- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The women brought white potted lilies and set them on the ground beside bouquets and balloons, among lit candles and signed jerseys and caps outside the stadium. The men knelt to whisper prayers and take pictures. They gathered in a wide, quiet circle. Mothers and fathers, daughters and sons.
Groundskeepers tamped down the dirt on the pitcher's mound in four heavy beats.
Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher sat on a dais in front of a room full of reporters on the fourth floor of the stadium and remembered how, not so long ago, young Nick Adenhart, struggling with his command, couldn't even find the words to describe what the ball felt like coming out of his hands. The kid would split his index and middle fingers like the tips of a snake's tongue and wiggle them up and down, Butcher said, smiling. And then, barely able to speak himself, Butcher described the moment Wednesday night when the 22-year-old Adenhart sat down beside him in the dugout, after throwing six shutout innings against the Oakland A's in his first start of the new season, and said, as if the clouds had parted, "Butch I got it."
Anaheim pitcher Dustin Moseley, a teammate of Adenhart's at Triple-A Salt Lake City, had seen him struggle last year, when he was sent back down after getting beat up a bit in three big league starts. Wednesday night, in the postgame locker room, after the Angels had given up a late lead and fallen to the A's, Moseley came by Adenhart's locker two different times to pat him on the back.
"I was so proud of him," he explained at Friday afternoon's news conference. "Everyone who knows Nick, they're all proud. I'm proud to know him. I'm sure God's proud to know him too right now."
Seagulls flew west past the left-field foul pole and cars moved north and south on the 57 freeway out beyond the center-field fence.
The fungo bat in Mike Scioscia's hands looked like an oversized amulet, here to fend off sorrow. He flipped it from hand to hand, sitting on the bench in the Angels' dugout, looking out at the field. What had happened was so much bigger than baseball.
"I just know all of us right now are just trying to let guys know it's OK to have the feelings we're all having," he said. "To let them know that a heavy heart is certainly normal."
Vladimir Guerrero took swings in the batting cage as Scioscia spoke. Howie Kendrick and Chone Figgins played catch along the third-base line. A group of pitchers high-stepped near the left-field corner. Mike Napoli took one-armed swings at balls on a tee behind home plate. Maybe the game, in its rhythms, in its simple habits, could be a kind of comfort. Maybe, though it wouldn't be enough, it would be something.
"You play baseball," Scioscia said. "And this game of baseball has a way of focusing you."
Angels owner Arte Moreno hugged Scioscia and hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. Red Sox DH David Ortiz came over to put his arm around Moreno's shoulder, and tell him he wanted to meet Adenhart's parents after the game if he could, just to offer his condolences.
Major League Baseball's "Opening Week 2009" logo, painted in the grass behind home plate, still looked fresh.
Drops of rain sprinkled down through the stadium lights for just a moment.
Angels bench coach Alfredo Griffin threw a ball against the netting that protects the seats at field level along the first-base side, catching the bounce-backs on the fly with one hand and throwing them back again and again. Jered Weaver walked in from the Angels' bullpen, only his right arm slipped into the arm of his warm-up jacket. The crowd rose and applauded. Maybe they wondered whether they could make that walk. Maybe they knew they couldn't.
Without a word of ceremony, players and coaches lined up after the singing of the national anthem, the Red Sox along the first-base line and the Angels along the third-base line. They removed their caps while John Lackey and Torii Hunter walked to the mound, each holding a corner of one of Adenhart's jerseys. You could hear the electrical buzz of the light standards high above the stadium. The wind fluttered the flags flying at half-mast behind the concourse beyond the right-center-field wall.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please join us in a moment of silence in honor of Nick, Courtney, Henry and their families," Bill Hulett said across the public address system, as pictures of all three victims of the terrible car accident appeared on the giant video screen beyond the right field wall. And then, "Thank you. Let's play ball."
Hunter ran out to the right-field wall, where a photo of Adenhart had been hung, and gave the kid a fist-to-chest bump, the way he had Wednesday night before Adenhart's last start.
Weaver, who was due to move in with Adenhart this coming weekend, walked to the hill and drew his friend's initials in the dirt before stepping to the rubber.
And then they played. And Weaver was marvelous, going 6 2/3 innings, giving up only four hits, and striking out eight.
"I wanted to give this time to Nick," he said later. "You know he's looking down on you."
And Bobby Abreu collected three hits. And Guerrero and Mathis had two each. And as a team they stole four bases, leaving nothing to chance, and went on to win 6-3.
When it was over, Angels fans lingered to look at a live shot of Adenhart's jersey hanging in the Angels' dugout.
Fireworks went off, as they do every Friday night during the regular season.
Scioscia sat in his office just off the team's locker room and said, though he was glad to get a win, as soon as the game ended he thought about Nick and about his parents.
"Anything we're feeling pales in comparison to what the Adenharts are going through," he said. "We lost a teammate and a friend. They lost a son."
Guerrero sat quietly in front of his locker, an ice pack on his right shoulder.
Weaver and Moseley embraced, tears in their eyes.
Scot Shields, who got the save Friday night, collapsed on a couch in front of the last television, trying to lose himself in the last few outs of an A's-Mariners game.
Hunter explained to a group of reporters the surreal feeling of seeing Adenhart's face on the outfield wall: "You can't believe it."
On the other side of the room, Adenhart's locker stood much as it had just two nights ago, jerseys and pants on hangers, cleats and gloves on the floor.
On the shelf beneath the clothes was the lineup card from his outing Wednesday night. It will remain that way throughout the season, team officials said.
Reliever Kevin Jepsen, another who had come up through the minors with Adenhart, has the locker next to Nick's.
"We'll never forget him," he said, trying to smile. "We know he's around."
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
1hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com