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By Miriam Raftery

May 10, 2018 (Lakeside) – A quarter of a century ago, Matt LaChappa was drafted by the San Diego Padres out of El Capitan High School in Lakeside, the pride of the Barona tribe on the Native American reservation where he grew up. But three years later, tragedy struck on April 6, 1996 while the talented left-hander was warming up in the bullpen on opening day of the season with the Padres’ minor league team, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.

He collapsed after suffering a heart attack, then had a second heart attack during an ambulance ride to the hospital.  In a coma for months, he suffered irreversible brain damage. Yet to this day, he remains on contract with the Padres, who promised to take care of their injured player for life.

LaChappa’s inspiring story was highlighted last Sunday on ESPN’s E:60 program in an episode titled “The Contract.” (View trailer.) The show will be replayed throughout the month.

LaChappa played for the Arizona League Padres and moved up to Class A Springfield Suoltans in 1994, before the Class A-Advanced Rancho Cucamonga Quakes the next year. He won 11 games for the Quakes before suffering a heart attack later determined to be caused by cardiomyopathy, the same hidden heart disease that killed Hank Gathers, a Loyola Marymount University basketball player who collapsed and died during a game.

Eagle LaChappa, Matt’s older brother, was interviewed recently on Mighty 1090 radio in San Diego. He recalled his mother jumping the fence and rushing to her son’s sides after he collapsed, gasping for air.  At the time, minor league baseball parks were not required to have paramedics on hand, so an assistant coach valiantly performed CPR to keep the star player alive. 

At the hospital, he lapsed into a coma, where he remained for several months. Doctors didn’t know when, or if, he would ever recover. But his parents prayed and never gave up hope, Eagle LaChappa recalled.

Little by little, his toes and hands began to move and one day, he opened his eyes. But he had suffered massive brain damage and would require care for life.

Priscilla Oppenheimer, the scout who signed up LaChappa with the Padres, and Padres President Larry Lucchino, made a promise to renew LaChappa’s contract for life to assure he could keep his medical insurance. That promise, made when John Moores owned the Padres, has been honored by every owner and management team since then.

“My family is still deeply thankful for that,” Eagle LaChappa said, adding that despite pressure in major league baseball to win at all costs, “there is still an organization that cares for its people enough to look at not only the dollars and cents, but the humanity of the situation.”

Thanks to the excellent round-the-clock medical care that Matt now receives, he has regained significant quality of life despite being confined to a wheelchair. 

“Matt can communicate.  He can give you a thumbs up, he can smile, and he still has that competitive spirit….He’s stronger than ever,” his brother told Mighty 1090.

Today, Matt LaChappa lives in Lakeside, near the Matthew LaChappa Little League Field named after him.  He goes to watch his nephew play ball there, and in his spare time, he enjoys watching inspirational sports movies such as “Rocky” about athletes triumphing over adversity.

Now the longest tenured Padre in the team’s history, even though he never played a single game in the major leagues, also has a golf tournament to help East County kids go to college or pursue other goals through funds donated to the Matt LaChappa Athletic Scholarship Foundation. The next tournament will be on June 1st.  The foundation’s Facebook page shows Matt in his wheelchair, posing with winners of last year’s tournament, a broad smiling lighting up his face.

“Anything he can do to help kids fulfill their dreams, he will do,” Eagle says of his younger brother, adding, “I’m glad that people do not forget.”