07/19/09 12:00 AM ET
Wilhite's recovery continues to amaze
Determined Adenhart accident survivor honored by A's
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Evidence -- their son, Jon -- was standing nearby, in the flesh. He was getting ready to toss the ceremonial first pitch on Saturday afternoon at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum to Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, his good buddy and benefactor.
"It's a miracle," Tony Wilhite said. "It's a medical miracle -- and continues to be one, every day."
"I can't explain it," Betsy Wilhite added. "It's amazing. He's a miracle. We believe that it has to be. He's driven. He pushes himself harder than anybody."
Jon Wilhite survived the crash on April 9 that claimed the lives of three friends: Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart.
Survival was the first part of the miracle. The second came in the extraordinary nature of Wilhite's ongoing recovery from April 15 surgery to reattach his skull and spinal column.
Saturday, courtesy of the Athletics and driven by the caring assistance of those around him -- family members and the entire baseball community -- Wilhite's recovery was celebrated along with a sobering observance of the memories of his deceased friends.
More than $18,000 was raised during the day in a variety of forms, bringing to an estimated $50,500 the contribution to the Wilhite Fund, according to Suzuki and his wife, Renee.
Also actively involved in fundraising efforts to help with the costs of Wilhite's rehabilitation are A's shortstop Orlando Cabrera and his wife, Katie.
There have been silent auctions, mystery autographed baseballs and game-used memorabilia from around Major League Baseball. The response has been widespread and heartwarming, according to Katie Cabrera.
"Some of the fundraising ideas I've brought here for Jon are from when Orlando was playing for the Angels and I was active with the wives in various fundraisers," Katie Cabrera said, her husband having won a Gold Glove as the Angels' shortstop.
"We have an MLB wives online network and have gotten amazing response from MLB -- players, wives, former players, coaches. Jon and his story are truly an inspiration. Today is definitely a high point, a chance to reach out to many more people."
The Angels have kept Adenhart, their budding 22-year-old star pitcher, in their thoughts all season, maintaining a locker for him at home and on the road. In the visitors' clubhouse in Oakland, it was between the lockers of John Lackey and Jered Weaver.
Adenhart's final performance was six shutout innings against the A's at Angel Stadium the night of April 8, just hours before the crash from which only Wilhite, a back-seat passenger, survived.
"We all miss Nick, every day," Angels catcher Bobby Wilson said. "He was one of my best friends. There was a group of us who were always together when we were playing in the Minor Leagues, and it hit all of us very hard.
"Nick's always in our hearts and always will be. It's good that there was a survivor. We all wish Jon the best."
Appearing through the good graces of Suzuki, his former teammate at Cal State Fullerton, and the Athletics organization, Wilhite acknowledged his good fortune in an address to fans.
"We were broadsided by a drunk driver going 66 miles an hour," Wilhite said. "My injury was a separation of the skull and spine. Ninety-five percent of victims with my type of injury die on the scene.
"Doctors performed a miracle, and I am here today. I am here as a guest of the A's and Kurt Suzuki and his wonderful wife, Renee. I throw out the first pitch in honor of my great friends, Henry, Nick and Courtney."
With that, he delivered a strike to Suzuki. The crowd stood and cheered.
"Him throwing to me, it's kind of like the good old days at Fullerton," Suzuki said. "He was a freshman, a catcher, when I met him in 2004. I wasn't really a mentor, but I looked after him. I'd go back after the season and work out there and see him and the other guys, hang out together.
"Jon was a scrappy guy. He didn't do any one thing on the field that stood out, but he was one of those guys who loved to play. He was a good hitter who always put the bat on the ball and gave you a good at-bat.
"He's always worked hard ever since I've known him. That's contributed to where he is now -- always battling. A couple of months ago, who would have thought this would be possible? He's definitely exceeded [all expectations]. This is a huge day for us. You can never really put in words what it means to all of us to have Jon here."
It was 14 weeks ago that Wilhite's parents -- residents of Murrieta, Calif., in Riverside County -- got word that their son was critically injured in the crash that claimed three young lives.
"It was awful -- the call you don't want to get, the call no mother wants," Betsy Wilhite said.
The early medical reports were dire. Michael Wilhite, Jon's older of two brothers, remembers the sense of desperation that ran through the family as the parents and sons took turns in a 24-hour vigil at Jon's hospital bedside.
"The first week, survival was definitely questionable," Michael, at 26 two years older than Jon, said. "We weren't sure if he would make it.
"As far as quality of life, we weren't told good things."
A catcher at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif., before attending Cal State Fullerton, Jon Wilhite is convinced his athletic background has been immeasurably instrumental in his recovery.
His father played college baseball and taught his three sons the game along with other youngsters as a youth coach for years.
"My toughness," Jon said, identifying the key element involved in the long, demanding process of speech, physical and occupational therapy as an outpatient in a rehabilitation center. "Some of the people in rehab just go through the motions. I'm there with a goal, just like when I'm playing ball.
"I'm trying to get better every day at different things, like walking, talking, eating. It's the same [as with baseball]. I just have a different goal."
His speech and ability to eat, he added, have improved dramatically.
"Being an athlete," Jon said, "you have to be pretty stubborn."
He has been told complete recovery -- "besides mobility in my neck" -- is within reach, in time.
He still lives near the beach and also spends considerable time with his parents in Murrieta. The athlete in him yearns to surf and snowboard.
"Other than being a baseball player," Jon said, "that's all I did growing up in Manhattan Beach."
Wilhite beamed when he talked about meeting Suzuki, who was entering a junior season that would end with his signing by the Athletics and the launching of a successful professional career.
"At the freshman orientation barbecue I met this guy," Wilhite said, nodding toward Suzuki, sitting next to him beaming in the home dugout. "I watched the guy in Omaha [at the College World Series]. I thought they were celebrities.
"Kurt came right up and made me feel welcome."
Suzuki and his wife have been supporting Wilhite in one way or another on a daily basis since April 9, along with the Cabreras and others in the baseball community.
"I don't know where I'd be without those two, Orlando and Katie," Suzuki said. "They've stepped up in a huge way, whatever needs to be done."
The Wilhites have been overwhelmed by the ongoing show of support.
"We've heard from people from everywhere, from Florida to California," Tony Wilhite said. "Something like this makes you realize what's important in life -- family, friends and faith."
A's manager Bob Geren talked about the generosity of the Major League family, how Suzuki and his peers have assisted in the young man's recovery.
"Being with Kurt that day," Geren said, "I know how it affected him. [Wilhite] was his friend; it wasn't good news. Now, in his recovery, it's fantastic. It's great to see him, especially against the Angels. It's special for both teams."
Wilhite said he was already looking forward to another ceremonial first pitch in late August when the Athletics visit Angel Stadium.
"We'll probably have hundreds of people there," Michael Wilhite said.
Jon, who refers to his "entourage of help," was especially moved by the contribution of a concerned citizen in another part of the world.
"One of the guys I've heard from in an indirect way is a soldier in Iraq," Jon Wilhite said. "To give some of his paycheck -- which isn't a lot ... he gave a hundred bucks a couple of times. Everyone's been awesome. Especially this guy over here."
He nodded toward Kurt Suzuki, a man who clearly can give as well as he can receive.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.