Awakening here in Western Maryland on this bright and sunny spring morning, it strikes me as to how similar it is to this date five years ago – a date that folks in the Williamsport / Hagerstown area will never forget. This is the day that local baseball star Nick Adenhart was killed in California after making his first start of his rookie season for the Los Angeles Angels and pitching six scoreless innings. He was age 22.
The news of the tragedy of a talented young life so wrongly snuffed out by a drunk driver filtered rather quickly through the community, as news of this sort is wont to do. Nick was a friend and high school classmate of the third of my five sons at Williamsport High School, class of 2004. Deepening the sadness of this day was the extraordinarily odd circumstance of two other local boys from the same class also dying before the day was over – one in a fall in a construction accident, and the other as a result of a motorcycle accident. The grief in this community was palpable.
Everyone knew for years in advance that Nick was going to be a pro baseball player. Never had there been a little league pitcher in these parts quite like Adenhart. It was clear – this kid was a special talent. My son who was a classmate of Nick had played junior league football with him in 7th and 8th grades. I remember one occasion where Nick – the quarterback, of course – was injured and lying on the field. His parents were seated in the row behind me in the stands, and I remember his father saying, “Nick, just move your right arm, we can fix anything else, just let me see the right arm move.” It did! He was fine. But he did not play football in high school because of the risks involved, and also to play four years for the Oriolelanders – a showcase team of young talent sponsored by the Orioles.
I coached cross country and track at Williamsport High School where Nick played ball for the Wildcats. The baseball field is close to the track, and when Nick would pitch, I’d occasionally walk over and watch some of the game. It was amazing velocity for such an easy motion. And it was honestly as much fun to observe the scouts watching the game as to see Nick play. It was not unusual for there to be 20 to 30 scouts following him. With every pitch he threw, several dozen radar guns would rise in unison like a firing squad ordered to take aim.
Adenhart was expected to be one of the probable top picks in 2004, having been selected by Baseball America as the top junior player in the country. But near the end of his senior year, he hurt his arm pitching – requiring Tommy John surgery. Naturally, his stock plummeted. The Angels took him in the 14th round. They paid for his surgery and set him up in Arizona on a program of recovery under their tutelage.
It worked! He recovered everything and more! He was ready to fulfill the dream and give fruition to the investment made by the Angels’ organization in him. Then came the drunk in the 2,000-pound bullet.
The baseball field at the Halfway Little League where Nick played is now called Adenhart Field. His battery mate throughout little league and high school – David Warrenfeltz – played Division 1 college baseball at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and has now returned to our community as a 4th-grade teacher and the head coach for Williamsport High School baseball. He was named “the coach of the year” in our area in his first season with a team that went 17-5.
The next year – in 2012, at the end of a .500 season, his best pitcher and player Brandon Colliflower was killed in a car crash before the beginning of the state playoffs. Warrenfeltz was tasked with the challenge of bringing the boys of his team through the sadness of the tragedy that had befallen them. He had some personal experience in grief management. Not only did they work through it, they surprised the whole state by sweeping through the playoffs to state championship – winning the final game on a suicide squeeze!
Great sports stories and books have been written with less compelling plots and drama than the real-life “angels in the outfield” story from our little Williamsport community. It is quite a story – one that has been picked up nationally by Sports Illustrated in a documentary.
Today, Miguel Gonzalez starts for the Baltimore Orioles against the Yankees. Miguel and Nick were friends in the Angels organization, and Gonzalez used a glove from Adenhart for his first start with the O’s when Miguel had made it all the way back from his own circuitous route through the minor leagues and Mexican baseball.
Nick will always be remembered here – as much and more for his antics than his incredible baseball talent. He was one of those people with a knack for seeing and identifying any little idiosyncrasy in another person, and then lampooning it in the most hilarious and good-natured way. He did this of people ranging from the imitable personality of Mr. Dzur – eccentric Williamsport High School math teacher – to Angels Manager Mike Scoscia, whom he had (behind his back) nailed perfectly, according to the players who attended his memorial service in 2009.
Life is short, even when lived a long time. Treasure the moments friends, and invest in things eternal.