LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. -- From his nightly perch behind home plate in this Southern California town, San Diego Padres prospect Mitch Canham is the central figure in his own private version of Operation Desert Shield.
He stares out at the pitcher from behind a mask and chest protector, shin guards, helmet and protective cup. By the grace of God and half a sporting goods store, he's as insulated as can be from the foul tips, home-plate collisions and 58-foot sliders that threaten to do him harm.
But there's nothing the 23-year-old catcher can cram into his Lake Elsinore Storm equipment bag this summer to protect him from his memories and his fractured heart.
In the sports journalism world, we're accustomed to stories about athletes coping with "adversity" -- from pulled hamstrings to crushing losses in salary arbitration -- but the cliché seems particularly hollow in light of Canham's ordeal. Five years ago, as an Oregon State freshman, he lost his mother to a drug overdose. He swallowed his grief, kept his focus on baseball and helped propel the Beavers to two straight NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007.
"The best leader in the country," his college coach, Pat Casey, once called him.
Last year, the Padres selected Canham with the 57th pick in the draft, signed him to a $552,500 bonus contract and sent him on the road to the majors. Baseball America, which ranked him as San Diego's No. 17 prospect, praised him for his agility and athleticism, and said he need only refine his defensive skills to be a regular catcher in the big leagues.
"Mitch is such a hard worker and a smart guy," says Boston outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, his former college teammate. "He definitely has the capabilities."
But try focusing on baseball when it hurts to breathe. In Canham's case, the line from inspirational to star-crossed -- from unyieldingly competitive to chronically unfortunate -- has been breached in the most personal and poignant of ways. Why should anyone be subjected to pain this acute in first and second installments?
On March 23, Marine Lance Corporal Dustin Canham, Mitch's younger brother, died while serving in the African nation of Djibouti. Multiple investigations have determined that Dustin, 21, died of natural causes while exercising in his tent. But the military's investigations haven't satisfied the family, assorted Washington state government officials and the (Portland) Oregonian newspaper, which ran a hard-hitting editorial in June beneath the headline, "Another Casualty Coverup."
In Lake Stevens, Wash., Dustin and Mitch Canham's father, Mark, and Dustin's 19-year-old widow, Devyn, are slowly coming to grips with their loss. Mark Canham writes letters, peppers everyone from secretaries to brigadier generals with phone calls, and tries to make sense of a story line with too many missing sequences. He recently shared his story with Mary Tillman, the mother of former NFL defensive back and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, whose friendly-fire death in Afghanistan prompted a congressional investigation.
"I stand behind our country," Mitch says. "But from my point of view, the military has given us incomplete answers and fumbled everything about it. They've slapped us in the face rather than try to help us out. It makes it hard to listen to the national anthem before every game."
Through 79 games, Mitch is hitting .285 with five home runs, 53 runs batted in, a .398 on base percentage and a .423 slugging percentage for Lake Elsinore. But the numbers seem inconsequential compared to the dozens of times he has reached for his cell phone only to realize you can't text-message a ghost. He wears Dustin's Marine Corps dog tags around his neck as a constant reminder of his loss. In his dreams, he and Dustin are still kids spending the day go-kart racing or venturing to the corner store to buy candy.
I just went away for a little while, Dustin tells him in his sleep. But I'm back now. It's all good.
Then Mitch Canham wakes up to the same harsh reality: His brother is gone.
"Even in my dreams -- even though 'Dust' is right next to me -- I'm crying all the time," he says.
If you're going to script the all-American hero, you could do a lot worse than Mitch Canham as your paradigm. He was a three-sport star and an honor student at Lake Stevens High -- the kid that girls wanted to date, guys tried to emulate, and parents and teachers admired for his relentless work ethic and sense of purpose.
"He's the guy I look at and say, 'Damn, I wish I could be like Mitch,'" says Ryan MacBriar, who has known Canham since fourth grade. "He's not only my best friend. He's my role model."
