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TORII HUNTER walked into the home clubhouse at Angel Stadium last Friday night, jubilant after a 6--3 victory over the Red Sox, when out of the corner of his right eye he saw the T-shirts and jerseys hanging neatly in a locker, the cleats and sandals arranged side by side on a shelf, the iPod and headphones shoved haphazardly into a cubby.
When a player dies, some teams empty the locker. Others encase it in glass. In the case of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, his family tidied up, took a couple of keepsakes but basically left the locker just as he had. "You come in here, and all you see is that name—Adenhart," said Hunter, the Angels' centerfielder. "This whole year we might be looking over there like, 'When is this dude going to walk back in?'"
Adenhart's life ended the same night it peaked. On April 8, in his fourth major league start, he threw six scoreless innings against the A's, by far the best performance of his brief career. Afterward pitching coach Mike Butcher asked the 22-year-old how the ball felt coming off his fingertips, a question that Butcher had asked often but Adenhart was never able to fully comprehend. "Butch," Adenhart replied. "I've got it."
Little more than two hours later, at about 12:30 a.m., he was struck by an allegedly drunk driver, Andrew Thomas Gallo, who ran a red light. Gallo, 22, had been driving with a suspended license and, authorities say, a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit.
"I feel like I got punched in the heart," Angels owner Arte Moreno said the next day. Agent Scott Boras, famous for his emotionless negotiating tactics, broke down and wept in a press conference before he could complete one sentence about his young client. Pitcher Dustin Moseley said he felt exactly the same as he did the day his father died five years ago. "I'm proud to know him," Moseley said. "I'm sure God's proud to know him too."
Major league baseball has lost two pitchers to car accidents in the past two years, but the circumstances were vastly different. When Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock died in April 2007, he was driving drunk, using his phone and in possession of marijuana. Adenhart was in the passenger's seat of his silver Mitsubishi with three friends, half a block from a dance club where they were going to celebrate. Of the four people in the car, three died. Jon Wilhite, 24, a former catcher at Cal State--Fullerton, was hospitalized. Gallo was charged with three counts of murder.
For a franchise that has only been in existence since 1961 the Angels have endured an inordinate amount of tragedy. Infielder Chico Ruiz died in a car accident in 1972, as did relief pitcher Bruce Heinbechner in 1974 and shortstop Mike Miley in 1977. Outfielder Lyman Bostock was shot and killed in 1978, and reliever Donnie Moore shot his wife and then committed suicide in 1989.
Adenhart was among the best prospects in the Angels system—Baseball America ranked him the No. 1 high school player in the country before his senior season at Williamsport High in Maryland—but he was largely unknown outside of the Baltimore and Los Angeles areas. He was thrust into the Angels' rotation this spring because of injuries to John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar. The Angels described Adenhart as a polite and soft-spoken rookie, just starting to find his groove on the mound and his voice in the clubhouse. He had called his father, Jim, in Maryland the day before his first start of the season and told him, "You better come here because something special is going to happen." Jim was there to see his son stand triumphantly on the mound at Angel Stadium. The next day, when the Angels postponed their game against the A's, Jim was on that same mound, in an empty stadium, staring up at the heavens.
The Angels hung a photo of Adenhart on the centerfield fence, and when Hunter jogged out to his position after a moment of silence last Friday, he placed his hand in the middle of the photo, just as he had placed his hand on Adenhart's chest before his outing against the A's. "Baseball is our safe haven," Hunter said. "It's a place you can go and not have any problems."