After firing his final warm-up pitch, Juan Padilla catches the return throw with a cocky snap of his glove. It’s a warm, humid night in Norfolk, so Padilla pinches his white jersey between his thumb and index finger and pulls it off his chest to fan himself. The 28-year old native of Levittown, Puerto Rico is fun to watch.
Between every pitch Padilla circles the mound like a shark, ceremoniously mocking his prey. He removes his orange-framed Oakley glasses, wipes the perspiration from his face, takes a deep breath, exhales and digs his reflective, high-top spikes into the pitching rubber and glares in at the opponent.
“Some people may call it cockiness or whatever,” said Padilla. “If you saw the movie ‘For the Love of the Game,’ when he’s on the mound, its ‘clear mechanism’ – that’s me. When I get in the lines … I’m going to go at you. You have to have confidence in yourself. I show a little bit more of that. ”
Padilla’s attire and body language scream – attitude – but it’s all part of the game, employing a Sun Tzu-like mental strategy.
“Everybody’s always screaming, ‘take you glasses off!’ but they’re prescription glasses,” Padilla said with a smile. “What I tell the guys, joking all the time, the glasses intimidate the hitter. I like to use that too … when I get on the mound, I will look at you in the face, I don’t care who you are, I’m just going to get you out.”
Padilla leaves this persona, his “game mode” as he calls it, on the field. As much as he wants to win, it’s a baseball game. “If you win, if you lose, I leave that on the field,” Padilla said. “It is part of the game … what can you do?” It’s a refreshing character quality in a professional sport steeped in arrogance and selfishness.
One look at Padilla’s resume and you can see he’s had successful professional career. He’s been an All-Star at every level of minor league baseball. He has 101 career saves. Prior to being promoted to the New York Mets in July, Padilla appeared in 37 games for the Norfolk Tides (Class AAA), compiling a 3-2 record, 11 saves and an eye-popping 1.42 ERA.
Padilla began his professional baseball career after signing with the Minnesota Twins organization in 1998. In September 2003 he was traded the New York Yankees for Jesse Orosco. In July 2004 he was promoted to the parent club, when he pitched in his first major league game at Comerica Park in Detroit.
“It was July 7th,” Padilla remembered. “I pitched my first game the second day after the All-Star break. I came in, in the fourth inning. I was so nervous. They called the bullpen and said, ‘get Padilla up,’ I got so nervous, I was sweating, I threw like five balls. I don’t think I hit the catcher once.”
In 2 2/3 innings pitched, Padilla held the Tigers scoreless, allowing one hit. “It was unbelievable, I look behind me there’s A-Rod, Jeter,” Padilla continued. “I still to this day … I don’t really feel like I was there, it was like all a dream. There were 55,000 people in the stands, everyone wants to see the Yankees and I was there. I was nice.”
If you dig down, beyond the persona, the stats, the baseball field, you’ll a modest footnote buried in his media guide profile, that’s where you’ll find Juan Padilla’s heart.
In 2001, while playing in the Class A Florida State League, Juan and his wife Erika were changed by a late-night infomercial for Compassion International – a worldwide Christian-based organization that funds children enduring spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty.
The message really affected Erika. “She told me, we don’t get that much money but we have enough that we should share it,” Padilla said. He had reservations about making that kind of financial commitment. As a minor league ballplayer, the couple lived on a tight budget, sharing a house with three teammates and their wives. But Padilla’s Christian conscious convinced him to move forward.
Within days Juan and Erika began sponsoring Uwizeyimana Verediyana, a young girl from Rwanda, and have since been sending monthly donations to support her education, Christian Bible studies and basic needs.
One look at Rwanda’s death and poverty statistics and “basic needs” takes on a new meaning. The numbers are staggering. In rural communities of Rwanda, 39% of the population have access to “adequate sanitary facilities” and 69% have improved drinking water conditions and according to 2005 statistics 36% of the population in Rwanda is living on one dollar or less per day, 203 of every 1,000 children will die before they reach age five and the average life expectancy for women is 48.03 years (men 45.92 years). *
The numbers leave you gasping for air and desperate to help.
”They’re building a house now for her family,” Padilla says with a humble grin on his face. “Every time we get her letters, we get excited because … even if it’s a little bit that we’re helping, we’re helping in making her life better, her families life better and all the people that are around her.”
Albeit, Juan and Erika communicate regularly with Uwizeyimana, they have yet to meet her. “She is over in Africa,” Padilla said. “She writes a lot of letters, a lot of thank you letters. She tells us we bought this and that, we bought food, we bought a goat … it’s good to do something for someone else, they don’t have what we have.”
Padilla is quietly tucked away in the clubhouse, headphones on, loading music from his laptop computer to his I-Pod. He is at peace with himself, knowing somewhere in a small rural community in Rwanda, a teenage girl is celebrating her 15th birthday and, at least in spirit, he and Erika are the too and that fills his heart.
* Sources for statistics: The World Factbook, 2005; The State of the World’s Children, 2005