Thursday, April 10, 2014

Remembering Nick Adenhart. 5 Years Later

April 8, 2009: Another beautiful night in Southern California, especially for baseball. Especially for an Angels fan. A new face was making his 2009 debut on the mound, a 22-year-old kid from Maryland.
I got to the stadium early, sat in the empty stands and looked at the full moon hanging so large in the sky that I wanted to reach out and touch it.
Then I saw the kid - youthful and exuberant - jogging out to the bullpen to warm up. Nick Adenhart only had 1 major league victory, ironically on May 12, 2008 (my birthday).
He had a terrific spring in 2008 and made the starting rotation. I looked down, saw his jersey, and noticed his jersey number: 34.
I nudged my then-girlfriend (now fiancee) and pointed at Adenhart.
"He's going to be be here for a while," I said. She looked down and asked, "Why do you say that?" "Because he's got a real number and not some really high number."
We then settled in to watch Adenhart pitch well enough to win, but the bullpen blew the lead late, denying him the victory. We left, saddened by the loss, but encouraged by the future of this young pitcher and future staff ace.

April 9, 2009: I was working the Breaking News shift at the Orange County Register.That meant coming in at 6 a.m. and reporting about various crimes, accidents and other incidents around Orange County. On this morning my editor, Tom Gordon, told me that there had been a huge crash in Fullerton overnight and people had died.

I made phone calls and posted a quick story that was picked up by other outlets.  As the minutes ticked by, I started to gets calls. The first call was from someone who told me that one of the people in the car was a member of the Angels cheerleaders. Then I got a call that one of the people in the car was a member of the Angels. Then I got a call from Maryland from one of Adenhart's family members asking for information. I called family members who said the Angels would make a statement. The Angels had no comment.

By 7:30 a.m., I had no offical confirmation of who was in the car, but AM 830 - the Angels radio - and KTLA/5 were claiming that Adenhart was in the car. We had to make a decision: Go with reports and stay on top of the story or play catch-up. We called Editor Ken Brusic, who let us make the call. We decided to go with what we had and cite sources claiming Adenhart was in the car.

The Angels held a press conference confirming Adenhart was killed, along with two friends, with another seriously injured. While my colleagues went to the crash site, the hospital and Angel Stadium and called in information, I complied it and wrote update after update after update.

There comes a point in any reporter's work where they forget about the impact of what they're writing about and focus on the story. I was in that zone of putting it together - forgetting about the kid that I saw pitch hours earlier, forgetting about how he and two others lost their lives. Instead, I was focused on telling the story: What happened to cause the crash? What happened to the driver of the other vehicle? Who was with Adenhart in the car and where were they going?

The story was a tragedy: A rising star going to celebrate with his friends. The driver of the minivan, a convicted drunken driver who was attempting to get his life together, was out drinking to celebrate getting a job. He got so drunk that he went from LA County to Fullerton (a place he'd never been) and ended up changing the lives of so many people.

After a 12-hour day, I filed one more story and went home. As I drove home, the impact of what happened finally hit me. The loss of life - combined with my personal feelings of seeing Nick Adenhart pitch and seeing the promise his life had suddenly ripped away - left me in tears.

April 10, 2009: I came back in and worked with co-workers to piece together the aftermath of the tragedy. I wrote a story about the driver of the minivan being charged and how the Angels were planning to honor Adenhart.

I wrote stories about the preliminary hearings and went to the funeral service of Courtney Stewart, who was driving the car with Adenhart.

I had never personally met Nick Adenhart, but I felt connected to him through my work. I felt that telling the story allowed me to have a little part of honoring Adenhart through the tragedy of the loss of his life.

I went to my first Angels playoff game later that year. The Angels were playing the Yankees and were trailing late in the game. I looked up and said, "Nick, any help you can give would be appreciated."
A calm spread over me and I sat back and watched the Angels rally to win the game.

On the first anniversary of the crash, I went to the crash site and left a note. Five years later, I still mark the death of Nick Adenhart. It is the one story that has stayed with me despite the distance of time.