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Suzuki grateful to catch old friend


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POSTED: Sunday, July 19, 2009

OAKLAND, Calif. » Jon Wilhite survived a horrific car crash and three grueling months of rehabilitation to reach the Coliseum mound yesterday. His ceremonial first pitch sailed high and true to Kurt Suzuki, a Maui native and 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 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'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.”;