Mat Latos no longer holding back

SAN DIEGO -- On a late July day in Cincinnati last season, a grouchy Heath Bell headed toward his locker when he heard Padres rookie pitcher Mat Latos, who then was a particularly difficult player for veterans to like. At times, Latos appeared friendly enough, but he mostly kept to himself and didn't say much, which made him appear cold and detached or, worse yet, arrogant and cocky.

Padres veterans -- including Bell -- had privately groused for weeks that the team's young players had forgotten simple etiquette and had committed several transgressions, things seemingly so inconsequential -- rookies forgetting which shoes they were allowed to wear during batting practice, players listening to music too loud at their lockers or playing cards only minutes before the start of a game -- that, when added up, could create factions in the clubhouse. Latos had been at the center of these complaints.

"I was so young, 21, and all the other guys were so much older than me," Latos said. "I felt like I kind of didn't fit in so I had to put up a wall almost and be by myself and be my own person and away from everybody else."

It did not help that Latos, a 2006 draft pick out of Coconut Creek High School who signed with the Padres in 2007 after a season in Broward College (BC), had quickly earned a reputation in the organization for being a disruptive teammate. Such a tag was almost a death sentence.

"Once you have a label, whether it's good or bad, it just seems to stick, and it's unfair but that's just the way it is," Padres third baseman Chase Headley said. "He came in and felt people were against him. In baseball, things travel. If you have issues in the minors, they travel. A lot of times he was really defensive. He didn't want to let anybody in."

Bell had little patience for such an attitude that day in Cincinnati, and almost immediately after hearing Latos, he yelled, "Listen to us! We know what we're doing here. You're a talented pitcher but we can make you that much better. You walk around here like you're a veteran thinking like you're somebody. You have to be humble. We have to work as a team."

Latos mostly dismissed Bell's rant at the time. To him it was just another teammate who had challenged him in a short career already full of confrontations. For Latos, Bell was an older player who didn't understand him, who didn't care to get to know him and who had not earned his trust. For most of his life, Latos had generally avoided people, keeping close only those who had earned his deepest trust.

"In life you're going to have your good friends and you're going to have your best friends," Latos said. "And then you're going to have those friends that you're not so sure of that are just kind of acquaintances. A lot of times people are shady. They're quick to be on one side one minute and quick to throw you under the bus the next. And the way that I think about it is, who honestly can you really trust?"

So Latos mostly kept to himself for the rest of that 2009 season. Soon after reaching his innings limit, Latos pitched his final game of the year on Sept. 5. He sat and watched that month while the rest of the team played on. Latos appeared so detached that several of his teammates wondered whether he simply wanted to go home. Bell, in particular, who as an unheralded player had scratched and clawed his way through the minors, was especially dismayed.

"I just wanted him to be the best pitcher he could be," Bell said.

Soon after the season ended, Latos headed home to Florida where a close relative awaited with this conundrum: How many more seasons do you want to spend in constant turmoil, bickering with teammates, driving coaches insane and generally sabotaging your promising career?

"God gave you two ears and one mouth for you to listen more than you talk," the relative told Latos, who chuckled.

The only way I can look back on it now is to see how I was and how I never want to be again. I just want to be the person that I am now. I've come a very long way from what I used to be.

-- Mat Latos

Days later, though, the aphorism stuck. Latos saw that there was a great chasm between the boy he had been and the man he could be. If Latos wanted to realize his potential as a player, and most importantly, reach his potential as a man, he had to make real changes -- not just the cosmetic changes he had made in junior college and in the minors.

Latos vowed to be more social. He vowed to allow people to meet the person who close friends and relatives regarded as a good soul. Mostly, he just vowed to grow up.

So he did. During the 2010 season Latos chatted up teammates and spent time getting to know them. He participated in Padres fishing competitions. He played with some of his teammates' children, often throwing batting practice inside the clubhouse. Latos became respected, and amazingly, well-liked by almost every person on the team, something that had never happened before in his career at any level. He even took Bell on as a mentor and constantly prodded him for advice. He watched the veteran pitchers and tried to behave as they did.

