Angels Remain Inspired by Their Late Rookie Teammate, Nick Adenhart

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009; D01

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.

"There are still a few minutes when you escape reality," Warrenfeltz said, "and you think of this perfect world where he's pitching in the playoffs. And then you come back to the reality that's it not going to happen."

Warrenfeltz saw Adenhart's grave site once -- the day of the funeral -- but hasn't been able to bring himself to go back. "It's just something -- I don't know. In a way, maybe by not going back, it keeps the reality from sinking in." A pause, a sigh, a sniffle. "I guess I'm just not ready," he says.

* * *

At the Maryland Department of Corrections training academy, out in the farmland near Boonsboro, a stone's throw from Antietam National Battlefield, Jim Adenhart broke into a smile Wednesday morning when asked about the Angels' October run and the way the team has made his son a major part of it.

"It's great. It's a joyous thing," he said, clad in a plain, black T-shirt and black track pants as he took a break from a classroom training session. "I can't say enough about the way the organization has treated us. It's really special the way they've rallied around Nick and the way they've made us feel like a part of it."

Jim Adenhart, his face a startling resemblance of Nick's, is doing his best to carry on these days. A retired Secret Service agent, he is finishing his training as a corrections deputy sheriff -- he graduates next week -- and has been attending bereavement counseling. For a while, he found himself having strange dreams, in which Nick would appear before him -- in a restaurant, at the house -- then disappear.

"It's getting better," he said of the grief. "But then sometimes it reverts back, especially" -- he hooks his thumb toward his fellow trainees -- "when these guys start talking about their kids, what they're into, what they're doing. I have to step outside the room for a few minutes, just to collect myself."

Jim Adenhart watches all the Angels games -- how could he not? -- but he finds himself particularly drawn to the television when Jered Weaver pitches. Weaver, the Angels' scheduled starter for Game 3 of the ALCS in Anaheim, shares his late son's build. If he doesn't catch himself, Jim Adenhart will find himself tricked by a mind that still wants to believe that's his son out there.

"Weaver, he's so tall and lanky -- and now that he's cut his hair . . . wow," he said. "It really reminds me of Nick."

At an August game at Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a bunch of Adenharts drove in from Williamsport as guests of the Angels, with seats directly behind the visitors' dugout. Angels General Manager Tony Reagins spent the better part of an hour talking with Nick's grandfather, who is also named Jim.

"Even the little gestures they've made -- like wearing Nick's [uniform] number [as a patch] on their jerseys -- it really means something to us," said Connie Adenhart, Nick's grandmother. "I'm sure Nick is out there, pushing them on. He loved baseball, and he'd love to be where they are now."

The two Jims are toying with the idea of going to New York this weekend for Games 1 and 2, but the weather forecast -- lots of rain -- has given them pause. What about going out to Anaheim for Games 3, 4 and 5 instead? There won't be any rain there.

"Well," said Nick Adenhart's father, "I don't know about that. I still haven't been out there since the accident."

* * *

Jim Adenhart was in attendance at Angel Stadium on April 8, beckoned to Anaheim, despite his aversion to flying, by his son, who told him "something special was going to happen." He congratulated his son after the performance, then said goodbye when Nick said he was going out with some friends.

In the aftermath of the accident, Angels officials accompanied Jim Adenhart to the hospital, consoling him when the surgeon delivered the grave news.

"That's why I'm not surprised at the way they're treating us, and treating Nick," he said. "They've been doing this since Day One."

Andrew Thomas Gallo, whom police say was drunk when he ran a red light and crashed into the car in which Adenhart and his friends were riding, was charged with three counts of second-degree murder, along with other charges. Last week, a Superior Court judge in Orange County, Calif., postponed Gallo's trial for six months at the defense's request, with a new start date of April 19, 2010.

Some five months later, in a jubilant clubhouse after the Angels clinched the AL West title, players doused Adenhart's jersey with champagne and beer, a well-intended gesture meant to symbolize his inclusion in the celebration.

"There isn't a guy in this locker room," Angels relief pitcher Jason Bulger told reporters in the middle of it all, "who isn't playing for his memory."

To most folks who understand baseball, including many of Adenhart's friends and family members, it never crossed their minds that the celebration could have been construed as out of line -- because of the alleged role of alcohol in his death -- until a handful of columnists, bloggers and fans raised the issue.

"Nick was a ballplayer," said Warrenfeltz, "and every kid who ever dreams of being a ballplayer also dreams of spraying champagne after you clinch a title. [The Angels' celebration] was an amazing way to honor him. The champagne is such a baseball tradition -- this way, they just included him."

"That's baseball," said the younger Jim Adenhart, Nick's father. "If Nick were there, he'd have been throwing a few back as well."

Still, when the Angels closed out the Red Sox last week to move on to the ALCS, team officials made sure media members and television cameras were kept out of the Angels' clubhouse for the first few minutes of the celebration. When reporters finally entered, Adenhart's jersey was nowhere to be found.

* * *

At Nick Adenhart's grave site on Wednesday morning, there sat two crosses, three bouquets of flowers, four candles, an American flag, and a baseball.

"That ball?" Rod Steiner said. "It's been here for, oh, at least a couple of months now. I guess I'm surprised no one's taken it and put it on eBay or something."

Pick up the ball. It's inscribed, the weathered ink barely visible: "Nick, your Angel family will always miss you. Throw a great game every day." It is signed, "Your friend, Dan Radcliff" -- the scout who signed Adenhart for the Angels out of high school.

Every time Steiner leaves a new luminaria bag with a candle in it, he inscribes it with a few words and an insignia -- a No. 8 inside a heart. Get it? Eight-in-heart?

"I used to tell him, when he gets famous, that's how he should sign his autograph," Steiner said. "He never did it."

Pick up one of the other candles. Someone has written on the outside of it, actually three people -- Adenhart's mother and stepfather, Janet and Duane Gigeous, and his half-brother, Henry Gigeous: "Nick, I love you and miss you . . . We will keep the faith . . . You are and always will be special . . . Love, Duane . . . I love you, Henry . . . Love, Mom."

Another candle has writing on it. Pick it up: "Nick," it says. "I love you . . . Grandma . . . You will always be my boy."

Nick Adenhart's grave site sits a Vladimir Guerrero home run blast from Springfield Middle School, where Steiner, a teacher for 31 years, taught Nick's parents, then Nick himself -- not an unusual thing in a community where almost no one leaves. Williamsport High School is just around the corner, the sign outside reminding folks that Oct. 19-24 is Homecoming Week, and Oct. 24 is the pancake breakfast fundraiser.

At the high school's baseball field -- where Adenhart once threw a no-hitter, pitched the Wildcats to the state championship game and drew dozens of pro scouts, with their radar guns and clipboards -- two bouquets of plastic flowers adorn a fence behind the backstop. In the middle is a photo of Adenhart, wearing the Angels' home whites, No. 34.

He is in mid-delivery, his black glove tumbling through the air in front of him, the ball gripped in his right hand -- fastball grip. He has three days' stubble on his face, handsome as the day is long, 22 years old and without question destined for greatness.

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