Jon Wilhite survived a horrific car crash and three grueling months of rehabilitation to reach the Coliseum mound on Saturday. His ceremonial first pitch sailed high and true to Kurt Suzuki, the former college teammate who has become Wilhite's biggest fan.
"It's amazing to be on the same field with him again," said Suzuki, the Oakland Athletics catcher. "It's just playing catch, like the old days."
Wilhite's appearance before the A's game against the Los Angeles Angels was the highlight of an emotional weekend for the two teams that met in Anaheim on April 9, a few hours before Angels rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart and friends Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart were killed by what police say was a drunk driver.
Wilhite, who wore thick sunglasses and a personalized No. 5 A's jersey on the sun-drenched field, walks much more steadily than he did even last month, when he appeared at court proceedings for Andrew Thomas Gallo, the 22-year-old who faces three counts of murder.
"My speech, it's gotten better slowly," Wilhite said with a laugh. "If you think I'm talking slowly now, I was talking 100 times slower before."
Wilhite credits much of his success in rehabilitation to his athletic background.
"It's helped my mentality," said Wilhite, a catcher and infielder at Cal State Fullerton from 2004-08. "Some people in rehab just go through the motions, but I'm in there every day with a goal, just like when I was playing. It's the same. I just have a different goal. ... Being an athlete, you have to be pretty stubborn. I use it as motivation when a doctor says I'll get better in a certain amount of time. I want to do better."
Few of the major leaguers felt April's tragedy more acutely than Suzuki, who already has raised over $25,000 for Wilhite's rehabilitation. Suzuki and Wilhite played together at Fullerton, a baseball powerhouse just north of Angel Stadium.
Suzuki, a rising star with the last-place A's, is clearly touched by Wilhite's progress.
"A couple of months ago, who would have thought?" asked Suzuki, who met the younger Wilhite at a freshman orientation event several years ago. "There was no doubt in my mind. He's worked hard ever since I've known him."
Wilhite visited with several Angels a few weeks ago in Anaheim, and his improved condition stunned manager Mike Scioscia.
"It's remarkable he's even alive, and the progress has just been great," Scioscia said.
Wilhite has been overwhelmed by support from across the world, including financial donations from soldiers deployed in Iraq. He also cited minor league manager Phil Nevin and Toronto Blue Jays rookie Ricky Romero among several former Fullerton players who have extended support.
"The players have been awesome," Wilhite said. "They've taken me in and treated me like I'm one of them. The whole baseball community has just been awesome."
Wilhite traveled to the Bay Area on A's owner Lew Wolff's private jet. Suzuki's wife, Renee, and the A's planned to raise more funds for his recovery this weekend with auctions and donation boxes.
"Lives change with drunk drivers, and it's unacceptable," A's manager Bob Geren said. "How well Jon is doing, this is a celebration. The recovery he's made is really a miracle. Where he's at now is fantastic."
Wilhite's skull was separated from his spinal column, a rare injury that's frequently fatal. Although he might never recover a normal range of movement in his neck, he's been told he'll be able to do just about everything else _ and the Manhattan Beach native already has a few ideas.
"I've never surfed, even though I grew up a block from the beach," Wilhite said. "Now, I'd like to learn to surf."