When Angelspitching coach Mike Butcher walked out of the UC Irvine Medical Center at dawnon April 9, one of his players was dead, two of the player's friends were deadand a third friend was on life support, his skull no longer attached to hisspinal column. Butcher wanted to believe that the third friend could pullthrough, but after what he had seen that night, hope was hard to muster."His chances," Butcher says, "were slim to none."
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 2009 issue
Dr. Nitin Bhatia,the 36-year-old director of the Spine Center at UCI, had delivered the grislydiagnosis: internal decapitation. "I read the CT scan, and it wasdepressing," Bhatia says. "Ninety-five percent of people with internaldecapitation die immediately or within a day or two. Of the other five percent,most are either quadriplegic or on a ventilator the rest of theirlives."
By the afternoonof April 9 the baseball world had learned of the death of Angels startingpitcher Nick Adenhart and his friends Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson in acar crash, and information started to emerge about that other passenger, a24-year-old youth baseball coach named Jon Wilhite, who had been a catcher atCal State--Fullerton. One television network reported that he too was dead.
After a sombermeeting with Jim Adenhart, Nick's father, in their clubhouse that afternoon,the Angels vowed to use baseball as their sanctuary. But on the first road tripafter the crash, they lost five of six games, suggesting that there was noescape.
By the time theycame home to Anaheim on April 21, their most feared hitter, Vladimir Guerrero,had gone on the disabled list, joining four of their starting pitchers. Theirbullpen had an 8.31 ERA, worst in the majors. Their lineup had scored thesecond-fewest runs in the AL. Worst of all, their top pitching prospect wasgone and never coming back.
"What'shappening to us right now is mental," centerfielder Torii Hunter said then."Guys miss Nick. They're mourning." When the team gathered on April 23for a private memorial service at Angel Stadium, manager Mike Scioscia told theplayers to move on in their own time and in their own way. But he remindedthem: "We will move on."
The Angels havewon the American League West four times in the past five years and were widelyexpected to do it again this season. Despite losing free-agent first basemanMark Teixeira to the Yankees and closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Mets lastwinter, they had gone 26--8 in spring training, leading the majors in battingaverage and runs. But on May 1 they were 9--13 and stuck in third place intheir division. "We had the worst month a baseball team can possiblyhave," Hunter said recently. "It's like we were all telling ourselves,Hey, it's just a game, it's not that important, it's nothing compared to lifeand death. That went on for a month—maybe two months."
The malaise spreadall the way to the Angels' Triple A team in Salt Lake City, where Adenhart hadspent the 2008 season. "I'd take the mound, look back at the outfielders,and they've got their heads down," says righthander Matt Palmer, whostarted the season in Salt Lake before his promotion to the bigs on April 23."Then I'd look in at the catcher, and he's got his head down too. How doyou throw a pitch if everyone's got their head down?"
The TV report onthe accident was, in fact, wrong. Wilhite was alive. Bhatia had wanted tooperate immediately, on the morning of April 9, but Wilhite had too many otherinjuries—collapsed lungs, fractured disks, torn muscles, broken ribs andswelling in his brain. Bhatia screwed a ring, called a halo vest, intoWilhite's skull and sent him to the intensive care unit. "They brought hisbody back to life," Bhatia says.
Six days after thecrash Wilhite lay facedown on an operating table as Bhatia and a team of 30prepared to reattach his skull to his spine. A nurse asked Bhatia, "Are younervous?" He certainly had reason to be. "Every step could killhim," Bhatia says. "Turning him the slightest bit on the table couldgive him permanent paralysis. It's a tightrope. Every step has to beperfect."
Bhatia and histeam started by cutting a nine-inch incision into the back of Wilhite's neck.They inserted a titanium plate beneath the skull and connected it to a titaniumrod running into the neck, in effect creating a new spinal column. Theprocedure lasted five hours, and when it was over Bhatia was confident Wilhitewould live. Under what conditions, though, he had no idea.
Two days after thesurgery Bhatia woke Wilhite from a medically induced coma and pulled theendotracheal tubes from his mouth. Wilhite started to breathe on his own."That was the first step," Bhatia says. "He would not need aventilator."
Wilhite wasflanked around the clock by his mother, Betsy; his father, Tony; older brotherMichael; and younger brother, Chad. The first motion Jon made was to squeezehis mother's hand. The first word he spoke was, "Mom." The familyrejoiced.