It isn't unusual for star jocks to regard their nonathletic younger siblings as annoyances, but during long summer days spent fishing in the creek behind his house, MacBriar learned that if you befriended one Canham brother, you quickly gained custody of the other.
Mitch and Dustin were a package deal. They shuttled between parents for years after their folks separated, before finally settling in to live with their father. Mark Canham, by his own admission, was a bit of a rogue and a party guy. But he was also a devoted, caring dad who took pride in his boys and encouraged them to celebrate their differences.
Mitch, older by 19 months, was the driven, focused, goal-oriented Canham. As a high school wrestler, he steeled himself through 3½-hour practices in a heated gym, dispensing and absorbing physical punishment and pushing himself to the limit and beyond. As a quarterback and free safety for the Lake Stevens football team, he once played two weeks with a mysterious pain in his leg before he consented to have the injury checked.
"The good news is, it's healed," the doctor told him. "The bad news is, it was broken."
Dustin, aka "Dust," was the sweet-hearted one, the dreamer, the innocent. As a little boy, he would crawl onto the easy chair with his father so they could watch television together. "My lap child," Mark Canham calls him. Dustin enjoyed reading, computers and Elvis Presley. He dabbled in Buddhism and other faiths; at various points during his teen years, he aspired to be a comedian, a pilot, a magician, a golfer and an inventor.
In high school, where the typical party fare consisted of potato chips and beer, Dustin sprang for pizza and soft drinks when he invited friends over to the house. He never drank, smoked or appeared to care a whit about material comforts.
One year, Dustin chipped in with a friend and bought a Honda for $5,000. When an elderly woman clipped the car and it became clear she had no insurance or money for the repair bill, he let the matter drop.
"Dustin got like 50 bucks and didn't ask her for nothing," Mitch says. "She obviously was having a hard time, and he didn't care."
There were sacrifices, growing up in the shadow of a star. During his elementary school years, Dustin would stand in the outfield with a glove on his hand and a bored look on his face, shagging flies while Mark Canham threw batting practice to Mitch. But he'd get his revenge an hour later when he and his father hopped in the car, peeled out and hurled good-natured insults at Mitch as he ran the mile home behind them.
"Like Forrest Gump," Mark says with a laugh.
Bonded by blood, the Canham boys came to grips with their differences. Mitch loved his brother not one smidgen less because he couldn't hit a fastball or run a crossing pattern. And Dustin, a budding graphic artist, embraced the task of designing a school spirit T-shirt each week to inspire his older brother's Lake Stevens football team.
"I knew Dust had a lot of pressure on him, hearing people say, 'Why can't you be like this and that?'" Mitch says. "I always wished he played ball so I could play catch with him and stuff. But I was really proud of everything he did."
Five years ago, Dustin's voice was at the other end of the line with news that their mother had died. Kimi Lee Kendall, described in a newspaper story as a "former high school cheerleader, honor student and piano player," had fallen in with the wrong crowd and succumbed to a toxic mix of cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine. She was 40 years old when she overdosed.
Mitch, true to character, devoted himself to making something good of something bad. He shared his mother's story with elementary school kids, using it as a cautionary tale. If he could help even one youngster avoid a brush with drugs, the time invested was worth it.
But to this day, the what-ifs gnaw at him. What if he had been vigilant enough to see the warning signs and seize the initiative? He had grown accustomed to taking a leadership role on the field, so why couldn't he find a way to take control and save his mother?
Now that same empty ache of self-doubt is playing out again with Dustin's death, even though there's no earthly reason to believe he could have rescued his brother.
"That's part of what's burning me up," Mitch says. "I wasn't there to protect him, and maybe I wasn't there to make him tough enough so he could fight through whatever happened."
The Canham family has a proud history of military service. Major General Charles D.W. Canham, Mark's uncle, commanded the 116th infantry regiment that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for valor in combat and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 1963.
When Dustin told his father and brother that he was enlisting in the Marines, they expressed reservations. Dustin was so kind and gentle by nature, it was hard to envision his fitting in among "The Few. The Proud. The Marines."