And quietly, almost like a whisper, and mostly without incident, Latos became the most promising young pitcher in the National League, surpassing the accomplishments of most pitchers from the 2006 draft, who were chosen ahead of him because so many scouts never thought he could never banish those demons Latos often took to the mound as an amateur.

"To be honest with you, what I've done, do I like it? No," Latos said. "Would I have wanted to change it? Of course. But I can't do it. The only way I can look back on it now is to see how I was and how I never want to be again. I just want to be the person that I am now. I've come a very long way from what I used to be. But you know what? I still have a million miles left to go. I'm not there. And to be honest with you, I'll be 50 years old and I'll still have a million miles to go. I'll be 80 years old and I'll still be saying the same thing."

No one can quite pinpoint when Latos become one of the most polarizing amateur players in South Florida's recent history. His career had started well enough. Latos' 13-and-under team -- the Broward County Braves -- endeared themselves to the area by winning several national tournaments in 2001, and Latos' performance during these tournaments had caught the attention of all the prominent high school baseball coaches in the area.

By the time he was 14 years old, Latos was being recruited by several prominent high school programs. Though Latos spurned those offers and attended the local Coconut Creek, such attention had secured Latos' status as a prospect. The attention also had an unintended consequence: Latos' ego had grown larger than his talent.

"Back then he had a childish attitude," remembers friend and former Coconut Creek teammate David Goga. "He thought his stuff was better than what it is now. I guess everyone on the team didn't get along with him. Everybody thought he was too cocky."

It wasn't so much that Latos had a God complex, it was that many teammates became so awed by him that they quite simply thought of him as the Messiah.

By his junior year, Latos earned the nickname "Jesus," partly in jest because of his supreme confidence, but also because of his unbelievable accomplishments on the field.

"Make it happen, Jesus," Coconut Creek catcher Carlos Placencia often told Latos on his visits to the mound. Or when Latos threw the ball so hard that it stung Placencia's hand, the catcher would yell, "Slow it down, Jesus."

Latos had always been the tallest, most athletic and talented kid on his teams. Now he had the confidence to let everyone know about it. He boasted about what he could do and what his teammates couldn't do. He was brutally honest about their skill levels. There were some, like Goga and Placencia, who simply accepted Latos for who he was and enjoyed his company. But many didn't.

Especially grating was when Latos would throw his hands up in the air or yell loudly when a teammate made an error during a game. When Latos felt an umpire missed a call, he would talk to himself and then snap-catch the ball when it returned from the catcher.

Latos' behavior was especially challenging for coach Roger Davidson. When Latos misbehaved on the field or in the classroom -- one particular favorite misdeed was when he would go to the bathroom without asking for permission, which drove teachers crazy -- Davidson would make Latos run from foul pole to foul pole for hours after practice.

"I can tell you that I probably ran the most in a four-year career than anybody else has in a high school career," Latos said.

Numerous times Davidson counseled Latos and pleaded with him to change his behavior. And while there were tweaks, Latos never fully embraced Davidson's advice.

Yet there were things about Latos that made it impossible for Davidson to completely dismiss the kid.

There was the time when Davidson could not coach a game after having spent the day ill in the hospital. After Davidson was dismissed from the hospital, he headed to the field and watched from the stands. After the game, Latos, who had delivered yet another dominant performance, flipped the ball to his coach in the stands with genuine affection.

And then there was the time in Latos' junior year, when Coconut Creek catcher George Seely was plunked numerous times by rival Deerfield High School. Latos made it known to Deerfield's players that he would not accept Seely getting beaned again.

"Look if you hit him again," Latos told several of Deerfield's players, "as many times as he gets hit, I'm going to wind up hitting another guy. And I throw it harder than any guy you'll play against."

Seely was not hit again.

Davidson crows about the time Latos threw 80 pitches in a eight-inning, rain-shortened tournament game. Latos pleaded with Davidson to allow him to finish the game the next day. Davidson agreed on one condition: Latos had only 10 pitches. Of course, the next day, Latos struck out the side in exactly 10 pitches.

"You never had a problem with him not wanting the ball," Davidson said. "He had a lot of heart."

