Adenhart had the talent, character to be great
Four years after pitcher's death, we are left to wonder what he might have achieved
ANAHEIM -- Four years ago to this day, a golden future was taken from a wonderful young man and two of his friends, leaving one severely injured survivor. The impact of a vehicle driven by a man charged and convicted with driving under the influence destroyed a thousand dreams when it crashed into a sedan carrying four young people at an intersection in Fullerton, Calif.
April 8, 2009, was the last full day of Nick Adenhart's life. He was 22, just getting started with the Angels. The career of one of baseball's brightest young talents ended a few hours after he'd pitched six shutout innings, illuminating all of his promise, against the Athletics in front of his home fans at Angel Stadium.
Soft spoken and polite, lighthearted and generous of spirit, Adenhart was the kind of guy a father would have loved to see his daughter bring home for dinner. His loss remains incalculable.
Jered Weaver has become one of the game's best pitchers, the Angels' ace. His ascent to elite status began in earnest that 2009 season as he coped with the tragedy. Weaver carries with him every time he goes to the mound the memory of his buddy Nick, who was about to be his roommate when his life ended that night in the horrific crash that also claimed the lives of Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson. Jon Wilhite made a remarkable recovery from multiple injuries.
When Weaver starts a game, he etches "NA" in the dirt on the back of the mound before he throws his first pitch. The pain of a loss this profound never goes away. The Halos named their annual Pitcher of the Year award for Adenhart, and Weaver has won it each year. That feels perfectly right.
Adenhart and the Angels' beat reporter for MLB.com had grown close. It was a natural bond, rooted in common interests and time spent during the languorous hours of Spring Training. Adenhart would saunter outside the clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium, headphones on, digging his favorite sounds, and lounge on a picnic table. We'd sit and talk about pitching, about life, always about his family.
There was something irresistible about this young man from the East Coast who was destined for great things on the West Coast.
Adenhart was from Williamsport, Md., and he was Baseball America's Youth Player of the Year in 2003, one of the premier high school talents in the nation. But Tommy John elbow surgery in high school caused him to be available in the 14th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. The Halos snapped Adenhart up, signed him to a $710,000 contract and waited for him to heal.
Adenhart's professional history on the websites is brief and does his talent no justice. He made four Major League starts, struggling to find his confidence in his brief exposure to the big leagues in 2008. Adenhart went home after the season and did extensive video study of the styles of former greats such as Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Sandy Koufax. He was determined to find a comfort zone in his delivery and erase the disappointment of those struggles with his command.
His 2009 spring was an eye-opener. Everything seemed to come together. He was starting to resemble David Cone, one of his favorites as a kid. Adenhart nailed down a spot in the rotation. There was no doubt in the reporter's mind he would emerge as a staff anchor, alongside Weaver, for years to come.
And then it was over. The music died a few hours after the game Adenhart had dreamed about, his big breakthrough.
How good would Adenhart have been if his career had played itself out? No one can answer that. He was not allowed to fulfill his destiny.
When I first began watching Nick closely in the spring of 2008, I saw a remarkable resemblance to Bob Welch when he was a young Dodger. I recall writing that and then discussing it with Nick. He was genuinely interested in hearing about players from earlier times, what made them tick.
I told him about Don Sutton, who made it to the Hall of Fame with tools very similar to those Adenhart owned. Sutton put his fastball where he wanted it and had a big over-the-top curveball. He was a serious student of the game, absorbing everything he could. It went a long way in making Sutton the durable craftsman he became across two decades.
That was the type of pitcher Adenhart could have become. Adenhart had a quality changeup to go with a 92-to-94-mph heater and a 12-to-6 curve. Concealed by his easy, almost nonchalant personal style was a burning desire to be great. It was reflected in his eyes and found in his words, in private.
I cherish our time together, how thrilled I was to watch Adenhart reach for the stars in that final performance. He pitched through trouble spots like a cool veteran, confident and in command. From the heart.
Before that game, I was talking with Howie Kendrick when Nick walked past on his way to the training room and gave me a look that told me everything. He was ready. We'd discussed the day before how he'd matured, how he'd cleared all the hurdles.
After the game, after his interviews were finished, Adenhart tapped the blue-green sweater I was wearing and told me he liked it. I assured him I'd find one for him.
Nick Adenhart was a baseball player, to the core. It meant everything to him, along with his family. As a person, he was as good as it gets.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.