When the San Diego Padres drafted Matt LaChappa for their minor league team in 1993, they had high hopes that the tall, lanky left-handed pitcher would be a great asset. According to the Padres' assistant general manager Fred Uhlman Jr., the18-year-old LaChappa “had good command and really above-average poise and mound presence.... He was really mature for his age. He was definitely a prospect.”

LaChappa, a second-round draft choice, played for the Arizona League Padres in that first season, then moved to the Class A Springfield Sultans in 1994, and finally the Class A-Advanced Rancho Cucamonga Quakes the following year. As a relief pitcher for the Minor League Quakes, he racked up eleven wins.

But then in April 1996, while warming up in the bullpen, LaChappa clutched his chest and collapsed onto the ground. He was having a heart attack. The team's trainer, Jim Daniels, sped into action and administered CPR for twenty minutes, until an ambulance arrived. LaChappa was rushed to the hospital, but he had a second heart attack after he arrived there. Tests later showed that he had a viral infection around his heart – a condition which had not been visible during a recent physical exam. He survived, but without sufficient oxygen, LaChappa suffered brain damage; and for the last 21 years, he's been confined to a wheelchair, and he has difficulty moving and speaking.

Matt's father, Clifford LaChappa, explained how his son's heart attack had caused permanent damage:

When it happened, the heart didn't pump enough oxygen to his brain. ...he can talk, 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.

LaChappa's illness would be a sad ending to a baseball career, but the story doesn't end there. Despite his physical disability, Matt LaChappa has an infectious smile and a positive outlook that inspires his family, his fans, and baseball players even now, more than twenty years later.

As for the San Diego Padres, they could have ended their contract with him, since he was no longer able to fulfill his obligations on the mound. Instead, they have continued to sign LaChappa to a Minor League contract each year, for more than 20 years – thus ensuring that he has a small income plus the health insurance he needs. Uhlman explained to Forbes:

Professional sports are about wins and losses at the end of the day, but for us it's more about people. This is just a story about relationships, connections and doing the right thing. Matt being a Padre for life is without a doubt the right thing.

You can see where Matt LaChappa gets his positive attitude: His dad has said of his son,

When you're going through a bad day, when things aren't going right, you look at Matt. We are so lucky to have him. He's such a loving kid. We enjoy him the way he is.

Matt's mother, Linda LaChappa, is grateful for the team's continued support through the years. “It's really amazing,” Linda told the Orange County Register in 2005. “I can't believe this has really happened.”

The Orange County Register reports:

Linda LaChappa's voice chokes up with emotion when she talks about it.

‘I think it's the Lord's doing, but the Padres are part of the blessing,’ she says. "Me and my boys (there are three other sons in the family) are very grateful.

‘I don't understand it. They probably haven't done this for anyone else. But [the team's former president] Larry Lucchino said Matt would always be a part of the Padres' family.’

Well done, San Diego Padres.