In 1996, Matt LaChappa was a minor-league pitcher for the San Diego Padres when he suffered a heart attack at just 20 years old. The injury ended his career and resulted in health complications that have since put LaChappa in a wheelchair.
For the Padres, his story could have simply been the story of a prospect who tragically failed to pan out. Instead, the organization has gone out of its way to make sure LaChappa has been cared for. San Diego has signed him to a minor league contract every year since 1996. The 2015 season is his 20th season with the team.
The act is far from ceremonial: By signing a contract with the club, LaChappa is able to get health care through the organization -- a huge gift for someone in his situation.
LaChappa had come to the Padres after growing up on the Barona Indian Reservation outside of San Diego. His story was first told in 2005 by Orange County Register columnist Steve Bisheff . It reported that LaChappa was incredibly well supported by the community as an up-and-coming athlete.
"What happened just devastated so many people," Priscilla Oppenheimer, the Padres' director of minor-league operations, told Bisheff. "Matt was looked up to by everyone in the community. When he signed, about half the tribe came in for the ceremony.
"He's a great kid. He is confined to a wheelchair, has trouble communicating and is barely able to hold a spoon. But his mind is still as sharp as ever. He has an incredible sense of humor and is just a joy to be around."
LaChappa still makes regular visits to watch Padres games. It's no surprise that he remains a dedicated fan of the team. Meanwhile, the club's continued support of a former prospect is sure to earn them additional fans from across the country.