Off Season, The Series: MLB Athlete Chris Paddack

Some people were born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple. MLB starting pitcher Chris Paddack is not one of those people. Raised by a single mother who worked 16-hour shifts at a hair salon and made sure her three boys ate before she even thought about food, Paddack is no stranger to adversity. In fact, his idea of childhood privilege was growing up with two older brothers he could lean on. He wasn’t born into success; he works for it. And there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t remind himself that he’s not stopping. “I have two-thirty-six tattooed on the side of my ribs because two hundred thirty-five people were picked before me in the draft.” Even after suffering a career-ending injury and not touching a baseball for twenty-two months, being away from a game he has played since before he could walk, that tattoo served as a constant reminder that he is not done. “When I would see my tattoo in the mirror during rehab, it reminded me that I still have a story to tell. I still have a dream to chase.” But he isn’t chasing that dream for himself; he’s doing it for his family. They are his primary motivation—they are his why.

This is it. I've talked about this my entire life, and
I won't let something I can't control ruin my dreams.

Paddack never had a plan B. He couldn’t afford one, he has too much riding on his success. From moving every year—new house, new school—to gift-less Christmas mornings, Paddack yearns to “support the people who were there when I was at rock bottom, who have sacrificed themselves to help me.” Creating a better life for his family has always been his goal. “When I was a young kid, I dreamed of having millions of dollars one day to support my family, to give them something that we never experienced throughout life.” This was no fleeting dream. Instead of experiencing classic American coming-of-age milestones, including missing his High School Senior Prom, he was at the gym working to make his dreams of going straight to the big leagues a reality. And his hard work paid off—he was drafted eighth round out of high school at 18 years old by the Miami Marlins, picked 236 and he was on top of the world. Then he got traded.

In 2016, the Marlins traded Paddack to the San Diego Padres for Fernando Rodney, a seasoned 12-year MLB All-Star who throws a 95-mph fastball. Panicked, Paddack called his agent who assured him that while one team is getting rid of him, another team is passionate about the trade. After calling his family and gathering his thoughts, he determined, “I’m going to prove the Marlins wrong that they ever got rid of me.” But before he could bring his revenge to fruition, Paddack’s elbow popped. “I went straight to the ground, grabbed my elbow, was in tears. It's like the world stopped. Like I missed a heartbeat. This was not supposed to happen to me.”

Darkness set in. “It was twenty-two months of my life that I was away from the game of baseball for the first time since I could walk. It was the first time I didn't pick up a baseball and had obstacle after obstacle. When that gets taken away from you, negative thoughts start rolling in.” He turned to his brother, Michael, who looked him dead in the eyes, brother to brother, and got honest with him, saying, “If you want that dream, you got to go get it. Because guess what? You're away from the game of baseball, no one's going to remember you. You're not that high school kid that's drafted out of Cedar Park, Texas, in the eighth round no more. You're just another rehab baseball player. I can't help you anymore. I can't push you. You have to do it. You have to want it for yourself.” For the next six hundred and fifty days in rehab, away from his family, away from the game, watching friends and teammates chase their dreams while Paddack was sitting there “being a good cheerleader in the bleachers,” he used his brother’s words as motivation. The truth he didn’t want to hear became “that bitter taste in your mouth that you want to spit out and then get back on your feet.” That’s when the switch turned on for him and he realized, “This is it. I’ve talked about this my entire life, and I won’t let something I can’t control ruin my dreams.”

Part of that mental switch for Paddack included legendary trainer Tim Grover’s motivational book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, using Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s stories of triumph to reveal what it takes to achieve mental dominance, to become relentless and achieve whatever you desire. Reading about Bryant’s injury and what Jordan went through had a profound effect on Paddack. “Nothing can stop you if you put your mind to it. That’s where this book changed my life. And that’s why I have “Relentless” etched on all my baseball gloves to this day. Life’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are going to be obstacles, but it’s how you respond.”

After twenty-two months of recovery, Paddack returned to the mound an even stronger player than before. “I've overcome six hundred and seventy days being away from my family, being alone in a dark place, but I also learned a lot about myself, and I've grown as a man, as a player, as a brother, as a son, because of one word in that book: relentless.” He describes baseball as a game of failure. The trick is, he tells us, to focus on your effort and attitude. “I personally believe you have to train your mind more than your talent. It took me a couple of years in pro ball to realize that you're no longer that special talent that you were back in high school when you were the spotlight of the town. Now you're surrounded by guys that are just as good as you, if not better. And that's not a bad thing. That's just the truth. And you have to be able to separate yourself by how you learn, how you train your mind, how you stay positive, how you turn a negative into a positive—whether that's journaling, meditating, or just flat out having a goal and an objective for that day and what you want to accomplish. That’s the mental side of things. We can control more of our mind than we can results and talent on the field because those come and go. I can't hit a home run every time and I can't strike out every guy, but I can train my mind to not take this pitch off and know what I'm trying to do in this particular moment on the biggest stage in the world.”

From the biggest stage in the world to a remote corner in Texas, Paddack has created a unique life in which he thrives in front of the bright white lights on a professional baseball field with a relentless spirit. Although Paddack has made it to the big league and has his goals set on making it to the Hall of Fame, he has never lost sight of his family roots in rural Texas. It is why after the close of baseball season every year, Paddack returns to his quiet life on the ranch where he sets after a dream within a dream, owning 25 acres of land where he hopes to one day raise cattle. But for now, as the starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres, when he's on the mound with 55,000 fans in the stadium, he only hears his family, the people who keep him driven, the reason he plays the game—his why.

The biggest moment thus far in his life boils down to just 10 short minutes during his major league debut. With over 45 friends and family members in the stands, all wearing cowboy hats, cheering him on while the announcer called “number 59, Chris Paddack” as he took the field is enough to give you goosebumps. But the highlight for Paddack was after the game when he came down the tunnel and saw his family lined up in front of the dugout. “Words can't describe the feeling I got; to let out so much emotion for the first time in my life knowing that they got to support me while we made it. Everything we've been through, that moment was so special not only for me, but for us.”