On Thursday morning, just hours after pitching six shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics, 22-year-old Angels hurler Nick Adenhart was killed in a hit-and-run automobile accident.
This unspeakably tragic and senseless event has reverberated throughout the Minor Leagues on Opening Day. An all-encompassing occasion, usually looked upon as a time of hope and renewal, has instantly been transformed into an afterthought -- Adenhart's passing has put into perspective just how fleeting life can be.
Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery at age 17, Adenhart was able to rocket through the Angels' Minor League system. He made his professional debut in 2005 with the Rookie-level Arizona League Angels and logged time with short-season Orem, Class A Cedar Rapids, Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga, Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake before making his debut with Anaheim last season. His time at each destination may have been limited, but he made a distinctly positive impression every step along the way.
Adenhart spent the majority of 2008 with the Salt Lake Bees, and a sizable majority of the club's Opening Day roster this season were teammates of his. On Thursday afternoon, while still absorbing the shock of the tragedy, close friend and roommate Brad Coon spoke about the kind of person that Adenhart was.
"We met in 2006 and lived together every season, and he was in my wedding this offseason," Coon said. "Nick had hit his stride. It was amazing to see how much he had learned from the time he was 19 until the time he was 22. He had the greatest sense of humor of anyone I knew... and would do anything for anybody.
"I liked pretty much everything about him," Coon added. "We'd sit there on the couch playing video games and he would want to win so bad. We'd talk smack back and forth and just have so much fun. It was great to have someone like that. We'd always be there for each other, to back one another up."
"Hearing about Nick, it was like getting hit in the stomach," Bees third baseman Matt Brown said. "He had his whole future in front of him. It was always great to hang out with him -- there was nothing negative you could say. He was just the guy everyone wanted to be around."
Adenhart won a lot of admirers in Salt Lake as he was able to keep a level head throughout his roller-coaster '08 season. After a sizzling April with the Bees, he received a promotion to the Angels and pitched ineffectively over three starts. He returned to Salt Lake and struggled for the remainder of the season.
"Nick was just a pleasure to work with," Bees manager Bobby Mitchell said. "He was so down-to-earth that nothing seemed to bother him. If things were good or if things were bad, he was always the exact same person."
As Mitchell spoke on Thursday afternoon, he was just minutes away from departing for Salt Lake's Spring Mobile Ballpark. There, he faced the unenviable task of addressing a clubhouse full of grief-stricken players. Salt Lake postponed its game with Reno on Thursday afternoon in the wake of Adenhart's death.
"We're definitely a big family, and we'll address this as a family," Mitchell said. "It's something that we will have to deal with internally. There are different stages of grief, and some handle it better than others. It's things like this that make playing in a baseball game seem so unimportant."
Stressing the importance of family even further was Tom Kotchman, a veteran manager and scout in the Angels farm system.
"He was a respectful, very professional young man, and I know that he had a great support system at home with his family," said Kotchman. "He was also part of our family -- the Angels organization -- and when something like this hits one of your own, it hits hard. Nick was an Angel last night, and he's an angel right now."
Kotchman has managed over 2,800 ballgames in his long managerial career, but he said he'll always remember the one game Adenhart pitched for the Orem Owlz in 2005.
"Nick was called up to Orem at the end of the year, and it was a big game in the middle of the pennant race," he said. "He was pitching in front of a crowd for the first time, and not only was it a full house, but [former Angels GM] Bill Stoneman was in the stands. And he goes out there and pitches six scoreless innings, striking out seven, and we're all watching and just going 'wow.' There are certain outings in the Minors that I'll always remember, and that was one of them."
Adenhart created memories and left a positive impression wherever he went. In Cedar Rapids, Kernels GM Jack Roeder spoke fondly of the time he spent with the young hurler at the 2006 Midwest League All-Star Game.
"I remember being very impressed with what a nice young man he was," said Roeder. "This tragedy is just a reminder of how precious and fragile life is. I don't know who coined the term 'Live each day like it's your last,' but that's right on the money."
After tearing through Cedar Rapids in 2006, Adenhart moved up to the Arkansas Travelers the following season.
"He wasn't just a name and a face, he was a real personality," Travelers broadcaster Phil Elson said. "People in Little Rock knew who he was, because he liked talking to the fans. [He] knew how to make a connection."
Elson then summed up the feeling that persists not just in Little Rock, but in all of Minor League Baseball.
"It's often been said that life begins anew on Opening Day, but it's really tough to look at it that way today."