It was supposed to be opening night at newly dubbed Spring Mobile Ballpark. The Salt Lake Bees and Reno Aces were scheduled to open the Pacific Coast League season at the stadium on Thursday night.
That all changed, however, when word reached Utah that former Bees pitcher Nick Adenhart had died from injuries suffered in an automobile collision early Thursday morning. The 22-year-old was a passenger in a car that
was hit by a van — reportedly driven by a drunken driver — that ran a red light in a Fullerton, Calif., intersection.
Two passengers died at the scene. Adenhart passed away during surgery at the UCI Medical Center in Orange on Thursday morning.
Hour earlier, he had thrown six shutout innings as a starter for the Los Angeles Angels against the Oakland Athletics.
"It's a sad day for the Bees and the Angels organization, very tragic," said Salt Lake manager Bobby Mitchell. "We're all, obviously, saddened by the loss of not only a great pitcher but a great person. We're all going to
miss him terribly.
"And I think it's fair to say that our team, here, will miss him more than anybody because he had a lot of friends on our team that have come up with him through the organization and were very close to him," he continued.
Adenhart spent most of the 2008 season pitching for Salt Lake. His unexpected death prompted both the Angels and Bees to postpone their games Thursday.
"It was really apparent that nobody was ready to play and, given the set of circumstances, it was just the right thing to do and not a difficult decision," said Bees general manager Marc Amicone, who noted that all parties involved were supportive of the action.
"This is a lot more important than a baseball game. I hope and believe our fans will understand this decision and will come back this weekend, the opening weekend, and help show their support of Nick," he continued. "This
is not just about the Salt Lake Bees or the Los Angeles Angels. This is about Nick and his teammates. We need to support these guys. It was the right thing not to play tonight."
Mitchell explained that the decision was made out of respect to Adenhart.
"It would have been very difficult to go out and play a game tonight with this on (the team's) mind," he said. "Opening Day is supposed to be a fun time and it kind of turned into something very difficult for everybody. I
think we did the right thing from an organizational standpoint."
The Bees plan to honor Adenhart with a moment of silence before tonight's season-opener. His Salt Lake jersey No. 32 will be placed on the team's uniforms and a locker in the clubhouse will be set aside in Adenhart's memory. In addition, the American flag at the stadium will fly at half-mast throughout the opening series.
"I think that will help everybody," said Mitchell. "He's not going to be forgotten, ever. But this, hopefully, will help people move on a little bit."
Adenhart worked his way up the majors after blowing out his elbow as a high school senior. The injury, which dropped him from a projected first-round draft pick to the 14th round, was so severe that it required Tommy John reconstructive surgery.
Following minor league stints in Orem, Cedar Rapids, Rancho Cucamonga and Arkansas, the 2003 Baseball America Youth Player of the Year reached the Triple-A level as a 21-year-old.
Adenhart's promotion to Salt Lake last season put him just one step away from his dream of playing in the majors.
"It's something I've been trying to realize since I was a little kid. So it's exciting," he told the Deseret News last spring. "I don't want to put too much pressure on myself. I understand what I can do and what I need to do."
Adenhart got off to a hot start in Salt Lake, going 4-0 with a 0.87 ERA in five April starts. He threw eight scoreless innings in a win over Fresno late in the month. Four days later, on May 1, the right-hander made his big
league debut with the Angels.
On May 12, Adenhart earned his first win in the majors with a victory over the Chicago White Sox. He later returned to Salt Lake and threw a shutout in the Bees' division-clinching win over Portland on Aug. 27.
The game was one of Mitchell's fondest memories of Adenhart, who said he was glad Salt Lake lost the night before so he could take the mound in the title-clinching game.
"That's kind of the way he was. He wanted to pitch in a big game and he was very effective, obviously, in that game," said Mitchell. "We clinched it and he was very happy."
Adenhart finished the season with Salt Lake, where he wound up going 9-13 with a 5.76 ERA. He bounced back from his struggles with a terrific spring, however, posting a 3-0 record with a 3.12 ERA with 18 strikeouts and
only five walks, to earn an opening day spot in the Angels' rotation.
"He came to spring training very focused and prepared," said Mitchell.
In the hours before his death, Adenhart made his fourth career start in the majors. He scattered seven hits and struck out five over six scoreless innings.
Seeing him pitch so well that night and then suddenly being gone the next morning, Mitchell noted, is difficult to comprehend. It's hard to believe such things can happen so fast, he remarked.
"The Angels family has suffered a tremendous loss today. We are deeply saddened and shocked by this tragic loss," said Angels general manager Tony Reagins. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Nick's family, friends, loved ones and fans."
Mitchell said Adenhart's father, Jim, attended Wednesday's game in Anaheim. It was the first time in about five years that he was able to watch his son pitch.
It proved to a bittersweet bright spot in a tragic situation that unfolded when Adenhart was heading home from the stadium.
"It's such a sudden thing that's happened that it's hard to deal with," said Mitchell, who acknowledged that several of Adenhart's former teammates were struggling with the news. "They're dealing with it the best they can,
but it's going to take some time to do that."
Mitchell led a team meeting Thursday afternoon where Adenhart's death was discussed.
"You could tell by their faces that they were very hurt and saddened by it," said Mitchell. "It was very difficult for me ... Everyone was just kind of numb."
Mitchell watched Adenhart pitch on television Wednesday evening and was shocked to learn of the player's passing early in the morning.
"I can't say enough about Nick and what he meant to all of us," he said.
In a twist of fate, Adenhart would likely have opened the season in Salt Lake instead of Los Angeles if it weren't for injuries to starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana.
Even though the Angels were impressed with what Adenhart accomplished in the spring, he didn't move into the starting rotation until Lackey and
Santana were sidelined.
"It's kind of ironic that he would end up there and this would happen," said Mitchell. "I don't know. God works in strange ways and has a plan for everybody. And it's just hard for us to fathom sometimes and accept. But
it's just a tough situation. He went out on a good note."