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KURT STREETER

Brandon Wood's memories could help him succeed with Angels

The infielder, trying to finally win a place in the majors, was best friends with Henry Pearson, who died in the crash that also killed pitcher Nick Adenhart.

July 13, 2009|KURT STREETER

That damned car wreck.

Every time I walk toward the front gates at Angel Stadium, past the somber memorial circled with Angels baseball caps, I get angry, and that's what I think.

Why did it have to happen? Why did three young friends, so full of life, have to face such a terrible end?

We know a lot now about Nick Adenhart, the talented Angel who died on April 9, hit by an allegedly drunk fool of a driver hours after pitching a great game. We know how his death has caused his old teammates to labor against their own expectations, even though they've certainly sizzled since Friday: sweeping the New York Yankees with uncommon ease.

What we know less about are the others in that car. Jon Wilhite, 24, the ex-college baseball star who barely survived. Courtney Stewart, 20, the undergraduate at Cal State Fullerton who died at the scene.

And finally, Henry Pearson, 25, a charismatic law student whose lasting connection with a promising, recently promoted minor leaguer could end up having a real effect on how this season unfolds.

Brandon Wood sighs when he thinks of that night, that still-unbelievable wreck, particularly when he thinks of Pearson.

"He was one of my five or six best friends," Wood says. "The kid was just awesome. I can't think of a time I ever had a conversation with him when he was in a bad mood."

Unless you are an Angels fan, you might not have much of a fix on Wood. Here's the short version. He's a 24-year-old infielder who has long been one of the Angels' -- and baseball's -- top prospects. He's a hard-slugging third baseman who easily knocked a homer against Andy Pettitte on Saturday, but he's also lithe enough to have manned first base on Sunday against the Yankees, a tightrope, 5-4 Angels win. It was only Wood's sixth time at that position in pro ball. Overall, he performed deftly.

Wood has superb talent, but he's also a player who causes great frustration. He seems always on the cusp, always close to making the big leagues his permanent home -- but a familiar pattern has developed. Wood first terrorizes the minor leagues. Then he gets called up, promptly wilts and goes back to live among the lesser.

Recently promoted from triple-A Salt Lake, where he tarred most every ball that came his way, Wood arrives in Anaheim to different circumstances than he's ever seen. The Angels right now are in a dogfight for the AL West. The pitching has struggled. Injuries have spread like a fast-moving fire. Of course, the loss of a teammate still weighs heavily.

If Wood can bring the power bat he's shown at every other level, the Angels have a spark that could spell all the difference this season. Even if he doesn't add much, but still plays with verve, there's another way he could change the Angels' fortunes. A full load of major league teams drool over Wood. He could end up being prime bait in a trade that reels in an established star who steers them toward a title.

"What we're looking for is consistency," says Angels Manager Mike Scioscia. "Can he make that big leap?"

Wood swears he can. Swears things are different this time, that he's finished with trying to knock every pitch from sunny Anaheim to dusty Riverside. He says he's learned to take the bad -- Sunday's fragile 0 for 3 against CC Sabathia -- with the good: Saturday's stellar defense and laser homer.

You want to believe a young player like this, not just because he seems so earnest, but because of what he's been through.

"It was heartbreaking the night of the accident, hearing about Nick," says Wood, standing in the clubhouse before Sunday's game. "Then, a few hours later, to hear Henry was in the car too. A double whammy."

Wood and Adenhart were good friends. Wood and Pearson were best friends. They met when Wood was an 18-year-old fledgling pro. Pearson was a student at Arizona State. The two walked in the same social circles in Scottsdale, near the Angels' training fields.

As the Texas-born slugger tore through the minors, Pearson was a constant, always encouraging, always reminding Wood to enjoy every minute of life -- despite the pressure that comes with great talent.

Whenever he'd make it up to the big leagues, Wood peered into the Anaheim stands and invariably saw his friend. The Angels prospect always knew exactly where to look; he'd have given Pearson the tickets.

Last season brought a favorite memory. Wood had a monster game against the Yankees. With Pearson and a few others, he celebrated with a late-night dinner. He and Pearson reminisced, talked strategy and hitting, and the conversation went past midnight.

"Next thing I know, I look up and it was like 2 or 3 a.m.," Wood recalls. "I realized Henry had to go to sleep; he had a big law school test at 9 that morning. I told him to go get some sleep. He says to me: 'No way, I love talking baseball!' Of course, he goes to bed for about two hours, takes the test, aces it. I'll never forget how he handled things."

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