From August cast-off to October ace
Dumped by Texas, Vicente Padilla now holds L.A.'s fate in his hands in NLCS Game 5
PHILADELPHIA -- When Vicente Padilla is home he often hears stories from his uncles about the day the Sandinistas came to his house in Chinandega, Nicaragua, to recruit him as a boy soldier. The guerillas were looking for reinforcements to fight the U.S.-backed Contras during the bloodiest years of the Nicaraguan civil war, and boy soldiers often were put on the front line, the expendable pieces of war. The guerrillas search led them to Padilla's grandfather's house, where Padilla was staying.
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"My uncles told me it was quite a difficult situation," Padilla said.
Certainly a lot of attention will fall on Padilla when he takes the mound for the Dodgers on Wednesday in Game 5 of the NLCS in Philadelphia. Los Angeles, down 3-1 to the Phillies, faces elimination and needs a strong start from Padilla -- a former cast-off from Texas whom the Dodgers signed to a minor league deal in mid-August.
Padilla knows that people are expecting much from him. But pressure? How could one so close to a life as a boy soldier, who lived through Nicaragua's most turbulent era, who had many boyhood friends recruited as soldiers and later battled through alcoholism as a result of it, feel pressure from a baseball game?
"This," Padilla says, "is a game."
Padilla's path to the Dodgers was turbulent. Soon after the Sandinistas appeared at his house, Padilla took up baseball and became a local star. In 1998, Padilla was signed as a 22-year-old by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who eventually traded him to Philadelphia as one of the key cogs in the deal to acquire Curt Schilling. He had a mostly uneven career with the Phillies that was characterized by his inconsistency and a growing reputation for late-night partying.
"Sometimes you do things that you think are right, but then in retrospect aren't right," Padilla said of his Philadelphia years.
This year, Texas management simply had enough.
In August, the Rangers designated him for assignment soon after a start in which he had plunked Oakland A's catcher Kurt Suzuki, which had resulted in Michael Young's getting hit in retaliation. Padilla had earlier been warned by team management about his behavior after he had struck Mark Teixeira twice in a game against the Yankees.
On Aug. 17, the Rangers released Padilla for conduct detrimental to the team. When the team announced the move, several of Padilla's former teammates personally congratulated Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.
"You have to be a good teammate," Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "You have to help teach younger guys the right things. He wasn't a positive influence on the young guys. You started questioning his character and about how much he cared."
Around that time, the Dodgers became worried about starter Hiroki Kuroda, who was exhibiting post-concussion symptoms after being struck in the head with a line drive in a game against Arizona. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti began to research Padilla's background. He asked Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf, who previously had pitched with Padilla in Philadelphia, whether signing Padilla would disrupt the clubhouse. Wolf unequivocally said no. Manager Joe Torre asked Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa, who managed Padilla in Philadelphia, whether the pitcher could cause chemistry issues. Bowa said no.
Two days after he had been released, the Dodgers signed Padilla to a minor league deal. From that point, Padilla became the Dodgers' most consistent stater. He finished the year with a 3.20 ERA in 39 1/3 innings with Los Angeles. Most importantly, he did not hit a batter after having struck 49 hitters in 3½ years with the Rangers. Padilla has allowed just one run in two postseason starts for Los Angeles this year.
"The sampling we've had of Vinny has been very positive, and he's been a good teammate for everybody," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.
For those that don't know him, Padilla can often appear distant. He does not say much to teammates. Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley said he probably hasn't had one long conversation with him.
"That's why people think he's the Hannibal Lecter of Nicaragua," joked Wolf.
Padilla thinks that's why some people cast him as a malcontent.
"I'm always working and I don't spend time in the clubhouse," Padilla said. "I wasn't always talking to guys on the team. I would rather be working than talking. Maybe people didn't understand that. They thought that I didn't want to be part of the team."
In Los Angeles, Padilla has become friends with veteran Latino players such as Guillermo Mota and Manny Ramirez, both of whom know something about being misunderstood. On Tuesday, Padilla raced into the clubhouse almost late for a team meeting because he had gone to a restaurant to pick up food for several teammates.
Bowa says Padilla's work ethic has also been better than ever.
"He knows this is a second chance that he has to take advantage of," Bowa said.
Last season, Padilla said he had trouble controlling his split-fingered fastball so he began to learn a cutter. By the middle of this season, Padilla's cutter evolved into a slider, a pitch that Wolf says has made Padilla a better pitcher. Now Padilla has other pitches to turn to when his fastball is ineffective, something that used to cause him fits with the Phillies, Bowa said.
And of course, years of experience have given Padilla perspective. Arm injuries in 2004 and 2005 showed Padilla that his career could easily end one day. But so, too, could those stories his uncles like to tell, especially the one about the day the Sandinistas came to town. If not for a strong grandfather, perhaps Padilla would not be here at all.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.