The Star Ledger – October 15, 2009 – Brian Costa – One hundred eighty-nine days have passed since the night that changed the Angelsâ€™ season. And not one has gone by without a reminder of Nick Adenhart.
His locker at Angel Stadium remains intact. His mural remains on the outfield wall. Patches bearing his name and uniform number, 34, remain stitched to their jerseys. And his own jersey hangs in the dugout during every game.
When the Angels begin the ALCS against the Yankees Friday night, they will be motivated by the memory of Adenhart, the 22-year-old pitcher killed by an alleged drunk driver on April 9.
â€œHeâ€™s definitely been with us the whole way, the entire season and so far in the playoffs,â€? reliever Kevin Jepsen said. â€œAnd heâ€™s going to continue to be with us every step of the way.â€?
Some players were close to Adenhart. Some hardly knew him. But all have paid tribute to him.
When the Angels clinched the AL West last month, they ran out to touch Adenhartâ€™s photo on the outfield wall at Angel Stadium and placed an unopened bottle of champagne by his locker. And as they have advanced through the playoffs, Adenhart has been a source of inspiration and even confidence.
â€œI can go out there feeling like thereâ€™s no pressure on me,â€? said catcher Bobby Wilson, who was one of Adenhartâ€™s best friends. â€œIâ€™ve got my best buddy in my heart right now. If I canâ€™t do it, I know heâ€™s going to help me out.â€?
Only a handful of teams in the history of professional sports have experienced what the Angels went through this year: the death of a teammate during the season.
Some of the most notable examples are the 1979 Yankees, who endured the death of captain Thurman Munson; the 2002 Cardinals, who lost pitcher Darryl Kile; and the 2007 Washington Redskins, who mourned the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor.
All were inspired to play on in memory of a fallen teammate. And while that motivation may not outweigh pitching, hitting and defense, a leading sports psychologist said it can have a powerful impact on a teamâ€™s play.
â€œIt can actually enhance the teamâ€™s performance if the meaningfulness of it is able to be synergized into a battle cry or a unifying theme to play for that player or to do what that player would want,â€? said John F. Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla. â€œIt almost adds a spiritual component to performance to have something like that.â€?
That doesnâ€™t make the loss of Adenhart any less devastating.
On April 8, he tossed six shutout innings against the Athletics at Angel Stadium to begin what appeared to be a promising season. It was only his fourth career major-league start, but already, Adenhart appeared to be a much-improved pitcher after giving up 12 runs in 12 innings in 2008. He earned a rotation spot in spring training, making him the youngest pitcher on a major-league roster, and the Angels had high hopes for him in 2009.
â€œI said last year he had all the talent in the world and couldnâ€™t figure it out,â€? said Rangers reliever Darren Oâ€™Day, a close friend of Adenhart and former Angels prospect. â€œThen he figures it out, and then six hours later, heâ€™s gone.â€?
Adenhart was killed along with two friends when their car was broadsided at an intersection near Angel Stadium. And the Angels have been playing with him in mind ever since.
Pitcher Scot Shields started the routine of bringing Adenhartâ€™s jersey down to the dugout before each game and hanging it over the Angelsâ€™ bench. When Shields went down with a season-ending knee injury in May, Jepsen took over the responsibility.
â€œHeâ€™s not necessarily on your mind while youâ€™re playing,â€? Jepsen said. â€œBut you never forget about him. Thereâ€™s always times when in between the games and everything, at least for me, heâ€™ll pop up in my mind.â€?
As Jepsen spoke Thursday, sitting in front of his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, Adenhartâ€™s jersey hung in an otherwise empty locker a few feet away.
It will be there for the rest of the ALCS. If the Angels reach the World Series, they will continue to take it on the road with them. And if they win the World Series, they will give Adenhartâ€™s family a full share of the bonus players receive, along with a championship ring.
â€œIt just shows you what kind of guy Nick is,â€? Wilson said. â€œA lot of guys, they love him and they only knew him a short amount of time. It just shows Nickâ€™s character and his upbringing. This group of guys, weâ€™re moving toward one common goal, and we have the inspiration of Nick within all of us.â€?
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