- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The baseball world will remember Nick Adenhart in eternal prospect mode -- easing into his smooth delivery, snapping off that hammer curveball and competing with a relentless edge that made him seem so seasoned and mature for one so young.
Teammates, of course, stockpile their own memories, and Brandon Wood's mind will flash back to a different image: That of Adenhart, his buddy, walking around the clubhouse with his headphones on, immersed in the latest hip-hop music that he'd just downloaded.
Last year, when the two players were teammates with Triple-A Salt Lake, Wood needed a "walkout'' song to herald his arrival from the on-deck circle to the batter's box. He mentioned it to Adenhart, the human iTunes catalog, who immediately hooked him up with something from The Notorious B.I.G. selection. If that's not a bonding moment, nothing is.
Fate, injuries and the vicissitudes of roster management put some distance between the two players this spring. When the Angels broke camp out of Arizona, Adenhart traveled to Anaheim with the big club, and Wood left for Salt Lake to play third base for the Bees. He was watching on TV on Wednesday night when Adenhart threw six shutout innings against Oakland, and a little voice inside him told him he'd just witnessed something special.
"I think [Wednesday] was the start of something that could have been great,'' Wood said. "I actually went to bed thinking, 'Nick is never going to see the minor leagues again.'''
It was on the way to the gym Thursday morning that Wood received a text message from a friend in Arizona.
"Have you heard about Adenhart? Is it true?'' the message read.
When Wood connected to the Internet through his cell phone, it didn't take long to confirm his sense of foreboding.
The tragic reality: Nick Adenhart was killed along with two other passengers in a hit-and-run traffic accident in Fullerton, Calif., early Thursday. And the sense of shock and numbness that Wood felt in the aftermath had very little to do with Adenhart's promise on the ballfield.
"It's hard to even believe,'' Wood said. "I never met a person who didn't like Nick.''
As news of Adenhart's passing spread, tributes and condolences rolled in from throughout the game. There were words of sympathy from the Players Association, Davey Johnson and Paul Seiler of Team USA baseball, commissioner Bud Selig and numerous big league clubs.
But the despair was particularly acute in Anaheim, where owner Arte Moreno has prided himself on the kind of continuity that fosters a family atmosphere.
"I've never had this kind of pain in my stomach,'' said Angels scouting director Eddie Bane. "Tears come down your face and they just don't stop. As adults, we think we're bulletproof sometimes, and we're not. It hurts, that's all.''
The postmortems in coming days will inevitably focus on Adenhart's baseball skills and seemingly limitless future in pro ball. He had cracked the big league roster at age 22, and seemed destined for a long, successful run at the front of the Angels' rotation.
He had come so far already, in part because of an almost dual persona off the field and between the lines. Nick Adenhart the person loved to laugh and he embraced the banter and camaraderie of the clubhouse. Nick Adenhart the pitcher was supremely confident and took no prisoners.
Alan Matthews, a scout for the Colorado Rockies, was covering high schools for Baseball America magazine in the spring of 2004 when Adenhart, a product of Williamsport High in Maryland, emerged as one of the top prep prospects in the nation. Adenhart, Mark Rogers of Maine and Jay Rainville of Rhode Island made for an unusually abundant pitching crop from the Northeast.
"He had a remarkable mound demeanor,'' Matthews said of Adenhart. "He was always very calm and collected regardless of the number of scouts who were behind the plate. He was very laid-back and kind of quietly confident when you talked to him. But he would cut your heart out when he was on the mound and he needed to make a pitch or get an out.''
There are a lot of people who are going to feel pretty down going to the park today. This is going to hit home in all the clubhouses.
"-- Brandon Wood, former teammate of Nick Adenhart
At the high school showcases, Adenhart was polite and respectful to the scouts, and intent on proving he was the best. He warmed to the big stage and the scrutiny that resulted from his status as an elite prospect.
That was never more evident than in Jupiter, Fla., at the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Championships. Adenhart was going head-to-head with Eric Hurley, another highly touted prospect, and one particular incident made a big impression on the scouts. It also stuck with University of North Carolina recruiting coordinator Chad Holbrook, who was working hard to make Adenhart a Tar Heel.
"Some kid tried to show him up, and the next pitch was 95 right by his ear hole,'' said Holbrook, now associate head coach at South Carolina. "When you talked to Nick, you didn't have the sense he had that in him. But there were 100 scouts there watching, and when he buzzed that poor kid, they were like, 'Whoa.' You knew who was in control.''
Adenhart, a 3.2 grade point average student with 1240 SAT scores in high school, planned to attend North Carolina, where he would have joined a rotation with pro prospects Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard. He visited the Chapel Hill campus during his senior year, attended a UNC-Duke basketball game and met the Tar Heel players, who warmed to him immediately.
Adenhart blew out his right elbow in May of his senior year and underwent Tommy John surgery before his 18th birthday, but that didn't scare off the Angels. Bane and area scout Dan Radcliff were convinced Adenhart would recover and be a front-of-the-rotation guy, and the Angels selected him in the 14th round and gave him a $710,000 signing bonus to dissuade him from attending college.
Holbrook still remembers the day when Adenhart called with the bittersweet news that he would be forsaking a UNC scholarship to turn pro.
"He was sort of sad to call me,'' Holbrook said. "He was worried what I would think, or if we would be mad at him. He had this dream of being a major league pitcher, but he didn't want to let anybody down. As hard as it was for him to call and tell us he was going to sign a professional contract, he did it the right way.''
There would be fits and starts to Adenhart's professional career. While the Angels exercised patience, Adenhart was intent on moving quickly through the chain. Last season was particularly challenging, with too many walks, a 9-13 record and a 5.76 ERA in Salt Lake.
But certain things remained constant. Adenhart's demeanor suggested a laid-back, Southern California "dude'' in the clubhouse. Then the game began, and he was all business.
"He had these puppy dog eyes,'' Bane said. "But on the mound, he was an assassin.''
If this brings even a smidge of comfort, Adenhart's performance in a 6-4 loss to Oakland marked a fitting epitaph to his baseball career. In the early innings, he fell behind several A's hitters and struggled with his command. But somewhere around the 60-pitch count, he developed a feel for his changeup and began mowing through the Oakland batting order.
"He battled his way through,'' said an American League scout who was at the game. "It was a testament to his toughness.''
Adenhart's friends and former teammates in the Angels' organization might need a bit of that toughness to get through this ordeal. His close friends in Salt Lake include outfielder Brad Coon, who invited Adenhart to be a groomsman at his wedding this offseason, and Wood, who was Adenhart's roommate during the Olympic qualifying team's trip to Cuba in 2006.
"Our beds were like three inches apart, and we were the only guys who didn't move them away from each other,'' Wood said. "We were like, 'Hey, this must be how it works.'''
Wood laughed at the memory, then braced for what's to come.
"There are a lot of people who are going to feel pretty down going to the park today,'' he said. "This is going to hit home in all the clubhouses.''
More than words can say.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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