And of course, Davidson was always grateful that Latos never abandoned neither him nor the Coconut Creek program, regardless of how the team struggled at times. The pressure on Latos to leave was immense. After Coconut Creek was eliminated from postseason play during Latos' junior year, several coaches tried to recruit the phenom as the team was walking toward the bus in the stadium parking lot, with Davidson by Latos' side. Latos never seriously considered leaving. If anything, Latos was fiercely loyal.

"I always had faith in that child," Davidson said. "That showed me that he understood what was worthwhile in life."

Latos finished his four-year career at Coconut Creek with a 22-13 record, 368 strikeouts and 77 walks in 260 1/3 innings. During his astounding senior season, Latos had a 0.64 ERA and was named the South Florida Sun-Sentinel Player of the Year.

No one can quite pinpoint exactly when Latos' pro prospects derailed either.

Placencia believes it was during a game in Latos' senior year when the team's second baseman misplayed a ground ball late in the game and Latos yelled at the player in disgust, "What's wrong with you?!" while throwing his hands up in the air.

Perhaps it was when Douglas High School coach Dean Florio asked his players to bunt often to force Latos' infielders to make mistakes that would rattle Latos. Sure enough, Douglas beat Latos twice in two years after Creek infielders made errors.

Or better yet, maybe it was the game against Douglas in Latos' senior year when he threw at the opposing team's third base coach. During the game, Latos believed the coach had been stealing Placencia's signs and had been calling them out to Douglas' batters. After one sequence when Latos believed he heard the coach tell one of his players that a changeup was coming, Latos stepped off the mound and hurled a ball that pegged the coach in the chest.

Latos sneered at the coach and said, "This is what is going to happen if you keep doing it."

All 50-plus scouts in attendance had taken note.

In reality, it was probably not one specific thing, but rather a collection of incidents, that railroaded Latos on draft day. On that day Latos, who many had predicted would be selected in the first 10 picks of the draft, waited and waited all day until his name was finally called in the 11th round by the San Diego Padres.

"[Latos] always had an excuse," one executive of a team who had scouted Latos said.

"The best I recall is it was how cocky and flamboyant he was," an executive of another team who scouted Latos said. "Also once he fell out of the first round many teams couldn't select him due to having slot considerations upheld by ownership."

After being selected so late, Latos could not say a word to his parents, Rich and Linda Latos, the two people who had always supported him.

"I felt like I let down my mom and my dad," Latos said. "They got so overwhelmed because I wasn't taken in the first two rounds that they didn't know what to say to me. And they didn't know what to do so they had a blank stare on their face. I kind of felt like I was a letdown to them."

Of course, he wasn't.

"Everything that you've done, we've been proud of," Latos' mother told him later that day.

The task now was for Latos to repair his reputation. Two weeks prior to the start of the season, Latos called coach Bob Deutschman and told him he wanted to attend Broward College.

Deutschman laid out a simple plan on how Latos could regain his prospect status: be on time, practice hard and work hard in school. If Latos could change his reputation while at BC, he could then sign with the Padres at the end of the year under the now-defunct "draft and follow" rule.

Deutschman suggested that Latos, who had a tendency to speak to adults in the same manner in which he spoke to his peers, be more careful when speaking to scouts and team executives.

"Their opinion just cost you a million dollars," Deutschman told Latos. "In that world it does matter what they think. You had a lotto ticket in your hand and you ripped it up."

Latos' year at BC was mostly a success. Padres executives saw that Latos cut down on his outbursts and he often spoke with more reverence. Latos performed spectacularly on the field for BC, but that was mostly irrelevant. No one had doubted his talent.

The Padres, satisfied Latos had made the necessary changes in his life, rewarded the 11th-round pick with a $1.25 million signing bonus. And yet there were warning signs that Latos' changes were superficial.

"Did he change because he cared about what [team executives and scouts] thought?" Deutschman said. "He changed because he knew what they thought mattered. He was a guy without any fear of anything or of what people thought. In the end his teammates 100 percent respected what he did with them and for them on the field. Off the field, Mat is a polarizing guy. There are guys that get him and guys that don't. I don't think he cared one way or another. It didn't matter to him to create lifelong relationships."

