JR Anton was ‘one of the guys’

As the Tar Heels return to Omaha for the College World Series, they remember their biggest fan.

JR Anton wearing Carolina Blue baseball uniform on baseball field.
JR Anton (right), a Tar Heels baseball fan, seen here with Michael Busch, now playing for the Chicago Cubs. (Carolina Athletics)

In response to a May 6 text, Chicago Cubs first baseman Michael Busch called Kim Anton in Omaha, Nebraska. That’s when she told him that her 31-year-old son, JR Anton, had died.

In his short life, JR had become close friends with two decades of Tar Heel players. That included Busch, a standout on the 2018 College World Series team who’s now with the Cubs.

“I just want to ask you one favor,” Kim told Busch. “Keep hitting those home runs for JR.”

The Anton family had been Carolina fans since visiting Chapel Hill for a study and treatment for JR’s Hunter syndrome, which causes abnormalities in the skeleton, heart and respiratory system.

Then in 2006, the sports-loving 13-year-old got to meet the Tar Heels when they came to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to play in the College World Series. He started chatting with Carolina administrators Larry Gallo and Beth Miller at one of the team’s practices, and soon he was in the Tar Heel dugout, high-fiving the players.

In 2011, JR came back to Chapel Hill for a medical procedure. He wanted to visit again in 2013, but he didn’t have a place to stay.

“He can stay with me,” said Skye Bolt, a Tar Heel outfielder. And so a tradition was born, with a series of Carolina players hosting JR, including Busch.

“Everything JR wore was Carolina blue or Carolina baseball-related,” Busch says. “He loved being around the team, and we felt like he was one of the guys.”

All the Carolina baseball players got to know JR Anton, who came for annual visits.

A Carolina baseball player, Shea Sprague, readying to throw a pitch. On his Carolina Blue hat is a patch with the initials "JR."

The Carolina baseball team is currently wearing “JR” patches and stickers on their hats and helmets, respectively. (Joe Bray/GoHeels)

“He was easy to hang out with,” says Vance Honeycutt. “He was always smiling, and his love for UNC baseball and all the guys was impossible to miss. We were always excited to see him and spend that week with him each year.”

Back home, he covered his bedroom walls with Tar Heel items. “There’s no doubt in my mind his heart and soul was in Chapel Hill,” his mother said. “As a parent, you know your son isn’t normal. But Carolina always welcomed JR as normal. And I’ve tried to tell all the players and coaches and everyone we’ve met that they have no idea what that did for JR and what that did for my family. They will never fully understand how much of an impact they had.”

“JR was so special to our team and to me,” says head coach Scott Forbes. “He brought so much joy to our guys, and I enjoyed every second I was lucky enough to be around him. Little did JR know that he was the one leaving the bigger impact on our players.”

JR died at home, surrounded by souvenirs of nearly 20 years as a Tar Heel.

Carolina baseball players’ group texts buzzed with JR stories on May 6 and 7. That night, Busch’s Cubs hosted the Padres. The game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth. Rain began to fall. Busch was Chicago’s leadoff batter and hit the first pitch out of the park for the victory.

In Omaha, Kim Anton watched the video of the walk-off home run the next morning. She saw Busch try to suppress a smile, the one she said reminded her of JR’s. Tears streamed down her face.

“It was the most amazing thing,” she said, “and so heartwarming.”

She sent Busch a text thanking him for the moment and reminding him that JR was watching.

“I know,” came Busch’s reply. “And I know he had something to do with it.”

Read more about JR Anton.