But with time, they came to believe military service might be just the thing to ease his transition to manhood. Dustin had developed a fondness for paintball and martial arts; in a way, the Marines were an extension of that warrior ethic. When he returned from basic training, he was stronger physically and brimming with a new sense of confidence and direction. He had even conquered his fear of heights while at Fort Lewis in Washington.
And given the alternatives -- Iraq or Afghanistan -- his assignment in Africa seemed like a blessing. The Marines were shipping him to Djibouti, a tiny desert nation tucked amid Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia along the Red Sea, as part of the Combined Joint Task Force -- Horn of Africa. The initiative grew out of the Sept. 11 attacks as a means of fighting terrorism through a two-pronged approach of military efforts and humanitarian work.
As a bulk fuel specialist assigned to Alpha Company, Dustin Canham was used strictly in a support role. The Marine reservists in his platoon had a mandate to try to win the hearts and minds of the locals by visiting orphanages and helping to provide clean water, improved roads and better schools and hospitals.
"Their directive was, 'Spread the love,'" Mark Canham says.
From all indications, Dustin regarded his trip to Africa as a sort of grand life adventure. On March 18, he posted a community forum item on his paintball team's Web site that reflected his sense of wonder and inquisitiveness.
"Anyone ever been to Djibouti?" Dustin wrote. "I've only been here for three days. It's hot. Very, very hot. And it's only spring. But the food is AMAZING and I spent a good 30 minutes interacting with some civilians. A large family with lots of hyper kids. Kinda felt good to see kids playin' and havin' fun."
Mitch Canham did his best to stay in touch during spring training in Arizona. On March 21, he received a message on his cell phone from Dustin, who gently chided him for his failure to answer the call.
"What's up, man? It's your little brother," Dustin said on the message. "You better start answering, because I'm the only little brother you got."
A day later, Mark Canham spoke by phone with his younger son, who seemed in good spirits. Dustin joked that his father should try to enjoy life in the Pacific Northwest, where the landscape actually includes trees.
The family's tranquility was shattered the next day, on March 23. Easter Sunday.
Mark Canham, exhausted from a long Saturday at his silk-screen business, was taking a nap when two Marines walked up the drive and rang the bell. Within moments, they were gone, and Mark was in his car, screaming. Then he placed a call to Mitch, who was sitting down to Easter dinner with his grandmother.
"I just told him, 'You gotta get here -- your brother is dead,'" Mark says. "There's no other way around it. 'Your brother is dead.'"
The funeral took place on March 29, amid overcast skies and a light drizzle. Mourners at Elim Lutheran Church in Lake Stevens encountered Marines in their dress blues and about 20 veterans lining the sidewalk and carrying American flags. With more than 300 people in attendance, seats were hard to find.
The service began with prayers, music and gospel readings, and included a video of Dustin in diapers, then hamming it up in front of the family Christmas tree. Several people delivered tributes, but it was Mitch, at the end, who brought the house to tears. He spoke of Dustin's special capacity to love and trust, and how he wished he could be more like his younger brother. He urged the mourners to reconcile their differences with loved ones and never be afraid to share their feelings.
The memorial service concluded with a rifle-volley salute outside the church, the ceremonial playing of taps on a bugle and the folding and presentation of an American flag to Dustin's widow by a military officer. In the ensuing weeks, several letters arrived at Mark Canham's home testifying to Dustin's mettle as a Marine. The tributes described Dustin as hard-working and devoted, selfless and strong of character.
A letter from Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Foos was particularly telling. Foos told Mark Canham that even though Dustin didn't smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco, he routinely carried both items in his pack in case a fellow Marine ran out.
"The biggest compliment paid to him during the memorial ceremony was when one of his closest friends said, 'If you took a piece of his heart and gave it to everyone in the world, we wouldn't have to wear these uniforms and do what we do,'" Foos wrote.
