July 7, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Jered Weaver (36) writes the initials of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart in the dirt behind the pitchers mound before the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
His jersey is present at every Los Angeles Angels home game, even if he earned just one major league win. The No. 34 ingrained onto the center fielder wall through the 2009 season has gone unused, now only visible on commemorative pins and patches.
Five years later, it’s not easy thinking about why these symbols mean so much. Then again, it’s nearly impossible putting into words why a 22-year-old pitcher who played so little means so much.
Nick Adenhart passed away five years ago Wednesday, yet he remains in the heart and minds of the Angels community.
Adenhart exceeded expectations heading into the 2009 season. Sure, he was one of the top-ranked prospects in the nation but he was also a recipient of oft-career-threatening Tommy John Surgery. That didn’t stop the Maryland native from posting a 3.12 ERA through 26 spring training innings. Adenhart fought for and won a spot on a World Series contender’s starting rotation.
On April 8, Adenhart shut out the Oakland Athletics’ through six innings, allowing seven hits while striking out five batters. His last out wasn’t anything special; Rajai Davis chopped an off-speed pitch to shortstop for an easy out. Adenhart walked off the mount and into the dugout to scattered applause.
A few hours later he was gone.
Adenhart, along with Jon Wilhite and Henry Pearson, were passengers in a Mitsubishi Eclipse driven by Courtney Stewart. They were crossing an intersection shortly after Midnight when a red minivan ran a red light and blindsided the sports car. Only Wilhite survived.
The Angels and Adenhart’s Triple-A team- the Salt Lake Bees- canceled play the next day. A pre-game ceremony was held that Friday honoring the fallen pitcher, along with Stewart, Pearson and Wilhite. Torii Hunter and John Lackey stood in front of the pitcher’s mound, heads bowed, each holding a piece of Adenhart’s jersey in silence. The Angels, their opponents the Boston Red Sox, and fans in attendance followed suit.
His jersey hung in the Angels dugout every day going forward and a game didn’t pass where players didn’t graze it in remembrance. It was even in the clubhouse, soaked with celebratory champagne and beer after they clinched the AL West. He was, after all, still a part of the team.
Weaver and Adenhart were set to move in together a week after the accident. To this day, the Angels’ ace still engraves “NA” behind the pitcher’s mound before every start. He even named his son Aden in homage of his fallen teammate.
Every spring, Weaver and other Angels players take up a collection in the name of the Nick Adenhart Memorial Fund, which provides funding for non-profit youth baseball organizations. The Cedar Rapids Kernels, Adenhart’s Single-A team, similarly established the Nick Adenhart Memorial Scholarship; a yearly $1,000 award granted to graduating high school seniors.
Angels fans did their part to eulogize Adenhart with a makeshift memorial that stood between Angels Stadiums’ giant red hats. Bouquets of flowers were accompanied by stuffed animals, hats, banners, balloons, pictures, and most significantly a poster board where visitors could express themselves.
The items are gone but Adenhart’s memory lives on in spite of his absence.
Who knows where Adenhart would be today. The impressive outing against the A’s could have catapulted him into an ace. He might have been an all-star, or the missing piece on a team that narrowly missed the World Series. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that Adenhart would be 27 years old today. He would be a son, a friend, and a teammate. He wouldn’t let setbacks like Tommy John surgery or a poor outing get in the way of his dream. As if he ever did.
In four career outings, four simple starts, Adenhart made his way into the hearts of Angels fans. He’s been gone five years but not once has he been forgotten.