Angels flourished with Adenhart in mind

9/29/2009 - Los Angeles Angels

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The signed hats, photographs and paintings still sit in a memorial circle outside the entrance to the stadium. Fans still bring flowers and pause to say prayers.

His corner locker in the Angels clubhouse is still full of his things, looking much the way it did on the April night he pitched six scoreless innings against the Athletics, on the April night he was tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver in nearby Fullerton, Calif.

His jersey still hangs in the dugout each night. His image, around which his teammates gathered for a group picture late Monday night, is still on the center-field wall at Angels Stadium. His fellow Angels still wear his No. 34 in a black circle patch on their jerseys.

Nick Adenhart is still here.

He's with his teammates each time they dress and take the field, each time they celebrate a big win or swallow a tough loss. He was with them as they claimed their third consecutive American League West division title Monday night, his jersey doused with champagne along with everyone else's. And he will be with them as they begin their quest for the organization's second World Series title when the American League Division Series opens next week.

"We think about him every day," veteran Angels pitcher John Lackey said recently. "The feeling -- how happy we were for him the way he pitched that night back in April, how much it hurt to lose him -- that won't ever go away. We don't want it to go away."

Their pain has been nothing compared to the pain of Adenhart's parents and family, of course. "It's not about us. It's about the Adenhart family and what they're going through," Angels manager Mike Scioscia stressed before a recent game in September. "It's about the empty chair in their house at Christmas and Thanksgiving." But the Angels were reeling in the days and weeks after their young teammate's death.

"We lost a brother," center fielder Torii Hunter said last week. "He was here and then he was gone. None of us had ever been through anything like that. We walked around in a daze, like we were numb."

Baseball didn't seem to matter. Life was so much bigger, so much more fragile than the game. Strike out with runners in scoring position. Give up a game-changing home run. Boot a routine grounder. Win. Lose. What difference did any of it make? How could you care about any of that? Nick was gone and nothing would bring him back.

"It hit all of us all at once," Hunter said. "We realized in a way we never really had before that life was so much more important than baseball and we took that on the field with us, I think. It was rough. We struggled."

Sometime in the middle of May, Scioscia called a meeting. The team had to play hard. The players had to commit themselves to the game. They were carrying heavy hearts. They would never forget. They would look at Nick's locker each time they came in the clubhouse and be reminded. But they had to play baseball. They had to appreciate the privilege they had to play the game.

"Nick was a competitor," Hunter explained. "We had to remember that. We had to remember that he was someone who would want us to go out there and fight every night."

It's not that you play for him. It's not some hollow, clichéd Gipper thing.

"I don't want it to fuel us," Lackey said. "We don't think that way. None of us wants that fuel or that inspiration. We want Nick back. We want him here."

Torii Hunter It hurt so much. It was a crushing blow. But it taught us how much we meant to each other. How much we felt for Nick and how much we felt for each other. … Every time we step on the field we have a different fire. We're trying to do it all together. We're sad. We're so sad. But there is a fire in us, too.

-- Angels center fielder Torii Hunter

It's that you play with him. With his spirit. With his promise. With his heart.

"I talk to him at the start of every game," reserve infielder Brandon Wood, who played with Adenhart in the minor leagues at Salt Lake City, explained with a bittersweet smile before a recent game. "The national anthem plays and I say a prayer and I say a little something to Nick like 'Give us some hits, eh? Let's get it going, Bud.'"

As they grieved Adenhart's loss, the Angels turned toward one other. Their connection became something more than clubhouse chemistry and ballpark camaraderie.

"It hurt so much. It was a crushing blow," Hunter said. "But it taught us how much we meant to each other. How much we felt for Nick and how
much we felt for each other. There is a closeness with us I've never felt before. We lift each other up. Truly. We have each other's backs. All the way. Every time we step on the field we have a different fire. We're trying to do it all together. We're sad. We're so sad. But there is a fire in us, too."

Eventually the wins started to come. In bunches. Key players, including Lackey, Ervin Santana, Vladimir Guerrero and Hunter, got back on track after injuries. The team relished the chance to step between the lines and lay it on the line each day. And as spring turned into summer and summer turned into fall, a season that began with such great heartache began to look like it could end with some kind of real joy, too.

Ballplayers don't like to look ahead. The game demands that you stay trained on the task at hand, on tonight's game, on the next pitch or the next at-bat. And the Angels know they have a long way to go before they could get even a glimpse of a 2009 World Series ring. But it's impossible not to think about it, to imagine what it would be like to present Nick's parents with his ring, to share the moment with them, to know that your hopes and their hopes and his hopes were one.

"That's the dream," Hunter said. "That's the story you hope you can write now."

"I've thought about it," Lackey admitted. "How cool it would be to give them a ring. It would be pretty awesome."

But as good as that would feel, as healing as it might be for the players on this team, and even in some way for the Adenhart family, it would never erase the hurt.

Like Nick, like those hats and photographs outside the park, like that jersey in the dugout, that hurt is still here. Always will be.

"You know what I really wish for? What I really think about?" Lackey said. "How much I would rather have Nick here to give his parents that ring himself."

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.