An Angel On the Mound

The author (center) poses with Nick Adenhart (right) and his bullpen catcher, two months before Adenhart's death. (via Sung-Min Kim)

The author (center) poses with Nick Adenhart (right) and his bullpen catcher, two months before Adenhart’s death. (via Sung-Min Kim)

In the few milliseconds before ball hits glove, I hear a faint shhhhhhkk. That’s the sound of a baseball tearing through the air and breezing toward its destination.

Bang. Ball hit the catcher’s glove. Imagine a bowling ball, traveling 90-plus miles per hour, cracking the wooden bat into thousands of wispy splinters – except there is no one on the batter’s box. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be the one facing the man who threw that pitch.

It is Feb. 6, 2009. I go to a local batting cage named the BATT Academy in Glen Burnie, Md., to throw some baseballs. Instead, I end up staring at someone else doing the same – except that he seems to be much, much better than anyone on a college team, let alone my high school’s varsity.

The next pitch starts from the same arm slot and height as a fastball. But at some point, in the air, it breaks downward and drops like a waterfall — and so does my jaw.

I look at the pitcher – tall, lanky, wearing a faded-out brown baseball hat and light jogging clothes. On the top of the mound, his limbs move as gracefully as I have seen of anyone: the leg lift, the controlled fall toward the stride, releasing the ball out front and boom, another pitch.

He looks vaguely familiar. Now, I am a baseball fanatic. Instead of going out with friends, I am frequently inside reading baseball websites like Minor League Ball, LoHud Yankees Blog, The Hardball Times, etc. I own several copies of Baseball America handbooks.”

I start to scan in my head if there would be any well-known baseball players around the area. There’s a name that starts to linger. From the distance, he looks like someone that I’ve seen pictures of – actually, cut that. He looks like someone that I’ve seen on MLB.com highlights.

I don’t know how possible it is that it could be him. I think of the first time I saw his name — back in 2006, reading a bunch of different baseball websites. He was universally praised as someone with a bright future. John Sickels, an expert on minor league baseball, called him “one of the top pitchers in his age group.” I’ve heard this somewhere: “Getting to the major leagues is harder than camel passing through a needle head.” Maybe it’s an exaggeration, maybe it’s not. According to HSBaseballWeb.com, only 0.5 percent of all high school baseball players make it to the minor leagues. A good chunk of them never even pass the lowest levels in minors.

This guy, however, made it to the majors last year. And he is in a batting cage in Nowhere, Maryland? Perhaps. It is early February, weeks away from the time pitchers and catchers report to major league camps. The odds are not impossible that a big leaguer could be lurking around in a random batting cage that you frequent twice a week. He could’ve been watching you swing and miss on a 70 mph batting-machine fastball right down the middle or crush it into the very back of the cage net with the loudest aluminum bat PING.

He throws the last one. The ball paints the lower outside corner of the strike zone. He walks off the mound and takes a giddy hop. As this guy walks closer, I can see that he looks more and more like the pitcher I think he is. At this point, I feel confident – he looks and throws like a pitcher I know is from Maryland. Perhaps I’m not crazy. I approach him “Excuse me, are you…” this is not the best time to stutter—“-a, are you Nick Adenhart?”

“Yes I am!” he says. Oh my God I think. This is the Nick Adenhart.

“Wow.” I don’t feel like I just said that. That just blurted out of my mouth. It is a reflex to a moment like this. “Wow-uhh.” I don’t want to say the same thing again but I just did. And now I just look awkward in front of a major league baseball player. I reek of dried sweat that’s infested my workout baseball cap for a week. My t-shirt is too tight on my pear-shaped body and my gray shorts add blandness to my overall outfit. I look like a humanized Donald Duck that committed a dull fashion suicide.

“You… wow, I can’t believe this!” Now I’m just saying what my mind is saying. There is no filter. Nick is just smiling – either amused by my reaction or at the recognition of his celebrity status – or a combination of both.

“Yep, that’s me, nice to meet you!” Nick says as he reaches his throwing hand out for a handshake.

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I put my hand out, slowly. I see my hand approaching towards his through a narrow slo-mo vision. I’m shaking his hand as if he is a normal person. In my head, he, for a moment, stops being a major league baseball pitcher I have seen on television. He is just like others I met in this batting cage — practicing, picking up baseballs, slouching down on the water fountain.

We talk for about five minutes. I talk a lot about baseball in general. Talking about baseball with someone who is good at it is different. At some point, I realize that my ride is coming in few minutes.

“Hey Nick, can we take a picture together?”

“Sure, man!” He drops his glove right on cue. It looks like he practiced a drill to do so.

I take out the thin silver Sony digital camera from my baseball bag. I take it to every practice to videotape my swings and throwing motions. Later today, when I plug it into my computer, I will be fixing this photo’s exposure and contrast to prepare for a Facebook upload.

“Hey man, “ I say, “I can’t wait to see you pitching in the big leagues again. When the Angels come to the Camden Yards to play the Orioles, I’ll make sure to be there and say hi to you.”

“Awesome, man. Keep up the good work. Hope I can see you there too!”

We exchange another handshake. Nick heads back to the mound to throw another round of pitches. I zip up my bag, open it again to make sure the camera isn’t stuck right by my aluminum baseball bat. If my camera is going to be broken from being crushed from a heavy metal object, today is not the day.

April 9, 2009. Around 4 p.m.

I open the front door of my home, run into the living room, heave my backpack toward the sofa and giddily sit at my computer. It is a sunny Thursday and the beginning of spring vacation. I go to a Catholic school — an Easter weekend means holy rest for us high schoolers to commit more sins to confess later.