Latos had again been mostly dismissive of his teammates. When he interacted with them, it was usually to tell them about how less talented they were. Latos often quibbled with coaches about minor team rules.

"Some guys didn't like him much and some guys didn't mind him much," former BCCC teammate Yudelmis Hernandez said. "No matter what though, he always took care of his job."

A lot of people will sit there and tell you there were certain things about me they couldn't stand. Take the time to get to know me see the type of person I really am now.

-- Mat Latos

Whether a changed man or not, the 19-year-old Latos played his first professional season with the Eugene Emeralds, who were managed by former Padres manager Greg Riddoch. In 1992, Riddoch -- a former high school psychology teacher -- deftly guided Gary Sheffield -- who had been branded a malcontent in Milwaukee -- to a successful, if brief, tenure with the Padres. Under Riddoch, Sheffield flourished, putting up two of the best seasons of his career, including a run at the Triple Crown in 1992.

Latos presented a different challenge. While Sheffield could be quiet, Latos was difficult. Latos and Riddoch often quarreled. Riddoch was dumbfounded at how Latos seemed to live in his own world. Several times during games in which he didn't pitch, Latos would go into the clubhouse to call his girlfriend. Other times, he'd simply stare into the stands and not pay attention. Latos was also fined several times for being late.

His behavior agitated many teammates. One in particular, an older former college player, challenged Latos.

"I don't like you because you're 19 years old and you signed for a lot of money that I don't think you deserved," the player told Latos, who constantly argued with older teammates.

Riddoch, who was also the organization's mental skills coordinator, asked Latos to earn the respect of his teammates by performing well on the field. He advised Latos to cut back on the emotional outbursts on the mound, which had lessened from his high school days, but had never really disappeared. Mostly though, Riddoch wanted Latos to take responsibility for his actions.

"When you allow an umpire or an error to affect you, it's your fault because it will affect your next pitch," Riddoch told him.

Slowly, Latos began to understand Riddoch's suggestions. And yet Latos, who zoomed through the Padres' minor league system in just two and a half seasons by posting a 2.49 ERA, faced that same confrontational scenario in Cincinnati with Bell that he had encountered at almost every level in which he had played. Worse yet, his emotions continued to hound him on the mound.

"Certain calls wouldn't go my way and I was a rookie and I'd just let it get to me and act a fool," Latos said. "Instead of shutting my mouth and just taking it and going back out there to win a game, I'd go back out there and throw a fit as if I were 16 years old and let it affect me deeper in the ballgame."

Latos' 4-5 record with a 4.62 ERA in 2009 was adequate for a rookie, but everyone in that Padres clubhouse knew he could do much better. Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley hoped that Latos' time observing in September would make a difference. He asked Latos to tweak a few things in his mechanics and to try a few new variances on his pitches, but even he didn't know how Latos would react.

On day one of spring training this year, Balsley pleasantly noted that Latos had better control of his emotions and his pitches.

"He made the decision to be really good instead of just really talented," Balsley said.

Latos can now control a four-seam fastball down and away, and up and in. He has a two-seamer that he throws inside to left-handed hitters. Latos developed a sinker that cuts away from lefties, throws a four-seam changeup that drops and a two-seam changeup that fades away from lefties. For the first time in a while, Latos' slider touches 90 mph. Surely those are major reasons why he has a 2.36 ERA and a league-best .191 batting average against.

But Latos will tell you that he didn't become a better pitcher until he became a better man.

"A lot of people will sit there and tell you there were certain things about me they couldn't stand," Latos said. "Take the time to get to know me see the type of person I really am now."

While Latos has come closer to becoming the person many hoped he could be, there is still that chasm between his present and potential self. It's a work in progress. Teammates still believe that Latos can improve his mound presence.

But, without a doubt, this year has been the most enjoyable of his career. Latos has become part of a team for the first time in his life.

Earlier this season, when Latos was placed on the disabled list after having injured himself by holding back a sneeze, it was Bell who offered some friendly advice.

"Just let it go, man."

It finally appears Latos is not holding anything back.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.