Angels’ Nick Adenhart is remembered one year after his death

It was one year ago that Angels rookie right-hander Nick Adenhart, 22, was killed in a car crash, separated by a few miles and a couple of hours from the best performance of his young career. The emotional scar cut deep, as the Angels and Adenhart’s friends and relatives coped with a grief that came to define the season. And the Angels turned that grief into a bond that honored their fallen teammate. Here is an update.

At the stadium

The black-and-white banner on the center field wall at Angel Stadium, depicting Adenhart in mid-delivery, is gone. So is the fan-fed memorial that covered the faux pitcher’s mound in front of the ballpark. On opening night, two fresh sets of flowers were left near the main gates instead. Stadium workers collected the hundreds of items left last season, packing what could be preserved — the hats, signs, baseballs — in storage containers for the Adenhart family.

In the clubhouse

The corner locker in the Angels’ clubhouse, maintained throughout the 2009 season largely as Adenhart left it, was cleared out over the winter, its contents sent home to his family. The stall now belongs to reliever Kevin Jepsen, a former minor league teammate, who had to be talked into accepting what he considers the honor of taking Adenhart’s place. “I was hesitant at first,” said Jepsen, who was eventually swayed by the thought of the locker becoming a temporary home for minor league call-ups who may not have known or played with Adenhart.

At home

The Adenhart family — his father, Jim, lives in Maryland, his mother, Janet, in Illinois — has largely remained out of the spotlight since their son was killed. And that won’t be any different Friday. “As the anniversary approaches, it’s been 364 days of reflection,” said Angels vice president Tim Mead, who befriended the family. “Day 365 isn’t going to be any different.”

But Adenhart certainly isn’t forgotten at home, where the Little League field he once played on in Halfway, Md., has been renamed the Nicholas James Adenhart Memorial Field. The family also established a memorial fund in Adenhart’s name. The fund provides financial support to youth baseball organizations.

The survivor

Jon Wilhite, the only passenger riding with Adenhart to survive the crash, recently moved out of his parents’ home and is living with his brother in Manhattan Beach. The impact of the crash left him with what doctors called an “internal decapitation” — a rare occurrence in which the head is separated from the spinal column — so it’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to turn his head normally. He is also dealing with some minor speech issues. But he is now driving with the help of special mirrors attached to his vehicle and is, in many ways, back to normal. Or as normal as possible, given what he endured. The 25-year-old worked out some this winter with former Cal State Fullerton teammate Kurt Suzuki, now with the Oakland Athletics, and would like to be involved in baseball in some way. “It’s been a remarkable, miraculous recovery,” said Mel Franks, the sports information director at Cal State Fullerton.

The court case

Last week, lawyers for Andrew Thomas Gallo, the San Gabriel man accused of driving the minivan that caused the fatal crash, asked that the trial be moved out of Orange County because of adverse publicity surrounding the case. Gallo, who allegedly ran a red light at high speed, plowing into a Mitsubishi Eclipse driven by Courtney Stewart and carrying Adenhart and friends Wilhite and Henry Pearson, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder, driving under the influence of alcohol and driving with a suspended license, the result of a prior DUI conviction. Gallo, 23, fled the scene of the accident on foot but was quickly apprehended by police. The trial is expected to begin in July, when the All-Star game comes to the stadium where Adenhart once pitched.