Pitcher Vicente Padilla, he of the blazing fastball and retiring personality, is often spoken of as one of the players with whom communication was sometimes difficult. Indeed, Padilla was pulled from a crucial mid-August game in Montreal with a 10-4 lead because it was thought that he was not listening to instruction. Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan felt Padilla was stubbornly throwing his fastball at the exclusion of his other pitches. That the Phils lost the game 14-10 after Padilla was replaced did not go unnoticed by Padilla advocates like catcher Mike Lieberthal.
The point is not to debate the decision to replace Padilla; there are more important issues to discuss now. This is merely to illustrate the difficulty that the Phils and Padilla often had in communicating. This writer believes communication will never be a problem with Padilla and the Phils again…his tragic auto accident on a lonely stretch of highway in Nicaragua changed that forever.
Suddenly, and without warning Padilla was thrust into everyone's living room like a long lost relative due to an accident that left his body bruised and his heart broken. The initial reports on Padilla's condition were somewhat sketchy; broken collarbone, bruised collarbone, broken finger, bruised finger. What was known was that while Padilla had escaped the accident with his life, his good friend, Abraham Flores, had not.
Possibly thrown from the car due to his failure to use a seat belt, Flores had suffered a fractured skull and died on the way to the hospital.
By all accounts, Flores was a lifelong friend of Padilla's, someone who had known Padilla since childhood. Suddenly, every baseball fan, be they Phillie fan or not, could communicate with Padilla on the most intimate of levels; personal ones. Suddenly, every person who has ever lost a loved one, be they friend or family, could understand the pain Padilla was feeling, a pain that goes much deeper than a broken collarbone or bruised finger.
Vicente Padilla became everyone's friend, as if by befriending him, we could alleviate some of his pain. Personally, this writer understood well what Padilla was feeling and what he will go through in the immediate future. As a former ballplayer, I once joined a very talented team that was ill equipped to welcome a stranger to the club. As a newcomer I was looked upon with suspicion and dread, as if I threatened their standing in the hierarchy of position.
All, except for one player, who ironically, was the star of the team, shunned me. Gary Redmond was his name and he befriended and encouraged me, and unequivocally rescued my season. Then, without warning, an injury, slow to heal, became a source of concern. The concern became hospitalization, the diagnosis, leukemia. Redmond died three months later, and I sobbed like a baby at the funeral. I lost a friend that day, and so Padilla communicates easily and directly to me. I know the pain and grief he now feels.
Undoubtedly, everyone feels this pain and grief, and suddenly communication is no longer difficult. Pain, suffering and anguish are universal languages and words are no longer an issue. Every person understands this language. Padilla need not utter a word and people will reach out to him with empathy.
Too often, athletes are judged merely by their numbers on a scorecard. In fact, one of Bowa's favorite sayings is the "numbers on the back of his baseball card." Of course, there is some truth to this as often a player's statistical numbers indicate the value of the player to the team.
Sadly, it often takes a human tragedy to transform a player from a number into a human being. This is precisely what has occurred with Padilla. He will no longer be thought of as merely a very talented righty with an often-independent spirit. He will no longer be thought of as a player whom it was difficult to communicate with. Language will never be a barrier between Padilla and others, that is gone forever.
You see, Vicente Padilla now speaks a language we all understand, the universal language of sorrow, of pain, of loss. Oh, we still worry about Padilla's collarbone, we pray it isn't broken. We concern ourselves with Padilla's finger; we hope it is merely bruised. Yet we commiserate most with Padilla's heart because it is this issue that may remain with him long after his collarbone and finger are healed.
Vicente Padilla will no doubt recover from his injured collarbone. He will no doubt overcome his damaged finger. What we don't know, and may not know for sometime is the damage to his broken heart, and the suffering that goes with the loss of a dear friend.
Yes, friends, Padilla communicates well with each and every one of us…through the universal language of a loss that no verbal language can put into words, and yet every human soul can fully understand.
Let us now offer another universal language, the language of prayer for Vicente Padilla, and all the people who suddenly communicate with him on such a personal level.
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to email@example.com and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast