Padilla has come a long way
Nicaraguan native survived through tough times as a child
ARLINGTON -- Chinandega.
Cheeh - nahn - deh - gah
Those 10 letters, when said at the perfect tone and just the right tempo, are powerful enough to upend the grimace on the face of mysterious Rangers pitcher Vicente Padilla. The mere sound of those four syllables is strong enough to make his famous scowl disappear and turn that ever-present squint, those distrustful eyes, into the blissful wide-eyed look of a child on his birthday.
Chinandega, Nicaragua, is the tiny city where Padilla was born, where he lives and where he plans on dying one day. It's heaven on Earth. For now, work on Earth is in Texas but that could change because he is a free agent at the end of the season. His future with the franchise is a popular question in North Texas, but those who know him best believe that in order to understand where Padilla is going, you first must understand who he is and where he comes from.
He is an ordinary country boy who overcame hardship, death and an epic revolution to grow into one of Central America's most extraordinary countrymen. Padilla is the heart and soul of Chinandega.
"Maybe there is an image of me that I'm arrogant, I don't like to talk and I think really highly of myself, but that's not how it is," said Padilla, who turned 29 on Wednesday. "If I tell a reporter something, write what I say and don't make me look bad. If I take time to talk, I want it to be fair. If it is not fair, why should I talk? Media here and sometimes in Nicaragua make up their minds about me and write what they want to write. I am a baseball player and I pitch. I work hard. I am here to do a job, not win a popularity contest."
So far in a Rangers uniform, it's been a job well done.
"He doesn't give a flip. He wants to win." -- Rangers center fielder Gary Matthews
"Right now, he has 14 wins and he could have 17 or 18 because he has come out of some games with a lead we didn't hold," Rangers pitching coach Mark Connor said. "He's given us innings and the thing I like so much about him is that he can pitch in different styles. He can pitch with his sinker at 87 to 90 [mph] or he can go with his four-seamer at 94 to 98 [mph]. He has a curveball, a little bit of a changeup, a cutter and a slider now. He is not afraid on the mound, and he has everything you look for in a pitcher."
Padilla (14-10, 4.44 ERA) enters his final start of the season Friday against the Mariners needing one victory to set a career high with 15 wins. He is 5 1/3 innings away from reaching the 200-inning plateau for the third time in his career and is second on the team to No. 1 starter Kevin Millwood in victories. He's already reached a career high with a 150 strikeouts.
"I liked pitching here," Padilla said. "I like the heat and the area. I loved my teammates. I really appreciate the fans and I heard their cheers every time I pitched. But I am not the only who decides if I come back. It's up to the Rangers to give me a fair deal."
Signed by Arizona in 1998, Padilla spent the first seven years of his career in the National League but was slowed by inconsistent performances and a few injury-plagued seasons in Philadelphia. He signed a one-year deal with the Rangers during the winter and quickly established himself as a fearless competitor in the American League.
His impact has been quite literal. He leads the American League in hit batsmen with 17 and was ejected, then suspended for five games earlier this season for throwing at Angels outfielder Juan Rivera.
"From the time I came from Nicaragua to now, I have always thrown inside," Padilla said. "I know a lot of pitchers are afraid to throw inside because they are afraid of hitting a batter but I'm not afraid. It's part of the game. You have to do what you have to do. If you don't, the hitters will do what they can against you. I cannot help it if they do not get out of the way."
Padilla is nothing if he is not intense on the mound, and count Rangers center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. among the many teammates fond of Padilla's passion. Yes, the opposing pitcher sometimes retaliates by nailing a Rangers hitter after Padilla hits a batter, but that's part of the game Matthews grew up watching.
"Padilla is not somebody you are going to intimidate on the mound and I like that about him," Matthews said. "He doesn't give a flip. He wants to win. He wants to get you out. That's his plate so you better be careful when you step in that batter's box. I've seen hitters in our division scared against him because they don't know what he is going to do. I like that."
Without a doubt, Padilla is fearless on the mound, but his fierce demeanor is the result of a tough upbringing, not a lifestyle choice. He says he can't remember a time in his life when he could be anything but brave.
"It's a really small city. In 10 minutes you can drive around and see everything." -- Vicente Padilla
Once considered one of the poorest cities in the country, Chinandega is located on the northwestern corner of Nicaragua and borders the country of Honduras. Less than 15 minutes from the Pacific Ocean, Chinandega is known for its volcanoes, its sugar-cane and banana plantations and its most famous resident: Vicente Cruz Padilla.
"It's a really small city. In 10 minutes you can drive around and see everything," Padilla said. "It's humble. The people are hard-working. There are a lot of poor [people] in the country, but I hope it gets better. It's better now than when I was a child."
He should know.
Padilla's parents separated when he was 2, and he was raised by his grandparents in a crowded house that also included his uncle and two cousins in an area called El Viejo. His grandfather Angel Ordonez grew rice, beans and corn to make ends meet so naturally, Padilla's first job was as a farmer working alongside his grandfather. In his early teens, the pitcher worked at a banana plantation, and although the wages were meager, the extra money helped make life better at his grandparents' house.
Money, any money, was good money in those days.
Around age 10, he began playing baseball, mostly with his uncle and cousins. He said he didn't take the sport seriously until he realized he could help pay a few bills by throwing fastballs by hitters. Padilla's boyhood revelation marked the beginning of an equation that still resonates in his manhood today. Baseball equals money. Money equals helping the family.
"I worked all the time," Padilla said. "That's all I know how to do. I have been trying to take care of my family since I was young. Why would I change now? They took care of me when I needed it. I am going to take care of them now."
Padilla's family not only cared for him. They saved his life. In 1979, two years after he was born, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, known as the Sandinistas, led a revolution against the president and took power of the country. The Sandinista revolution changed the landscape of virtually every town, including Chinandega, in Nicaragua during its 11-year reign.
And from the onset, Chinandega became a hotbed for the Marxist-based Sandinistas, making guerrilla warfare between the revolutionaries and the former government regime common in the area. With the war raging into the mid-1980s, the Sandinistas needed soldiers. Padilla, who was taller and more athletic than most kids his age, looked like the perfect candidate for warfare.
Grandfather Angel wasn't so sure. After all, Padilla's uncle, a top-ranking Sandinista official, was murdered, some believed by other Sandinistas, and his grandfather didn't want the same thing to happen to young Vicente.
"That was a time, a period in our history, that affected the youth of our country more than anything," Padilla said. "When you are 13, 14, 15 years old, you can't do anything because if the Sandinistas got you, you would disappear in the mountains to fight. If you are lucky, you see your family again or the next time they see you, you are in a box, dead, and they have to identify you. A lot of times, kids would go up there and never come back."
"A lot of my family was Sandinista, and they didn't have to be forced to go up to the mountains and fight because they did it on their own," he continued. "I didn't want to go and because the Sandinistas respected my grandfather, I didn't go. They owed him because they killed my uncle."
The end of the Sandinistas regime in 1990 brought relief to Padilla and his family. The country's economy was in shambles but at least he was free. At last, he was free to do anything he wanted to do, like play baseball.
As a pitcher, Padilla was raw but he had talent. He played in various baseball leagues around Chinandega during the mid-1990s, and by 1998, he was a steady force on the Nicaraguan national baseball team as a starter and a reliever. He signed with the Diamondbacks later that year, but still looks back on that period with mixed emotions.
Both of his grandparents died in 1998. They were not alive to see him sign a pro contract. His father died a few years earlier.
"Obviously, that was a really hard time for me," Padilla said. "At that time, the Yankees called me and wanted a tryout, but it was almost impossible. My grandmother had just died, and I spent three days mourning for her. I show up in jeans and a T-shirt, I am not ready. I throw 86 miles an hour and nobody wants me. My grandfather died when I was playing in Italy. That was hard because I never got to say goodbye to him."
It was a year of sad farewells for the young man. By the end of 1998, Padilla said goodbye to Nicaragua -- goodbye to everything he had ever known -- and hello to a foreign territory and a foreign culture. The United States of America.
"I'm the one who looks bad when reporters write what they want. They write or say what they want and I am the bad guy. I'm not going to talk if that is how it is." -- Vicente Padilla
"You have to know him to appreciate him," said Yankees outfielder Bobby Abreu, Padilla's former teammate in Philadelphia. "I don't think the public knows who he is. Maybe it is because he does not talk to the media or speak perfect English. Once you get to know him, everybody likes him."
Padilla's closest friend, Cesar Batista, describes the pitcher as reserved in mixed company but a laugh-a-minute in private. Batista and Padilla met in Tucson during Spring Training in 1998.
"It probably does not help him that he doesn't talk to the media or is more of a public person, but that is who he is," Batista said. "He has always been like that. He's a simple man from the countryside. I don't think he trusts a lot of people. He grew up in a time when you could not trust your own people."
Padilla acknowledges trust issues. He says his on-again, off-again relationship with the media dates backs to his days in Philadelphia, and he is quite comfortable with the silent treatment in Texas. He says his numbers should do all the talking for him.
"I'm the one who looks bad when reporters write what they want. They write or say what they want and I am the bad guy," he said. "I'm not going to talk if that is how it is. Here in Texas, in Spring Training, I said I will talk sometimes, but the day when you start attacking me or go against me, it is over."
Padilla says he tries to have a good attitude about it, but he remains frustrated with how his arrest in Dallas for DUI in July was played in the media, because he says he was innocent. The charges were eventually dropped when the state decided not to move forward after reviewing the case and talking with police officers.
Padilla was driving his 2006 Lamborghini at the time and said he was following a friend.
"I don't know why they pulled me over," he said. "But if you are a Latino and you have a car like that in the United States, people automatically think you sell drugs or you are some bad guy. I got pulled over. Then reporters write about it and even the Rangers told me some things. I did not like that at all. It angered me. I just want to put it all in the past and go forward."
Forward seems to be the place for the right-hander. Padilla's immediate future includes one more start, a few days in Texas, then a flight back home to his beloved Chinandega. He is building a home that he will share with his mother, three sisters, two brothers and three nephews there.
As always, it is family first. He makes no apologies for those who don't understand that.
"I am everything to them and they are everything to me," he said. "I'm here representing my country and my family. What else is there in this life? I don't care about that other stuff."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.