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The sad anniversary of an Angels pitcher lost too soon

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
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A tribute to Nick Adenhart was on display during the 2009 ALCS at Angel Stadium. (Getty Images)

Nick Adenhart would be 27, maybe married, maybe be a dad. He'd have grown into a reedy body, made some more friends, had a lot more laughs.

Janet and Jim would have their son. Duane, the step-father, would have the young man he helped raise. Henry would have his big half-brother. Jered Weaver would have his friend. Jered's son, Aden, might be named Bill or Scott or Luke and not after a guy his dad used to know. There'd be no reason for Jered to draw the initials "NA" in the dirt on the slope of the mound.

Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart would be grown up, too. Their phones would chime and it would be Nick from somewhere out there, saying, "Hey, it went great tonight" or "Darn, it wasn't so good, but I'll get 'em next time."

Jon Wilhite would be chasing his own destiny without the scars or the rehab or the sadness. He would not be regarded as the survivor, not by himself or anyone else.

The life we sometimes take for granted, that would have had a chance for Nick Adenhart.

Five years ago today he went to work, had an exceptional day, and afterward met up with his friends. Five years ago tomorrow a mound of flowers and photos and candles grew on a street corner in Fullerton, Calif., and there was no Nick. No Henry. No Courtney.

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Jon Wilhite throws out the first pitch before a Los Angeles Angels game in 2009. (AP)

What there was, was grief, which lasts, outlives the flowers, starts the days, ends the nights, mourns the loudest and the longest. What there was, was the count away from that day, starting at one, ending at, I don't know, never.

Every night at Angel Stadium they play a video montage that honors a half-century of ballplayers. Some were great, some were good for a while, some just memorable because they wore the uniform at an interesting time. Near the end, Nick appears with a half-smile, and with him a thought of who he was and who he'd be if given the chance, and now it's been five years, and still there's no use counting away from that day.

Maybe he'd be a great pitcher. Maybe not. Doesn't matter, other than it mattered to him, and because he was a ballplayer we got to know him a little. We watched an organization fall to its knees not for the pitcher it lost, but for the young man who was taken, and for his two friends, and along come the memories that seem to sharpen every year on that day, relentless like that.

We wonder why, of course. And we wonder, given more time, what would have become of Nick Adenhart, the man he would be, the son he would be, the brother, the friend, the teammate, maybe the husband, maybe himself the father.

There are no answers. No good ones.

Nick Adenhart died at 22. Courtney Stewart died at 20. Henry Pearson died at 25. A drunk driver did that.

Jon Wilhite survived, barely. He is 29.

Five years later, this is who Jon Wilhite is:

"The first couple years, overcoming all the physical things, I didn't have time to grieve," he said. "Then, when I was ready, a lot of people had moved past that.”

He was a ballplayer, too. Good baseball people, people he trusted, told him he'd be a talented coach, maybe a manager someday. He turned down a chance to play in the Arizona Diamondbacks system so he could work toward that, because as much as he loved to play, he knew he'd reached the far end of his abilities. Perhaps it was the coach in him who knew.

He called Monday night sounding upbeat. He works for his father, alongside his brother, in the shipping industry. When he has a chance, he tries to help out with the baseball program at his former high school outside L.A., but there's work, and the gym, and the chiropractor, and he's found a therapist who is helping him cope with what happened five years ago. He sounds good. Sounds secure and confident. He talks about coaching one day, when he's ready in body and mind. What took away Nick and Courtney and Henry nearly took him too, came so close to that, and it's only been five years, and he's getting there. He really is.

Jon doesn't know what he'll do Wednesday, April 9, but he knows the day won't just pass. It never has before. The past couple of years, his father has given him the day off, and Jon hasn't set the alarm, but he's been up long before dawn anyway. He's gone to the gym, taken a three-mile run, attended 8 a.m. mass.

"I just take it as a self-cure day," he said. "I'm not an emotional guy at all. Never have been. But …"

And yet as he counts away from that day, some days are more trying than others, and the calendar sneaks up on April 9, unbending that way.

"That day," he said, "just the sound of that day, I know it's coming up."

After five years, Jon is who he is. He is a product of who he is, and the people around him, and his own experiences, including – but not solely – that experience, the one you know about. He's fighting. He sounds OK. Better than OK. Someday, maybe, he'll stand out in front of the issue of drunk driving, but first he's had to tend to himself. First he's had to get as close to whole as he could. First he had to stand at all. The rest would come.

"I have a tough time accepting," he said before pausing and starting over. "I'm just me, you know? I just see myself as me. I never felt any burden as the survivor. The burden I do sort of feel – and it's impossible to live up to – is to live as those three did. That's to live every day to the fullest. To a person, they seemed to live every second of it."

I recall what Mike Butcher, the Angels' pitching coach, said the day after. It was a terrible day. Families had lost their children, and there'd be no counting away from that. You can't count that high. And Butcher, red-eyed, said of Nick Adenhart, "He still had a lot to learn. But it was going to be a fun ride."

And you wonder what these five years might have held. Who Nick would be today. The man he would be. There was no more ride. That picture comes up on the video and he doesn't get older. He half-smiles and we smile back and we hope he's OK, and we hope the same for Courtney and Henry, and we hear the life in Jon's voice.

It's what we have. We root for that.

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