My desktop picture is a wide shot of the new Yankee Stadium and the Mozilla Firefox icon rests right under “Computer” and “Recycling Bin” icons. I’m tempted to open iTunes first to finish the movie I’ve seen halfway through — American Psycho — but I decide to check the news and the Yankees game schedule first.

I type in ESPN, click “enter” and wait for the page to show up. It is the first week of the 2009 baseball season. I expect baseball news draped all over the website. As the page finishes loading, I see a familiar picture — Nick Adenhart, mid-delivery, looking toward the target, arms in a cocked position, ready to deliver – nice, I think. That’s my boy! Nick! He’ll go big this seas-

Angels pitcher killed in crash

“Shit,” I mutter “shit, shit, shit, shit, no, no, this – this – this is – not – not – not happening,” I mutter more, with sickening tremble growing syllable by syllable.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others were killed by a suspected drunk driver Thursday, a shocking end to the life of a rookie who had overcome major elbow surgery to realize his big league dreams.”

“No…”

Nick Adenhart was a passenger in a silver Mitsubishi Eclipse that was broadsided in an intersection about 12:30 a.m. by a minivan that apparently ran a red light, police said.”

“Shit”

The impact spun around both vehicles, and one then struck another car but that driver was not hurt, police said.

The minivan driver fled the crash on foot and was captured about 30 minutes later.

At this point, you might as well as yank out my vocal cord and staple my lips together. I just received the worst kind of shock – the shock of reality.

I don’t want to read any more. I don’t want to…. I don’t want to absorb any more letters from the page. I scroll down as fast as I can to get to the bottom. My finger gets caught on the lower wheel. The page stops toward the end of the article. A sentence flashes into my sight.

Adenhart died in surgery at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center.”

I cannot get away. This is actual news. There is no use trying to deny it. Nick is gone. He is never going to be an All-Star pitcher. He is never signing on the dotted line for a multimillion dollar contract. He will not be in the team shuttle to Baltimore when you head to the Camden Yards to see Angels vs. Orioles. He is going to lie flat as a dead body that doesn’t know what it used to be.

I see the video of Adenhart’s agent, Scott Boras, at a press conference. He is grimacing, one eye fully closed, another half, in front of a microphone. His face is splashed in an octopus red and his hand tightly squeezes a handkerchief. It’s wet with tears. I should be mirroring that image right now. But I just can’t cry. I feel like someone just thumped all the feelings out of me. I just can’t cry.

I tell myself, there Sung Min, there. Just keep on working hard as Nick told you because that’s what he would’ve wanted you to do. I had just quit baseball last month after not making the varsity team. Then work harder on something else! But what if he wanted me only to be good at baseball? He would’ve liked seeing me on the mound or hitting home runs. You gotta move onto something else you like, Sung Min.

I did move on to something I like. The year after, I enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park. I am about to graduate as a journalism major and creative writing minor. Instead of playing baseball, I write about it. I’m lucky enough to be writing for one of my favorite websites RiverAveBlues, a Yankees blog partnered with the YES Network.

I do have to admit – it’s still tough to get by every April 9. Nick Adenhart, someone who could have been a well-recognized name in the big leagues right now, is not only out of the league, but out of our lives. Every time I see Jered Weaver pitch, I remember that he named his son “Aden” as a tribute to his fallen ex-teammate. Every time I see Miguel Gonzalez pitch, I feel warm and fuzzy inside that he wore the Rawlings glove that Nick Adenhart gave to him. As for myself, I may not have even broken into a high school varsity team, but I’m pretty happy that I found what I like and am able to work hard with it.

Every now and then, when I get stuck in a rut, I think of Nick, and what he told me. It may not be baseball, but it’s something that I like and want to be good at.

References & Resources


Sung-Min Kim writes for River Ave. Blues, and has written for MLB.com, The Washington Post, Baseball America and VICE Sports. Besides baseball writing, he is also passionate about photojournalism and radio broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter @sung_minkim.
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Rally
Guest
Rally

Very good article. Excuse me, as I now have to cry.

Frank
Guest
Frank

Thanks. Great story and really well written.

Relsh
Guest
Relsh

Impressive, moving article.

Jose Enciso
Guest

Nick is always in our hearts.
Rip Nick Adenhart, Henry Pearson, Courtney Stewart and, surviving passenger Jon Wilhite.

brad
Guest
brad

Sorry for your loss. I was in hs when Len Bias died so I understand your shock, but at least I’d never met him.

Erik
Guest
Erik

I remember that day very well. I had heard simply that somebody related to the Angels had died. I opened up the Angels website on my laptop in the middle of class with an ominous feeling in my stomach. When I saw that it was Nick my heart sunk as far as it ever has. It should’ve been anyone but Nick. We were about the same age – so young, so much promise, so much adversity, and so close to making it. He had opened up a lot of eyes the night before when he dominated Oakland – he would’ve… Read more »

Randy
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Randy

Great article. I felt much the same when I read about Oscar Tavares. It doesn’t matter what team you root for, the death of a young person is always a tragedy.

Angellfan
Guest
Angellfan

I appreciate reading about the youngster Nick Adenhart. He was the real deal. Prayer: “Requiem aeterum, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.” May he rest in peace. Mr. Adenhart’s car was smashed in downtown Fullerton on April 9, 2009. The immoral driver who caused the accident was sentence to 51 years in prison. Life is fragile, handle it with prayer.

David Scott
Guest
David Scott

I saw him pitch in spring training that year and was so excited over his prospects that I kept a scorecard of that game. After he won the game he pitched that very night, I was even more excited. Then, like you, I was shocked and horrified to see the news the next morning of his death.

Jim Atkins
Guest
Jim Atkins

We went to Opening Day that year. I have a shot of Nick when he was introduced. So tragic.