Wilhite could notremember anything about the evening of April 9. He could not remember going tothe Angels' game and watching Adenhart pitch six scoreless innings, or hoppinginto Stewart's silver Mitsubishi Eclipse afterward and heading to a country barin Fullerton, or being blindsided less than 50 yards from the bar by anallegedly drunk driver named Andrew Gallo, who ran a red light in his minivanand was later arrested after fleeing the scene. (Gallo is awaiting trial onNov. 9 for three counts of second-degree murder.) And he certainly could notremember being extricated through the car's blown-out back window byfirefighters who were meticulous about stabilizing his neck and careful not tojostle him as they placed him gently onto a backboard.
A week after thesurgery Wilhite was fidgeting in his bed and speaking in complete sentences.Mostly he made jokes at his own expense—about his "gross beard" or his"head falling off"—to ease the tension with his many visitors. But healso asked his parents what exactly had happened to him on April 9 and what hadhappened to the others in the car.
His parents toldhim the truth, that everyone else in the car had been killed, but Wilhite'spain medication was so strong that the reality did not completely register. Infact, Wilhite was so disoriented that he kept insisting to friends and familythat he was in Texas, even though Wilhite had a clear view of Angel Stadiumthrough his window.
It was not untilWilhite watched an Angels game in late April on television in his hospital roomand saw the players wearing black patches on their chests embroidered withnumber 34 that he realized what had occurred. "That's Nick's number,"Wilhite told himself. "Nick died in the crash."
In front of AngelStadium a memorial to Adenhart swelled like an amoeba, with caps surrounded byphotographs surrounded by teddy bears and rally monkeys. Box-office employees,led by assistant ticket manager Susan Weiss, disposed of wilted flowers, pickedup windblown candles, brought the contents of the memorial inside when rain wasin the forecast and re-created it when the threat had passed. The Angelswondered when the memorial would stop expanding. It never did.
"Even now,when I leave here at 11 p.m., people are still out there," says Weiss."It's become a part of all of us."
The Angels keptAdenhart's locker intact—complete with the water bottle on the top shelf—andreserved a locker for him on the road. Relief pitcher Scot Shields hungAdenhart's jersey in the dugout before every game, and after Shields went onthe DL in May, equipment manager Ken Higdon took over the duties, followed byrelief pitcher Kevin Jepsen. "Nick pops into your head when you leastexpect it," Jepsen says. "There are still days I come in and just stareat his locker. It's like it's never going to go away."
Jepsen was sentdown to Salt Lake City on May 4, and when he returned to the Angels on June 10he noticed a subtle change in the clubhouse dynamic. "Guys were hanging outmore, talking to each other more," Jepsen says. "Big events eitherbring you together or tear you apart. I think this made us closer."
The day afterJepsen's call-up, the Angels lost to Tampa Bay 11--1. They were a .500 team,tied with Seattle for second place in the division, 4½ games behind Texas."I think we realized," Hunter says, "that Nick was looking down onus saying, Fellas, come on, let's get it together. I want to win."
The Angels won 13of their next 16 games to take the division lead. Hunter had been carrying theteam offensively, but he started to get some help from first baseman KendryMorales, who hit five homers and knocked in nine runs during that stretch.Morales is no stranger to emotional struggle. He tried 12 times to defect fromCuba. Either his boat didn't show or wasn't seaworthy or police caught him inthe act. Three times he was arrested and sentenced to 72 hours in jail.
After Moralesfinally escaped in 2004, he signed with the Angels, and even though he ismaking $21.4 million less than Teixeira this season, his offensive numbers arejust as impressive. "When I lie down at night, I think about how difficultit was to get to this point," Morales says through an interpreter. "Butit was worth it."
Two weeks afterthe crash Wilhite climbed out of his bed at the UC Irvine Medical Center. Aweek after that, when he was able to stand and take a few steps, he left UCIfor the Rehabilitation Center at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, where hespent the next three weeks in physical therapy. Then he moved in with hisparents in Murrieta, an hour southeast of Anaheim. His speech pattern was slow.He winced every time he turned his neck. He had to wear a blindfold in the carbecause seeing moving traffic nauseated him. When he grew impatient with hisprogress, he would reach into his wallet and pull out a photo of himselfwearing the halo, which never failed to remind him how far he had come.
Wilhite and hismother returned to Anaheim in June to thank the doctors, nurses, paramedics andfirefighters who had helped save him. He got a tattoo of Bhatia's signaturebeneath the scar on the back of his neck. When Chad asked why he couldn't get atattoo like his brother, their father cracked, "If your head falls off,maybe I'll let you get one too."
Wilhite went torehab four days a week at Rancho Physical Therapy in Murrieta, jogging gingerlyaround cones, lifting light weights, sometimes even throwing a baseball. For aguy who had been a walk-on at Cal State--Fullerton, laced a pinch-hit singleduring the 2007 College World Series, caught Giants ace Tim Lincecum in theCape Cod League and was coaching a youth team in Pasadena at the time of thecrash, throwing a baseball was the ultimate sign of progress.