Although the words of praise were consoling to a degree, Mark Canham still hasn't received what he most desires: an end to the doubts he harbors about the circumstances surrounding his son's death.
Two letters from Marine officers said that Dustin had collapsed while exercising in his air-conditioned quarters. His fellow soldiers administered CPR and he was taken by ambulance to a medical facility in Djibouti, but he died a little more than an hour later.
Back home in Washington, the Canhams were skeptical. Dustin had run three miles in a little more than 20 minutes and survived a rigorous boot camp. And now, in a letter from Foos and Alpha Company commander Craig Harris, the family was told that he had collapsed into unconsciousness "roughly 2-3 minutes" into a training routine. That just didn't compute.
Through communication with other Marines in Djibouti, the Canhams began to fill in some blanks. There had been an incident involving some horseplay at Camp Lemonier, where Dustin was stationed. Some soldiers were throwing rocks; Dustin had accidentally chipped a fellow Marine's tooth, and he was being disciplined for his role in the incident.
"Dustin had never been in trouble his whole life, and he gets reprimanded once and he dies?'' Mark Canham says. "I've got too much stuff going through my head and my gut to just accept that and move on."
Gene Johnson, an Associated Press writer in Seattle, spent weeks interviewing Dustin's fellow Marines in Africa, and identified Sergeant Jesus Diaz and Corporal Richard Abril as the superiors who had taken Dustin into a tent away from the other troops. Dustin apparently collapsed while inside, and Diaz was seen running to get help.
The autopsy report lists the manner of death as "natural" and the cause of death as "concentric left ventricular hypertrophy" -- or mild thickening of the ventricle. There were no intoxicants in his system.
"In Lance Corporal Canham's case, his enlarged heart and hypertrophic left ventricular wall left him vulnerable to disruption of life-sustaining cardiac rhythms," Dr. Timothy Monaghan, the deputy medical examiner, wrote in his conclusion.
In the Marines' version of the events, Dustin was doing a routine known as the "Daily Seven," consisting of pushups and other calisthenics, when his heart inexplicably gave out. In the end, the medical authorities determined that he died in a manner similar to basketball players Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers.
But is that the entire story? According to Mark Canham, the Marines neglected to tell the medical examiner that Dustin was being disciplined, so Dr. Monaghan had no reason to be looking for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Devyn Canham also spoke with several Marines who told her Dustin was exercising in another tent that might not have been air-conditioned.
The Associated Press was unable to contact either Diaz or Abril for a story in early June. But a Marine spokesman told ESPN.com that Diaz was recently reassigned out of Dustin's platoon and began working at the Camp Lemonier armory because a job needed to be filled there. The Marines said the transfer was unrelated to events leading up to Dustin's death.
Eventually, the questions over Dustin Canham's demise were subject to scrutiny up the chain of command. Following the autopsy and an investigation at Camp Lemonier, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service filed a report. Then a third investigation was conducted by a Marine colonel outside Dustin's unit.
Although the Marines acknowledged that Dustin's superiors broke the rules by taking him aside for "incentive physical training" -- a regimen of cardio work in lieu of more formal discipline -- there was no finding of foul play or hazing in his death. Sgt. Diaz told investigators that he put Dustin through the workout as a substitute for an official report and a permanent blot on his record.
"None of the investigations found any evidence of physical abuse or wrongdoing," Lt. Colonel Sean Gibson, a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to ESPN.com. "It was determined that Lance Corporal Canham's death was caused by a previously undiagnosed heart condition."
But the three official reports apparently haven't put the case to bed. A spokesperson for U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., whose office has made several inquiries on the Canham family's behalf, confirmed that the Marines' investigation into Dustin's death is "ongoing." The spokesperson declined to elaborate.
Even if the Canham family were willing to exhume Dustin's body for further examination, that's no longer possible. Dustin was cremated, at his request.
After the funeral, Mark Canham smoked cigarettes nonstop, viewed the world through sleep-deprived eyes and vowed to make personal changes to ensure that he will join his youngest boy in heaven someday. He's more immersed in his faith, and he has quit drinking because he's intent on being there for Mitch around the clock.
