Audubon baseball player John West honors father he never knew, a former firefighter

Audubon third baseman John West is set to start a double play Thursday vs. Paul VI.

If it’s a cold day in the spring, John West wears the shirt beneath his baseball jersey.

If it’s a hot day in the summer, West wears the shirt under his uniform top.

Home or away. School team or travel team. Biting wind or blazing sun.

“Every game I wear my dad’s gray shirt,” West said. “It doesn’t matter the weather. It can be summer, hot, everybody just wearing just their jersey.

“I have to have that shirt underneath.”

The shirt belonged to West’s late father, also named John West. It has his last name across the back and a little fire-department emblem on the front.

A junior baseball player at Audubon High School, West never knew his dad. But he believes he’s never spent a day without him, either.

“There’s not a night that goes by that I don’t think about my dad or be sad about what happened,” West said. “But I never let it eat at me because that’s not what he would have wanted. He would have wanted me to go out there and make the best of things.

“Every day, it drives me to better at whatever I’m doing.”

Camera icon Tom Gralish/Staff photographer
Audubon third baseman John West had two hits and two RBIs in the team’s season-opening win over Kings Christian.

West is a top student. He’s a good baseball player. He’s a pleasant and polite 16-year-old.

He also is a son of a fallen hero, which he admits is something of a mixed blessing.

John West Sr. was a firefighter who died along with two other firemen and three young children in a horrific blaze in Gloucester City on July 4, 2002.

John West Jr. was 13 months old when his dad, over the objections of firefighters on the scene, raced into the inferno that had engulfed the building early in the morning of the national holiday.

“It’s great knowing he was a hero,” West said. “But at the same time, I don’t have a dad.

“As amazing as it is knowing he died, not only doing what he loved but being a hero, I also have to grow up making a diving play and not being able to look over and have your dad cheer for you.

“But it is really special to know he’s a lot of people’s hero and he went down being a hero. That’s how he would want it to be. That’s what makes me happy.”

Camera icon Phil Anastasia/Staff
This is John West Jr., Audubon junior third baseman, in front of Memorial to his father who was killed fighting a fire on July 4, 2002 when his son was 1.

West’s mother Angela calls her son an “old soul” and the glue to the family, which includes John Jr.’s older sisters Alyssa and Nicole.

The girls were in middle school when their father died. They have memories.

John West Jr. has the old gray shirt, faded from more times in the wash than his mom can count. And his dad’s trophies and plaques in the attic. And the cards and pictures near his bed.

And one other thing: The stories that he hears, again and again, from people who knew his dad and still marvel at his sacrifice.

“All the time,” West said. “At games, when I’m out, even driving, there will be people with a sticker (honoring his father) on the back.

“One time, I was at my travel team practice. There was a Cherry Hill firefighter there and he was talking to my mom and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re from Mount Ephraim? I knew a firefighter from there who passed away. John West.’

“And my mom was like, ‘That’s John West Jr.’”

The fire that killed West along with firefighters James Sylvester and Tommy Stewart as well as the Slack sisters – 5-year-old Alexandra and 3-year-old twins Collette and Claudia – was a tragedy that rocked the region, and especially the little towns of Mount Ephraim and Gloucester.

People shook their heads when they learned the 30-year-old Stewart had proposed to his long-time girlfriend Danielle Ruggerio just hours before the blaze, climbing the ladder of his firetruck at the annual fireworks display and using a bullhorn to declare his devotion.

People shook their heads when they learned that the 30-year-old Sylvester’s wife Marilyn was expecting the couple’s first child in August.

And they caught their breath when they learned that the 40-year-old West, a fire marshal, K-9 handler and Mount Ephraim’s deputy chief, had gone above and beyond the call of duty to run into the building in an effort to save the girls and his fellow firefighters.

As a fire marshal, West’s duties at the scene were investigative and supervisory. He wasn’t supposed to go inside.

“There’s this dinner every year in March, it’s the Hero Scholarship dinner, and that’s when I first remember hearing about my dad,” West said. “So many people would come up to me and tell me what a great guy he was.

“Even how he died. Nobody would have done what he did. At the fire, he wasn’t supposed to go inside. He was supposed to just go there and watch and make sure everything was being run right.

“He went in there. People were screaming at him not to and he still did it.”

Camera icon Phil Anastasia/Staff photographer
John West Jr. on park bench in Mt. Ephraim dedicated to his father.

West is Audubon’s starting third baseman, a slick fielder and solid hitter. He had two hits and two RBIs in the team’s season opener, a 5-4 win over Kings Christian.

In Thursday’s loss to Paul VI, West started a double play in the field and made solid contact in two at-bats against Kentucky-bound pitcher Will Gambino, reaching base on an infield error and grounding into a double play.

“No. 1, he’s just a great kid,” Audubon coach Rich Horan said of West. “He got to play a little varsity for us last year and he’s really developed into a good player.

“He works hard, keeps his mouth shut, always does the right things. Just a great kid to be around.”

Camera icon Tom Gralish/Staff photographer
Audubon third baseman John West takes the throw as Paul VI’s John Napolitano slides safely during non-league game on Thursday.

A diligent student and dedicated athlete, West said he tries to honor his father in his everyday life.

“Everything I do, not only on the field, but in life, is just to put a smile on his face,” West said. “The best compliment I could ever get is not, ‘Nice play,’ or ‘You look nice today.’

“It’s, ‘That’s what you have that is like your dad’ or ‘That would have made your dad happy.’

“There’s nothing that could compare to that.”

West said he’s been wearing his father’s shirt under his baseball uniform for as long as he can remember, at games for both his Audubon team and his Brooklawn American Legion team.

No matter the weather, he won’t take the field without it, beneath his jersey, close to his heart.

“Just to have him with me in a sense,” West said. “Just to know he’s looking over me.

“Just to know he’s up there with me, helping me out.”