Angels Remain Inspired by Their Late Rookie Teammate, Nick Adenhart

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

WILLIAMSPORT, Md. His spirit is in good hands, kept alive and carried forth to all corners of the country by his Los Angeles Angels teammates. Thanks to them, Nick Adenhart has a fully equipped locker, home and road, a spot on the dugout bench, a featured role in every champagne-soaked celebration -- everything short of an actual roster spot. "Nick lives on," pitching coach Mike Butcher wrote in a text message to Adenhart's father after the Angels clinched their division back on Sept. 29.

His body, though, lies here, and the Angels may be pleased to know it is in good hands as well. Rod Steiner, Adenhart's high school baseball coach, stops by the grave site a couple of times a week just to spend a few quiet moments, maybe tidy up a little, sometimes replacing the luminaria bag and light a new candle inside it.

One of those candles, lit a few evenings back, was still flickering at 8:20 Wednesday morning to greet the day's first visitors, the rush-hour hum of I-81 gaining strength beyond the fence, the red and yellow leaves of nearby trees blown by a cold wind to the ground.

"Those fat ones," Steiner said, bracing himself against the cold and staring down at the candle over Adenhart's grave, "they'll burn for two or three days, easy." After a few more moments of silence, he shakes his head and says, "Of all the kids in the major leagues, for it to be one of ours -- we've only ever had but one."

This might have been the week Nick Adenhart, the pride of Washington County, blossomed into a star, a household name -- his debut on the grand stage. The Angels vs. the New York Yankees, at Yankee Stadium in New York -- the American League Championship Series, a trip to the World Series at stake. The rookie right-hander, who grew up amid these hills in Western Maryland, might have started one of the games, might have shut down the mighty Yankees, might even have been the MVP.

He might have. But we'll never know.

It has been more than six months since Adenhart, just 22 at the time, was killed in Fullerton, Calif., when the car in which he was riding with three friends was struck by a suspected drunk driver, just a few hours after Adenhart had made a sterling 2009 debut -- throwing six scoreless innings against the Oakland Athletics.

Until these last few weeks, it had been a fairly normal mourning process, even given Adenhart's status as a local celebrity. There were well-attended memorial services, the dedication of a Little League field in his honor a while later, a steady supply of flowers and candles placed on the grave, the hoopla steadily dying down.

And then, the Angels kept winning, becoming the first team in baseball to clinch a playoff spot, then wrapping up the division title, then knocking out the Boston Red Sox last week in the playoffs' opening round. At every step, the Angels have made Adenhart, their fallen teammate, a prominent part of the celebration, dousing his empty uniform with champagne and beer in the joyous clubhouse, gathering beside his picture on the wall at Angel Stadium to touch his face and pose for photos.

It's a beautiful, wonderful thing: Nick lives on. But to the folks back home, it's painful, too. Nick should be part of it all. But he's not.

"It's hard for me to even watch an Angels game," Steiner said. "But everyone here is doing it. Everywhere I go, people are talking about the Angels, and talking about Nick."

On the day the Angels eliminated the Red Sox to advance to the ALCS, David Warrenfeltz, Adenhart's former catcher at Williamsport High and lifelong best friend, found himself thinking how cool it was that Adenhart could find himself pitching at Yankee Stadium in the playoffs.

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