Angels quietly keep Adenhart’s memory alive

NEW YORK – They don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. They never will, either, because in this instance, neither definitively exists.

How does a baseball organization handle a 22-year-old player dying after an allegedly drunken driver killed him? How does anyone? Celebrate a life or mourn it? Or do both? And how? Six months later, the grief still palpable and the sadness undeniable, the Los Angeles Angels want to do everything possible to remind people that they haven’t forgotten Nick Adenhart(notes) and never will.

Only they can’t. It’s too fine a line, the one between remembrance and exploitation. The worst thing they can do is use his memory in any fashion considered unseemly, and they’re acutely aware of it, enough so that they cringe at the slightest inkling of emotional manipulation.

Like in late September, when the Angels clinched the division title that led them to the American League Championship Series, which begins Friday against the New York Yankees. The team brings Adenhart’s jersey everywhere. It gets its own locker and hangs by itself, a talisman and lonely memento. During the postgame merriment, someone fetched the jersey. Seconds later, the jersey was doused in champagne. To the Angels, it was homage. To others, it was disrespectful.

“People talked about the celebration being over the top,” Angels general manager Tony Reagins said. “If you look from these players’ perspective, Nick Adenhart was sitting right over there. He’s a part of this organization, still. He’s a part of what they accomplished. He’s a teammate. He’s always going to be a teammate.

“In this organization, there will never be any exploitation of Nick Adenhart. We don’t want to commercialize it. It’s not a story for us. It’s something that happened to him. It’s real. And it’s going to be a part of us forever.”

Soon after Adenhart died, top Angels officials met and agreed: They would not abuse the powerful pathos from the tragedy – and they would stop others from doing so. The Angels stopped selling his jersey, and the team shop online still does not allow fans to customize Adenhart’s name with his No. 34. When people offered to write songs and offer tributes otherwise, the team asked that they refrain. Before TBS aired a commercial focused on Adenhart, the team sought and received the blessing from his family.

And as much as they can, the Angels don’t use Adenhart as a modern-day Gipper. Manager Mike Scioscia does not invoke any derivation of the phrase: “Do it for Nick.” Instead, after the Angels beat Boston in the first round to advance to the ALCS, he told his team: “Don’t forget Nick.”

They can’t. They won’t. Their actions ensure that. Pitcher Jered Weaver(notes) draws Adenhart’s initials in the dirt before every inning. Others run to the outfield wall before the game and tap the picture commemorating him. Everyone in the organization grieves differently, some deeper than others.

“I know he’s looking down,” Bobby Wilson(notes) said. Tears welled in his eyes. Wilson is the Angels’ third-string catcher. He and Adenhart were inseparable the last two years. They met at Double-A Arkansas and bonded instantaneously. Wilson didn’t have the natural talent of Adenhart, who dropped to the 14th round of the 2004 draft because of Tommy John surgery in high school but signed for $710,000 anyway. Two years later, Adenhart was the Angels’ best prospect.

Wilson enjoyed motivating Adenhart. He was a horse, and Wilson joked that he would ride him as long as necessary. “Let’s go, jockey,” Adenhart would respond, and go he did – to a spot in the Angels’ rotation this spring.

His first start came April 8. It was Wilson’s birthday, and he was celebrating at the SkyBox Sports Grille in Salt Lake City, the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Wilson beamed as Adenhart threw six shutout innings against Oakland.

“I’m on Cloud 9,” Wilson said. “Then I get that call in the morning.”

It was Adenhart’s mom, Janet. She delivered the news: Nick was killed. Two others died. Police said Andrew Thomas Gallo, who had been arrested for drunken driving before, had a blood-alcohol content almost three times the legal limit when his minivan smashed into the car carrying Adenhart. He awaits trial on second-degree murder charges.

Wilson joined the Angels for short stints in July and August before sticking with the team in September. Adenhart’s memory accompanies him everywhere. It motivates him, pushes him, balances him. And yet Wilson can’t say he’s here, trying to win a World Series, just for Adenhart, because he knows how that looks and sounds.

“It’s too easy to say that,” Wilson said. “This is a dream for a lot of guys. They’re doing it for themselves also.”

Perhaps that’s the happy medium the Angels have settled on, and even they wonder its appropriateness. Fans would go bonkers for a motivational montage celebrating Adenhart. The Angels refuse to do such a thing. A yearly ceremony could give him proper respect. Or seem cloying. An appearance by his family would provide cascading cheers throughout Angel Stadium. And potentially lard even more suffering onto people who have already suffered enough.

So as the Angels begin their march toward the World Series, it’s with Adenhart in their hearts and on their sleeves and in their minds but not on their lips. He was a baseball player, yes, but even more a son and a brother and a friend, and so they remember him and treat him as such.

He deserves what’s right. If only they knew definitively what that was.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 15, 2009