Touched by an Angel

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 18, 2009; D01

WILLIAMSPORT, Md., April 17 -- They threw open the doors to the Williamsport High School auditorium a few minutes before 4 p.m. Friday, the sky a brilliant pale blue, the parking lot already filling up, Nick Adenharts of every vintage -- Halfway Little League, Williamsport High, the Arkansas Travelers, the Los Angeles Angels -- making their way toward the doors. The rainbow of Adenhart jerseys, new and vintage, outnumbered dark suits and dresses by a factor of perhaps 100 to 1.

Four hours later, the doors were flung open again, and some 1,500 mourners streamed out into the cool night air, the weekend just underway. But whatever eyes were dry when the memorial began, recalling a 22-year-old friend, teammate and family member who had just begun to realize his vast potential on the night he was killed, were dry no longer.

"I love you, Nick," said Jim Adenhart, the pitcher's father and the last of the service's 10 speakers, clasping his hands together and raising them toward heaven. "I love you."

Eight days had passed since Nicholas James Adenhart, the promising Angels rookie who had just completed the best start of his nascent big league career, was killed along with two friends in an automobile accident in Fullerton, Calif., after a minivan ran a red light and struck their Mitsubishi Eclipse.

The driver of the minivan, Andrew Thomas Gallo, also 22, has been charged with three counts of murder, driving under the influence and hit-and-run.

At Friday's memorial service, at the high school where Adenhart used to draw flocks of scouts whenever he took the mound, Gallo was never mentioned, and the accident itself was spoken of only fleetingly.

"There was a piece of us that pitched against the Oakland Athletics that night," said Josh Carter, a former Williamsport High teammate and now a reverend, speaking of Adenhart's six scoreless innings in his 2009 debut for the Angels just hours before the accident, "and a part of us that died the following morning."

Just off Interstate 81 Friday afternoon, a sign warned that Clifton Drive would be one-way, entering the high school, until 7 p.m. With the Catoctin Mountains rising beyond the sunken football stadium, a steady stream of cars and trucks rolled into the parking lot.

Inside, the smell of flowers. The basketball goals folded up into the rafters. The state championship banners hanging on one wall, "Home of the Wildcats" painted on the other. At the far wall, a display of photos and flower arrangements. The Angels sent a bouquet, as did the Boston Red Sox. There was one from Major League Baseball, and one each from teammates Torii Hunter and Scot Shields.

On a large screen, a slideshow of Adenhart's life played to a soundtrack of country tearjerkers and Christian ballads. Baby Nick at the beach, Nick at his prom, Nick shaking hands with Cal Ripken. In one photo, a young boy poses before his birthday cake, in the shape of a baseball diamond. There were four candles.

Adenhart's mother, Janet Gigeous, did not speak at the memorial, but her husband and Nick's stepfather, Duane Gigeous, read a letter she had written to her son after his death.

"When you called me after the game, the accomplished tone in your voice and the satisfaction in your words is something I had longed to hear from you," her letter said. " . . . I said I had never been happier for you. The joy you brought us on and off the field will be with us forever. You are an angel forever. God will care you for now."

A quartet of Adenhart's friends took turns sharing memories of "epic" Wiffle Ball games in each other's back yards and trying to explain the mixture of awe and love they all felt toward him.

"Never mind the 20-year Hall of Fame career we all thought he'd have," said John Hose. "He's spending eternity as the ace of God's team of angels."

"There are a lot of people out there who would have never heard of Williamsport or Hagerstown if it wasn't for Nick Adenhart. I can't think of a better person to represent us," said David Warrenfeltz, a former high school teammate who still cherishes being referred to as "Nick's catcher." "If I could make one more visit to the mound to talk to Nick, I'd thank him for all of us."

Before Jim Adenhart began to speak, he implored the crowd to "bear with me," but most folks there were in no better shape than he was. He remembered Aug. 24, 1986, when a 9-pound 3-ounce bundle of joy came into his possession, as the "best day of my life."

He spoke openly and without notes about the final night of Nick's life, having been on hand in Anaheim, Calif., himself that night to see his son pitch.

"After the game, I waited outside the player's entrance. I waited and waited and waited," he said, drawing a few chuckles. "When I finally spotted him, he had the biggest grin on his face. To me, he looked like he was 15 feet tall. . . . He looked at me and said, 'What did you think of that hook I threw to Giambi?' "

They went back to Jim's hotel, and Nick went up to the room with him. But the kid's phone was blowing up with text messages, and soon enough he asked his father if it would be okay if he went out, "just for a little while." Jim, of course, said yes.

"He said, 'Are you sure?' " Jim Adenhart recalled. "I said: 'Nick, you go ahead. Have some fun.' Unbeknownst to me, that would be the last time I saw him. . . . He truly made it. He lived his life's dream. I don't think too many people can say that."

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