As the LA Angels embark on a new era under Brad Ausmus, a tragic anniversary is remembered: in the midnight hours of April 9, 2009, Angels rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed when the car he was riding in was struck by a drunk driver in Fullerton, California. Adenhart, then 22 years old, was the Angels’ top prospect.
It’s a “where were you when” story, so I’ll tell you where I was: I was living in the Bay Area at the time, so I caught the LA Angels primarily when they played the Oakland A’s. Living the hectic schedule of working retail, I was excited to see I could catch an early Angels game, as the Athletics were down in Anaheim. The 2008 Angels had won 100 games, but fell to Boston in four games in the ALDS. The 2009 edition, though, seemed primed to build on that year.
One of those reasons was on the mound that night. April 8, 2009. The Halos sent Nick Adenhart to the mound against Oakland lefty Dana Eveland. Adenhart, then named the Angels’ number one prospect by Baseball America, had seen some action in 2008, but had struggled some, posting a 9.00 ERA in three starts, though he did manage a 1-0 record.
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Adenhart, a bargain of a draft pick in the 14th round for the Halos after his high school career ended in Tommy John surgery, the righty from Silver Springs, Maryland found himself rising meteorically through the Angels minor league system. In May of 2008, he made his Major League debut, starting for the Angels against Oakland. At the time, he was the youngest player in the Majors, all of 21 years old.
Though his first stint with the Angels wasn’t stellar, Adenhart proved himself in 2009 spring training, earning himself the spot in the rotation left open when Jon Garland left the club in free agency. The excitement was palpable in Angel Stadium, and noted even by the A’s broadcast team, as I watched from hundreds of miles away as Adenhart toed the mound to start the game under a beautiful spring Southern California sky. That solid spring under his belt, there was the joyful expectation the young pitcher would join Jered Weaver at the top of the rotation for years to come in Anaheim.
Adenhart worked his way out of a first inning jam, getting Kurt Suzuki to ground out to third, stranding two runners. From there he settled in, and by the time an Angels fourth inning rally put the good guys in red up 3-0, Adenhart’s shutout effort had included three strikeouts.
After a 1-2-3 6th, the night was over for Nick Adenhart. His final line was six innings pitched, no earned runs, and five strikeouts, while working his way around seven hits and three walks. He had shown such poise and promise that even the A’s broadcast team was expressing their excitement for the Angels and their fans that Nick Adenhart had arrived.
I had that gut feeling, that visceral jolt a sports fan felt when they knew what they’re watching is important. At the time, I assumed it was because we were seeing the arrival, the coming out party of an important player, a pitcher who was going to help carry the load to another AL West title, could even be the missing piece to making a deeper playoff run.
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The talent we were seeing was special. The night was special, even though the Angels bullpen blew the lead, and Oakland would come from behind to win late. It didn’t sting as much that April night as it could have, because we had seen the future, and it was bright.
I awoke the next day like so many of us, the players, the team, the press, the fans did: I awoke to the news that Nick Adenhart had died in the early morning hours at UC Irvine Medical Center. And unlike so many athletes of our time, Adenhart did not die due to his own misguided decisions or misadventure, Adenhart had been killed by a drunk driver.
After a successful season debut, and truly the best performance of his professional baseball journey, Adenhart had gone out with friends. Around 12:30 the morning of the 9th, the vehicle he was riding in was broadsided at an intersection by a van driven by Andrew Gallo, then 22, who was substantially over the legal limit at the time.
Ten years on, we remember the tributes. We remember the large number 34 on the outfield wall. The jersey, once hung in the dugout, brought back out to celebrate with Adenhart’s grieving, playoffs-bound teammates. We remember a team that came together and persevered after senselessly losing one of their own.
We remember the tributes at Angel Stadium, and the terrible grief of fans. We always think of what could have been, for a baseball team witnessing what could be their next star, and more importantly, for a family who lost their son on the precipice of his manhood.
To the Angels and their fans, the number 34 will always belong to a 22 year-old right-handed pitcher who was remembered by teammates for his gregarious, humorous nature, and by fans as the bright spark of tomorrow, snuffed out by the thoughtlessness of today.
Nick Adenhart lives on as a reminder of the fleeting preciousness of life itself, that tomorrow is promised to no one. Though he was taken from us, we have not forgotten, and will never forget.