A half dozen scouts were milling around in the bleachers when the Williamsport High School team bus arrived at rival South Hagerstown High on a humid afternoon in mid-May. By the time Nick Adenhart, a Williamsport senior and one of the top-rated high school pitchers in the country, took the mound in the bottom of the first inning, the number had grown to about to two dozen.
It was the final regular season game of Adenhart's high school career, and many of the scouts had brought radar guns to clock the 95-mph fastball expected to make Adenhart a first-round pick in the baseball draft next month, a millionaire before his 18th birthday.
Facing the third batter of the game, he felt a pop in his elbow, just after throwing a curve. He beckoned longtime catcher David Warrenfeltz to the mound and said he would throw no more curveballs. But the fastballs didn't feel right either. A nod to the dugout brought out Williamsport Coach Rod Steiner, and just like that, Adenhart was done. Done for the day. Done for the season.
The scouts and cross-checkers -- some of whom had traveled from California and Texas and New Jersey and South Carolina -- shook their heads and laughed in disbelief as they packed up. Adenhart's mother and stepfather rushed to the concession stand, coming back with a bag of ice as scouts scattered with cell phones and breaking news.
"The bad news was all across the country 10 minutes after he walked off the field," one said. "There's about 50 Nick Adenharts out there; we're off to see if the next kid can pitch."
Within the next two weeks, Adenhart would have two MRI exams. He would fly to Alabama to consult with a famed orthopedist. He would learn of the partial ligament tear in his elbow and what it would take to repair it: so-called Tommy John surgery, named after the former New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher whose career was saved after surgeons replaced the ligament in his left arm with a tendon from his right.
Adenhart had never struggled with injuries. He had been on strict pitch counts the past two years, going past 100 pitches once or twice. His parents had taken out a considerable insurance policy from Lloyd's of London to guard against career-ending injury. To be safe, Adenhart sat out the basketball season and then stopped playing the field between pitching appearances.
"They did everything right -- I've never met a family that did everything right," said John Castleberry, a regional scout for the Texas Rangers. "It just shows you how fragile everything is. . . . We get to know these kids just like everybody else, and when you get a good kid like Nick, it's sad.
"It's not like it's over, either; we're not putting a nail in his coffin. In three years, we hope this guy's going to be as good as gold."
The tales are seven or eight years old, literally a half-lifetime ago. The stories are about Nick, because this was "a person who could go by one name, even in Little League," said Warrenfeltz, the catcher. "When people said Nick, everybody knew who you were talking about."
Nick pitched the Little League all-star team to the state tournament as an 11-year-old, was so untouchable as a 12-year-old that a desperate opponent attempted to steal home on a throw back from the catcher, and had registered in the mid-eighties on a radar gun as a 13-year-old. Parents of opposing players would "just kind of stop talking" when they saw Nick warming up, according to his father, Jim Adenhart.
"It was absolutely incredible," said Wayne Main, who coached against a 12-year-old Adenhart. "I'm telling you, it was him and the catcher, and that's all they needed. I mean, you had no chance."
As a freshman at Saint Maria Goretti, a Catholic school in Hagerstown that attracted Adenhart because of its basketball program, he encountered his first major league scout during a trip to North Carolina. The scout told him to "work hard," and he excitedly called his parents to share the news.
That summer, he wowed his first group of scouts during a summer league tryout, although he said he felt like "a deer in headlights -- well, more like a deer in radar guns."
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."
After a few rough days, Adenhart said, he is also coming to grips with his situation.
"It's a fact you have to accept," he explained. "After three years at Carolina, I'll come out and should be expecting the same situation, if not higher."
So as orthopedist James Andrews paced in an examination room last week in Alabama, nervously trying to give Adenhart the bad news, the pitcher attempted to put the famous doctor at ease.
"I just told him that I understood that this year's draft was probably out of the way, and I should start concentrating on getting the surgery as soon as possible and getting back as soon as possible," Adenhart said. "And once I told him that, he was more relaxed."
Adenhart had made only vague plans for his theoretical riches -- meet with a financial planner, maybe get a car or a house. He will have to wait to give Warrenfeltz the promised catchers mitts, making up for the ones he's ruined over the years.
In the meantime, he has served as Williamsport's designated hitter in the Maryland 1A playoffs. In his first at-bat after the injury, he launched the first pitch he saw more than 360 feet to straightaway center field for a two-run home run. "See ya," screamed Adenhart's teammates as he jogged slowly around the base paths, smiling slightly as he reached home plate.
Tuesday, he reached base three times and scored twice as Williamsport won its Maryland 1A semifinal against Havre de Grace in a rout, 14-4. He and his friends will play today for a state championship, which would be the school's first since 1975.
But, in some ways, the pressure is off.
"Major League Baseball puts you in the situation where you can't turn down the kind of money that I was probably going to get offered," Adenhart said. "We always wondered how I could do both -- get the professional experience of baseball and the relaxed atmosphere of a college experience. . . . Do what most 18-year-olds are doing after they graduate -- go to school, plan your life out. . . .
"Before this, I wasn't really sure what was going to happen. The whole draft is a crapshoot. Now I don't really have to worry about the draft. My future is more straight, and I know what's going to happen."