'When You Get a Good Kid . . . It's Sad'
By his junior year, when he transferred to Williamsport in Maryland's Washington County to concentrate on baseball, Adenhart was named the Gatorade player of the year in Maryland and then youth player of the year by "Baseball America." Entering his final high school season, that magazine dubbed Adenhart the No. 1 high school prospect in the country.
He signed to play baseball for North Carolina in November, but as his draft stock rose, the UNC coaching staff was left "holding out hope" it would ever see Adenhart, according to head coach Mike Fox.
Adenhart's high school coach began e-mailing daily updates to a list of three dozen scouts and media members. The local cable company broadcast two of his starts, the first time it had shown high school baseball. Williamsport students gathered to hang "K" signs outside the left field fence, parking lots overflowed with cars, and spectators lined two or three deep along the foul lines to watch Adenhart pitch.
He earned audiences with Roger Clemens, with Stan Musial and with Cal Ripken, and a sophomore teammate with pitching potential was dubbed "Baby Nick."
And even though "Baseball America" ultimately dropped Adenhart to No. 2 on its list of high school prospects, citing scouts' concerns about his mechanics, his senior year seemed to justify the attention. He threw a perfect game in his first outing. Entering that final regular season game of Adenhart's high school career, he had a 5-1 record, a 0.73 ERA and an average of 2.2 strikeouts per inning.
"He's the best I've ever seen," said South Hagerstown's Ralph Stottlemyer, a high school baseball coach for 35 years.
Adenhart might not have been LeBron James -- "People don't walk through the halls and go, 'Oh my God, that's Nick Adenhart,' " one schoolmate said -- but he wasn't exactly an average high school athlete, either.
"I see a lot of people I know -- well, they know me," Adenhart said while riding the bus to what would turn out to be his last high school pitching appearance. "I try to be nice about it, even if I don't know who they are."
Doctors say throwing a baseball is an inherently unnatural activity, and that it's remarkable such ligament tears don't happen more often.
"To propel a baseball in excess of 90 miles an hour 120 times [toward] a very small space generates a tremendous stress on the arm," said Lewis Yocum, one of the leading practitioners of ligament replacement surgery. "That is a very tough request to place on the arm. . . . In the best of situations -- perfect mechanics, a good throwing schedule -- sometimes [a tear] just happens."
Despite the injury, Adenhart's story isn't one of "doom and gloom," said his mother, Janet Gigeous. She prefers to talk about the "Carolina Blue lining" -- how her son, with the 3.2 GPA and 1240 SAT score, will be able to experience college, make lifelong friends and avoid the rigors of a professional baseball career for a few more years. Adenhart's example, she said, can show other high school phenoms not to take their futures for granted.
Adenhart will undergo surgery shortly after graduation next month and said he will likely redshirt his freshman year, then pitch two years for the Tar Heels and assess his status when he becomes draft eligible again. The North Carolina coaching staff is sympathetic for its recruit but at the same time "ecstatic" and "tickled to death" by the prospect of his arrival, Fox said.
As Adenhart's friends and coaches point out, a torn elbow ligament isn't the career-ending injury it used to be. The surgery is increasingly common at all levels of baseball. Scouts refer optimistically to star pitchers who have thrived after Tommy John surgery: Kerry Wood, John Smoltz, Matt Morris, Billy Koch. Three-fifths of the Baltimore Orioles' Opening Day rotation came back from the surgery. The procedure has about an 85 percent success rate, according to Yocum, who said as many as 20 percent of the Tommy John operations he performs are on high school-aged athletes.
Which is why Adenhart's stepfather, Duane Gigeous, feels comfortable talking about "when we're back here three years from now" and predicting that "nothing but good things are going to happen."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company