Tempe Diablo Stadium is the oldest ballpark in the Cactus League. The new parks feature fancy barriers that keep fans and players apart. In Tempe, an ordinary portable fence, about waist high, divides a parking lot and is all that separates the fans in the Mike Trout jerseys from Trout himself.
Not every fan can get an autograph from Trout. Walk along the fence, all dressed in Angels red, and you are fair game. Sign this baseball! Sign this cap! Sign this … oops, can you pick up the pen I dropped on your side of the fence, and then sign?
On Monday, one kid reached across the fence, ecstatic when someone in red stopped to sign his baseball.
“First signature, huh?” the guy said with a smile. “Get the worst first?”
The kid might have felt cheated when he looked in his program, trying to match the signature on the ball with a name on the roster.
Jon Wilhite does not play for the Angels.
That he dressed in red Monday is a tribute to his resilience, and a heartfelt credit to the Angels. It is easy to move on, to let memories fade, to forget.
For six years, the Angels have not forgotten about Wilhite. He is the lone survivor of the car crash in which a drunk driver killed Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and his friends Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart.
Wilhite, the fourth person in the car, nearly died too. The medical term for his injury: internal decapitation.
He wears the names of Adenhart, Pearson and Stewart — and the words “Forever Remembered” — tattooed on his chest.
“Over my heart,” Wilhite said.
Wilhite played ball too. He played club ball with Angels pitcher Vinnie Pestano, so long ago that neither could remember the name of the team. Wilhite thought it was the Bulldogs. Pestano thought it was the Sharks.
The two were in the same recruiting class at Cal State Fullerton. After the accident, Pestano left his minor league team in Ohio to visit Wilhite in a hospital.
“He wasn’t conscious,” Pestano said.
That memory made Monday all the more special for Pestano, who was fairly giddy to see his friend in the clubhouse. Wilhite watched the game from the Angels dugout, talking with Albert Pujols and Matt Joyce and his friend Vinnie. After the Angels won, Wilhite hopped out of the dugout to join players and coaches in the line for handshakes.
“Just being a ballplayer again,” Wilhite said. “It’s awesome. I haven’t felt like that in six years.”
But this was not some sort of fantasy baseball experience. The Angels have welcomed him to Angel Stadium numerous times over the years, with an open invitation to spend some time at spring training. Wilhite took them up on the offer this year, so excited that he set his alarm for 2:30 a.m. Monday so he would not miss his 5:40 a.m. flight.
He was on the field at 10 a.m. with the rest of the Angels. He was a catcher, so he shadowed bullpen catcher Steve Soliz during morning workouts. When the players took batting practice, Wilhite stood behind the cage with Manager Mike Scioscia.
“He’s got a good foundation and understanding of catching,” Scioscia said. “I think he’ll be a terrific coach, if that’s the direction he wants to go.”
Wilhite will be here all week, to soak up all the knowledge he can. When he played at Cal State Fullerton, when visions of playing in the major leagues danced in his head, his coaches gently suggested coaching might be in his future.
Perhaps that time has come, after years of working with his father in private business, and of trying to stay out of the public eye. Perhaps he is strong enough to make a living in the place that makes him happiest.
“I’m not the same person when I’m not on the ballfield,” he said. “It’s not like I’m rushing back because I need a job in baseball.
“But it’s where I’m going to end up. It’s where I need to end up.”
The Angels had no idea who he was until tragedy struck, but they have embraced him ever since.
So, after the Angels had won Monday, Scioscia invited Wilhite to sit in on the coaches’ meeting, to listen as players were evaluated and practice plans were made.
When the meeting broke up, Wilhite showered and changed into a sports shirt and Cal State Fullerton shorts. He sat in an empty clubhouse, clutching a bottle of a sports drink and chuckling about how sloppily he had eaten the postgame meal.
“I apologize for the barbecue sauce all over my face,” he said.
He could wipe the sauce off his face, but not the smile.