Nick Adenhart: A prodigy dies young
Disbelief cracked the voices of players and coaches who knew Nick Adenhart as a child star on the fields of Washington County. It wasn't just that a 22-year-old had died senselessly in a violent auto crash. It was that, in baseball circles around Hagerstown, Adenhart was the 22-year-old, a kid who had been touched by some cosmic wand.
Even as an adolescent, he threw far, far harder than the other boys, remembered his high school catcher, David Warrenfeltz. Everyone who cared a lick about baseball knew his name by the time he was 10 years old.
Adenhart knew he was good but carried his talent with unassuming grace, Warrenfeltz said. The star liked being one of the guys. One summer, the boys dug up Warrenfeltz's back yard to make a Wiffle ball field. They cut up his mother's boots to make a catcher's mitt.
Warrenfeltz's mind turned to such innocent moments after he heard the news of his friend's death. "Just little stuff," he said. "Like riding our bikes to go and buy baseball cards."
Rod Steiner met Adenhart as a physical education teacher in middle school. After Adenhart spent his freshman and sophomore years in private school, pursuing basketball, he returned to Williamsport High to pitch for Steiner's team.
Steiner remembered a playoff game during Adenhart's junior year when he pitched a no-hitter but lost 1-0. The prodigy did not harangue his less-gifted teammates, whose defensive miscues had cost him.
"He was the most talented kid I've ever been around, but he was very team-oriented," the coach said.
Adenhart opened the next season against the same team and pitched a perfect game. "He wanted to shut you down, and he had a lot of belief that he could do it," Warrenfeltz said.
By then, Adenhart had the curveball and mound instincts to match his mighty fastball. Baseball America deemed him the best high school pitcher in the country. Scouts flocked to Williamsport by the dozens. High school games that might normally draw 20 spectators attracted 500 or 1,000 when Adenhart pitched. Classmates took to hanging K signs on the outfield fence to keep up with his two strikeouts an inning.
Then, in a late-season game, Adenhart felt his elbow pop. Warrenfeltz trudged to the mound. "No more curveballs," the ace said. "Something's not right."
"It was the first time I had ever heard him talk like that or seen him have any doubt on the mound," Warrenfeltz recalled. "I just got the sickest feeling, because the draft was only a few weeks away. I had never heard him talk like that."
Adenhart was right about his elbow. He needed Tommy John surgery. A sure slot in the first round was gone, just like that.
He could've turned away from the game but didn't. In fact, he finished the season at designated hitter and helped Williamsport to the brink of a state title. The Angels took him in the 14th round and paid him a $710,000 bonus, a smart risk because the prodigy attacked rehabilitation with the same businesslike demeanor he had brought to pitching.
He became a top prospect all over again and debuted in the big leagues last year. Whenever he visited home, however, he was the same guy. He and Warrenfeltz, now a senior catcher at UMBC, shot hoops or just hung out.
Nothing could stop Nick Adenhart, or so it seemed to the people who had watched him grow up. Certainly, his Los Angeles teammates and coaches are stunned. His agent, the supposedly villainous Scott Boras, wept at his passing. But the people who watched him at Williamsport lost a near-mythic figure. Guys who inspire tall tales aren't supposed to die in car wrecks at 22. They just aren't.
"The community here is shook up," Steiner said. "He put us on the map."