Nick Adenhart grinned in that shy, off-hand manner of his and told me he liked my sweater. I thanked him and told him I’d try to find one just like it for him. He might have thought I was kidding, but I was serious. It was going right to the top of my to-do list.
I wanted to go over to his locker after the group interview on Wednesday night at Angel Stadium for a few private minutes with him, to let him know how happy I was for him. I’d developed a lot of affection for him these past few years, and it had been painful to watch him struggle when he came up last May, searching for the right stuff and not finding it. He wasn’t quite ready, maybe, but he had complete confidence that he would figure it out. I could see that. I wasn’t worried about Nick. He had courage and confidence to go with the tools. He was going places. It was just a matter of time.
Now, in his fourth Major League start, he’d shut out the A’s for six innings, using not just his physical gifts but the knowledge and intelligence he’d acquired over a winter of intently studying his craft. But I had other interviews to do and a story to go write, so I did what I do. I’d have a nice sit-down with Nick next chance I got.
A few hours later, having pitched a game that I was convinced was going to be his springboard to a long, successful career and certain stardom, he was struck down in one of those senseless accidents. Nick Adenhart, who I’d grown to care so much about, was gone.
I’ve been doing this, writing professionally about athletes and the games they play, for four decades. But I am not capable enough to express my grief over the news of Nick’s death. It is too deep, too profound. He was not just another talented young ballplayer with a big arm and a big future. He was a wonderful young man, one I’d have been proud to call a son. Or a son in law.
I have two daughters, no sons. In my travels as a sportswriter across the map over the years I have forged bonds with athletes from different angles and perspectives. There was a time, when I was young and full of life, that I socialized with some guys generous enough and adventurous enough to welcome me into their worlds. We had some good times.
As I got older, the relationship with young athletes evolved into something more paternal. With some athletes, such as Nick, I began to feel protective, as I would a son. There were times when they would confide in me and if they asked, I would offer advice, counsel. It had nothing to do with my work, really. It was about making connections with people I cared about. Nick certainly was one of these people, along with at least a dozen other young Angels.
Nick and I would have brief talks, occasionally a long one. This spring, stretching out at a table outside the clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium, he opened up about a variety of subjects. There was a shy quality about him I always found endearing, and I felt honored that he would confide in me.
The story I ended up writing was about how he’d spent the winter studying the masters on video, such legends as Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Nick was completely absorbed in becoming as good as he could be. He dreamed about being a big-league pitcher since he was 8 or 9 years old, and here he was, on the threshold.
It meant everything to him. I don’t mind admitting I was pulling hard for him.
Writing through tears is never easy. I weep for his family, for friends and teammates past and present, for anyone who had the good fortune to get to know Nick Adenhart.
He was a prince of a young man. I’m feeling empty and lost today knowing I won’t be having any more talks with Nick, and that I won’t go searching for another sweater like the blue/green one he took a fancy to on the night he showed that he had the right stuff to be a great Major League pitcher for many years to come.
Nick Adenhart was in trouble right out of the chute. He walked Jamey Carroll on four pitches, then fell behind Mark De Rosa 2-0 before the Indians’ third baseman lined a single to left center, sending Carroll to third.
This is where the new and improved Adenhart surfaced. Taking his time, along with deep breaths, Adenhart gathered himself, made good pitches to the heart of the order, and escaped unscathed. Victor Martinez grounded to Chone Figgins at third for an out at home. Travis Hafner, the muscular cleanup man, went down swinging on an off-speed delivery. Shin-soo Choo, who starred for Korea n the World Baseball Classic, popped out.
This is exactly how you want to respond to adversity if you’re a young pitcher trying to carve out a rotation spot on a championship-caliber team.
Adenhart, settling into a groove, retired six of the next seven he faced, with Ben Francisco beating out an infield hit.
Back-to-back-to-back. That’s what the Angels did on Thursday in their first look at Goodyear Ballpark, home of the Indians. Facing lefty Scott Lewis in the third inning after he’d already yielded two runs on four hits, Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter each went deep, using all fields — Abreu to center, Guerrero to right, Hunter to left.
Mike Scioscia once again had Chone Figgins, Howard Kendrick and Abreu at the top of the order, and through three innings they’d combined for a single and triple (by Figgins), a walk (by Kendrick, showing his plate discipline) and the blast by Abreu.
Showing he was fully recovered from the crash into the center field wall on Tuesday against the Rockies at home, Hunter lashed a double to left in his first at-bat. Even before his 400-foot shot to left, Hunter had lined a ball just foul into the left-field corner.
Jeff Mathis, catching Nick Adenhart, had two hits through two innings. Perhaps the best athlete among all catchers in the game, Mathis showed his speed when he stole second. This is a guy who could have been a defensive back at Florida State had he chosen football over baseball. How many catchers can say that?
On a gorgeous Sunday in Tempe, the mind wanders briefly, and here is what settles in: A massive deal involving the Angels and Padres.
Ten for two.
From Anaheim to San Diego go the following: Nick Adenhart, Dustin Moseley, Shane Loux, Kevin Jepsen, Erick Aybar, Freddy Sandoval, Matt Brown, Kendry Morales, Reggie Willits and Terry Evans.
From San Diego to Anaheim: Jake Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez.
The Padres get a new team, virtually, and the Angels have a powerhouse that causes tremors throughout the game.
Bud Black adds three starters (Moseley, Adenhart, Loux) while subtracing one. He gets a future closer in Jepsen. He gets a superlative shortstop in Aybar and a kid from Tijuana (Sandoval) who can play three infield positions and hit. He gets a quality corner infielder in Brown and a first baseman in Morales to replace Gonzalez. He gets an outfielder (Willits) who can play all three spots and will produce a 370-.380 on-base percentage and 40-50 steals leading off as an everyday player. And he gets a power hitter in Evans who can leave any yard.
Mike Scioscia gets one of the best pitchers alive in Peavy and a first baseman in Gonzalez who is very close to the equal of Mark Teixeira. The Angels still have plenty of quality reserves left over, owing to an astonishing stockpile of talent. Yes, they add payroll with Peavy and Gonzalez, but the long-term benefits are immense.
The Padres get almost 60 years worth of contracts at an immediate cost of roughly $4 million for the 2008 season. The Angels have Peavy and Gonzalez locked up for at least three more years apiece. This would not be a half-season of Teixeira.
Peavy gives the Angels the Majors’ dominant rotation; Gonzalez is a No. 4 hitter who, free of PETCO Parks dimensions, hits about 40 homers and drives in close to 140 runs behind Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero.
Win, win. Everybody wins, once Padres fans realize that even with fan favorites Peavy and Gonzalez, they are looking at potentially a long, long season. Guys like Aybar, Willits, Morales, Adenhart and Jepsen would form a solid foundation for years to come.
Granted, there’s not much likelihood something like this would come to pass. But hey, a guy can daydream, can’t he? Isn’t that what Spring Training is all about?