, LaChappa, who grew up a Padres fan, still loves baseball. Earlier this season he was the Padres' guest at a game and watched batting practice from down on the field, where he met all the current players—technically his teammates.
"When this first happened, we weren't sure if he was going to live or die," said Matt's father 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."
And as much as LaChappa loves the Padres, the organization loves him back. "It's my privilege to be able to do this," Oppenheimer said back in 2003. "Matt is my hero."
[h/t USA Today]