Nick Adenhart, the Angels' 22-year-old starting pitcher, had been primed for this moment ever since Baseball America named him the best high school pitcher in the country six years ago. But such titles can be burdensome and Adenhart suffered a devastating elbow injury in his final high school game, struggled with command in the minor leagues and seemed to lack confidence in his breaking pitches.
When he made his major league debut last May against the Oakland A's, he was nowhere near ready, and did not get out of the third inning. But when he prepared for a rematch with the A's on Wednesday night, he looked and sounded completely different. He called his father, Jim, in Maryland on Tuesday and told him: "You better come here because something special is going to happen."
Father and son went to lunch in Orange County on Wednesday afternoon and spread the A's batting order out on the table, analyzing how Adenhart would attack each hitter. With the count 1-1 on Giambi in the fifth, Adenhart threw two changeups, a startling display of confidence for a rookie pitcher facing a hitter with 396 career home runs. Even Giambi was taken aback. Adenhart struck him out on consecutive changeups and left the game after six scoreless innings, by far the best performance of his career.
Standing in the basement of Angel Stadium afterward, the wiry and soft-spoken right-hander tried to act cool, but it was impossible. His manager, Mike Scioscia, told him he was a major leaguer now. His agent, Scott Boras, told him he had "lats like a linebacker," a credit to his offseason workout routine. Even A's outfielder Matt Holliday, suffering from the flu, stopped by and told Adenhart that he was relieved not to have been in the starting lineup against him. At about 11 p.m., Boras said goodbye to his young client. "He was not a player on the verge," Boras said. "He had arrived."
Little more than ninety minutes later, he was gone, about as quickly as he had emerged. A major league pitcher died Thursday morning after a suspected drunk driver plowed into his silver Mitsubishi Eclipse at the intersection of Orangethorpe Ave. and Lemon St. in Fullerton, eight miles from Angel Stadium. The driver, like the pitcher, was 22. Adenhart was in the passenger's seat, accompanied by three friends who were on their way to a nightclub to celebrate. The accident took place a half block from the club. Three of them died and a fourth remains hospitalized.
On Thursday afternoon, the mangled Eclipse was still sitting on the sidewalk at Orangethorpe and Lemon, surrounded by caution tape and a dozen policemen. There was a makeshift shrine across the street and another at the entrance to Angel Stadium, filled with red roses, baseball caps, rally monkeys, foam fingers and a sign scrawled in children's handwriting that read: "One More Angel in Heaven."
With Thursday's game postponed, it was Boras who gave grief a voice. Speaking in a press conference at Angel Stadium, and holding a handkerchief next to his cheek, he could not get through so much as his first sentence without breaking down. Usually, fans only see Boras at press conferences announcing hundred-million-dollar contracts for superstar players. Here, he was reconciling the death of a player many had never even heard of. Baseball's master negotiator, famous for his smooth bargaining tactics and meticulous free-agent presentations, could not stop clearing his throat and dabbing his eyes. It was a side of Boras, candid and sentimental, that is rarely revealed.
Walking out of the stadium, he said: "You know me, I like to be prepared. I wasn't prepared for this." Boras has three children, two of them boys, and both are ballplayers. One is a second baseman at USC. "You keep internalizing this because you have your own children, your own kids who play baseball," Boras said. "You share the same moments with them that Nick shared with his dad."
The Adenharts have lost a son and the Angels have lost a one-time prospect who on Wednesday night became a legitimate major league pitcher, a valuable part of their rotation, perhaps a key to their playoff hopes. Boras will still go to their games and sit in his suite behind home plate. But the team he watches will never be the same.