Kenny Wicher lived, played with big heart

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WALLA WALLA - My most enduring memory of Kenny Wicher drifts back to July of 1985.

It was a hot, mostly windless day in Pasco.

Walla Walla Pacific was engaged in a District 5 Little League baseball tournament game. The sun had already dipped behind the treeline, shading most of the field and providing the many spectators gathered around with a measure of relief from the desert heat.

Like most Little League coaches who aren't directly involved in a game, I found myself hanging on the fence along the right-field foul line, about halfway between first base and the foul pole.

As I watched Kenny step into the right-handed batter's box for the first time in the game, I also observed the three opposing outfielders motion to one another and then, in unison, creep several steps closer to the infield. And I thought to myself, "Hmmm, this could be interesting."

Even as a 12-year-old, Kenny was undersized when it came to Little League physical stature. So the outfielders' strategy didn't seem unreasonable.

But Kenny was never one to let his size define him on a baseball diamond.

I don't recall the count - or, for that matter, the score of the game or even who Pacific was playing that day - but I can still picture in my mind's eye Kenny's quick, compact swing as it sliced through the strike zone. And the flight of the ball as it left Kenny's bat, a soaring white dot against a deepening blue sky.

The surprised right and center fielders turned, took two steps and then stopped in their tracks. All they could do was watch as the ball disappeared from sight well beyond the right-center field fence for a home run.

It was the first and only homer of Kenny's Little League career. But it was surely no surprise to me.

Having coached him through four Little League seasons, I knew what Kenny was all about. I drafted him as a 9-year-old in 1982, and it didn't take long to realize he was going to be special.

Though he was small, Kenny at 9 was already gifted with a glove. And while hitting was a work in progress, he was an eager learner and unafraid.

Unafraid, I think, is the best possible word to describe Kenny.

It also became obvious right away that I had drafted more than a good ball player. His family, which had recently moved to the Walla Walla area from California, was likewise special.

Kenny's father, Gordon, became one of the best assistant coaches I was lucky enough to have during my 23 years in the Pacific Little League. I learned a lot from Gordon, in particular the importance of positive reenforcement.

It wasn't by accident that my players learned how to win during Kenny's four seasons on the team.

Kenny's mother, Sandi, was likewise a big help to the team. She was supportive in every way and never missed a game.

It was usually Sandi's responsibility to get Kenny to practice. And he was almost always the first to arrive, most often with little sister Julie in tow.

Julie, three years younger than Kenny, became the unofficial 13th member of the team during practices. And she was our biggest fan during games.

When Kenny was 12, our team finished second in the league and qualified for the All-City tournament for the first time in my tenure as coach. We won our first tournament game before losing a one-run thriller in the semifinals.

It was a dream season.

Today, the Wichers are in the midst of a nightmare.

Kenny died Saturday. He was killed near Madras, Ore., in what has been described as an industrial accident involving a forklift. He was 37.

In addition to his parents and his sister, Kenny is survived by his former wife, Angela, and three children, 6-year-old Brock, Ashley, 3 1/2, and Eva, 1 1/2.

Funeral arrangements are still pending. Plans are being made for services both in Portland, where Kenny lived, and in Walla Walla.

The Wichers have to be numb with grief. There's no way I can fathom the pain Gordon and Sandi surely feel, and I pray I never will.

"This is horrible," said Kim Cox, who coached Kenny for four seasons at DeSales High School, including the 1989 season when the Irish won their first state baseball title in school history. "Every time something like this happens to a young person you've had a chance to teach and coach, it's hurtful and horrible."

Cox remembered Kenny as an athletically gifted young man who overcame his lack of size through hard work.

And then, when a growth spurt kicked in during Kenny's senior year at DeSales, the sky became the limit. He enrolled at the University of Portland and played four baseball seasons for the Pilots, earning all-Northern Division Pac-10 second-team honors as a junior.

"He grew to be a 6-footer," Cox recalled. "Close to 200 pounds, and he was really, really good. And he never lost that work ethic."

There's no way to explain what happened Saturday. No answers. No rhyme nor reason to it.

All any of us can do now is move forward. Unafraid.

That's what Kenny would do.

Contact Jim Buchan at jimbuchan@wwub.com.

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