Then, on Father'sDay, June 21, Nick Adenhart's friend and Nick Adenhart's team came together.Wilhite and his family drove to Angel Stadium, and before he went in he placeda Cal State--Fullerton cap on the edge of the memorial, inscribed with thenames NICK, COURTNEY and HENRY, along with the words THANKS TO MY 3 ANGELS.Wilhite did not know Adenhart well—they met through Pearson, an aspiringagent—but to the Angels they were blood brothers. "I think they saw alittle of Nick in me," Wilhite said.
When Hunternoticed Wilhite by the Angels' dugout before the game, he hugged him. So didpitchers Jered Weaver and Justin Speier, as well as Butcher, the pitching coachwho had been at the hospital on April 9. "You're a true blessing,"Hunter told Wilhite. "I want you to know that." Wilhite preferred to beone of the guys. "They weren't ready for me in heaven," he said."It was just like my baseball career—no one wanted me." Everybodylaughed.
Wilhite grew up inManhattan Beach, rooting for the Dodgers and wearing number 14 because Sciosciawas his favorite player. They were both lefthanded-hitting catchers, and whenScioscia met Wilhite on Father's Day, he asked him, "You're not one ofthose Dodgers fans are you?" Wilhite ducked the question, but the honestanswer is yes. "I am a Dodgers fan," Wilhite said, "but because ofwhat's happened, I'm connected to the Angels for life."
Just as the Angelsfound their groove, Hunter and Guerrero went on the disabled list on July 10,and fans braced for a relapse. Instead the team won 12 of its next 13 and shotto the top of the majors in runs, hits and batting average. In recent years theAngels had banked on pitching, defense and speed, which betrayed them when theplayoffs rolled around. This year's team is reminiscent of the 2002 version,which won the World Series thanks to its top-to-bottom strength.
Because the Angelsare so deep, it's hard to pick out a headliner and equally difficult toidentify a weak link. At one point three weeks ago, every batter in the LosAngeles lineup was hitting .300 or better, a feat last accomplished by theCardinals and the New York Giants in 1930.
Rightfielder BobbyAbreu, who was unwanted as a free agent last winter, is now poised to knock inmore than 100 runs for the seventh year in a row. As a bonus, Abreu has taughtthe free-swinging Angels how to work a count and wait for their pitch.
"You hear guyson the bench ask, 'How come he just took two strikes right down themiddle?'" says Mickey Hatcher, Anaheim's hitting coach. "Then he goesto 3 and 2 and still gets a base hit. That makes an impression. We're notbiting on the pitches we used to bite on, and you can see pitchers gettingfrustrated."
The Angels were 5½games up on Texas in the AL West through Sunday, and their starting rotationwas finally taking shape. Lefthander Scott Kazmir, acquired in a trade on Aug.28 from Tampa Bay, has been tinkering with his delivery for most of the summerand saw his ERA jump to 5.92. But he has reunited with Butcher, his formerpitching coach, and provides an intriguing postseason option. For his career,he has a 2.53 ERA against the Yankees and a 3.59 ERA against the Red Sox, theteam that has eliminated the Angels from the playoffs for the past twoyears.
Wilhitebench-presses 50 pounds, a source of embarrassment for him and amazement forhis doctors. His speech is still labored, but when he watches tape ofinterviews he did shortly after the surgery, he sees how much he has improved.Bhatia believes Wilhite's ability to speak will be normal by Christmas and hewill be fully rehabilitated within a year, though his neck will always feelsomewhat stiff.
Wilhite watchesthe Angels on TV almost every night, in addition to the Dodgers. He bought theMLB Extra Innings package so he can check in on former college teammates KurtSuzuki, a catcher for the A's, and Ricky Romero, a pitcher for the Blue Jays.Wilhite's big league friends, specifically Suzuki, have raised more than$61,000 to help cover his medical bills and rehabilitation costs.
Wilhite flew toOakland to throw out the first pitch when the Angels played the A's in July andreturned to Angel Stadium for another game later that month. He threw out thefirst pitch when the Angels hosted the A's on Aug. 29 as part of a ceremonyhonoring the Wilhite, Stewart and Pearson families.
For now, Wilhiteis not looking too far into the future. He wants to see the Angels and theDodgers meet in the World Series. He wants to speak out against drunkendriving. And when he is able, he wants to coach baseball again. Coachingsometimes seems unlikely, but that's when he pulls the picture out of hiswallet and looks at his halo.
"We'vesearched to find something positive that came out of that night," saidPalmer, the Angels' pitcher. "One positive is that we have grown strongeras a team. The other is Jon Wilhite."
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