Mark briefly sought solace in Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy's book, "Quiet Strength," but determined that only time and tears will allow him to make it through this ordeal.
"I was looking for some peace, but there ain't no peace," Mark says. "You just try to be around people, because when you're alone, it's like being in hell."
Mitch Canham, as part of a 25-man team, doesn't have the luxury of picking his spots. Upon returning to Lake Elsinore from Lake Stevens in early April, he gathered his teammates in the clubhouse and tried to put their minds at ease.
Mitch told the other Storm players that he was going through a difficult time and he might come to them for help one day, but he promised it wouldn't be a distraction and that he was fully invested in the team. Then he stressed that he would always be available if they ever needed him.
As silence enveloped the clubhouse, some Lake Elsinore players quickly discerned the irony: They were worried about Mitch's emotional stability, and here he was, taking the initiative to make sure they didn't have to walk on eggshells around him.
"He didn't want it to weigh on the team, and he didn't want the focus to be solely on him," says Mike DeMark, a Lake Elsinore relief pitcher. "The respect he's gained from everybody in here is through the roof."
The respect level went up a notch during a road trip to Lancaster in April. As the Lake Elsinore team bus idled in the parking lot after a game, the players passed a young girl in search of a souvenir. Mitch noticed that the girl's father appeared to be drunk, so he stepped off the bus, fetched a baseball cap for her, and gave everyone a lesson in perspective.
"I'm giving your daughter this hat because she's a fan," Canham told the father. "Don't you think it's a little sad that she has to see you like this?"
This is a snapshot of his life -- as the tough, grounded kid who doesn't wear batting gloves, refuses to take shortcuts and was built to lead. At Oregon State, Mitch Canham is remembered for writing the lyrics to "O State Ballaz," the rap song that served as the team's NCAA championship theme music. He played through injuries and had a one-track mind when it came to winning.
And that hasn't changed in the pros. Last year, while playing for Eugene in Class A ball, Mitch suffered a testicle injury on a foul tip. He played in excruciating pain for two days before a doctor told him he needed surgery.
"Even if Mitch doesn't get a hit, he still influences a game because he finds a way to drag the other guys with him and make them better," says former OSU assistant coach Dan Spencer, now the head coach at Texas Tech. "He's like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were on the basketball court."
That exceptional makeup helped sell the Padres before the 2007 draft. Canham is relatively new to catching and still in need of refinement behind the plate. But the Padres love his physical skills, his bat and, most of all, his internal compass.
"You could see it at Oregon State," says Grady Fuson, San Diego's vice president of scouting and player development. "The kid was like a cult hero."
In Canham's time of need, the Padres organization is taking pains to provide support. At any given time, the sympathetic ear might belong to Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano, roving catching instructor Duffy Dyer or Eugene Emeralds manager Greg Riddoch, whom Fuson calls the franchise's "mental-skills coach."
Between his bouts of sadness and despair, Canham is committed to do Dustin's legacy proud and tend to business. He won a state baseball title in high school and two national titles at Oregon State, and he'll tell anyone who'll listen that the Padres are going to win a World Series within the next five years, too.
His personal goals, while back-burnered right now, are no less ambitious. He wants to reach the majors, stick around 15 years, make an All-Star team or two and be remembered as a guy who "ran like Jason Kendall, hit like Mike Piazza and caught like Pudge Rodriguez."
For the time being, it's all about compartmentalizing his grief and trying to find what he calls "closure." That means making it through each day in baby steps, accepting the unacceptable and subscribing to the notion that God throws unbearable burdens at only the people best-equipped to handle them.
During each waking moment -- before, during and after games -- Mitch Canham's memories of Dustin both haunt and sustain him.
"My brother was probably as close to perfection as anyone could be," he says. "I think me and my dad look at it the same way: If Dustin isn't in heaven, no one is going to be up there."