Nick Adenhart had softened. He'd smiled more.
Once content to linger on the edges of a clubhouse community whose energy is in its all-for-one spirit and drama, Adenhart had become a part of it.
Still quiet and still reserved, he'd turned 22, he'd become familiar, and he'd earned and accepted a place among them.
Nick Adenhart pitched six scoreless innings Wednesday night, just hours before the car he was traveling in was hit by a drunk driver.
He died early Thursday morning in a car wreck in Fullerton, Calif. He was a passenger in a silver Mitsubishi along with three others when a van ran a red light and broadsided the vehicle. A female driver and male passenger in the Mitsubishi were dead when police arrived. Adenhart died at a nearby hospital as the result of his injuries.
Jim Adenhart, Nick's father, had watched him pitch the night before at Angel Stadium. By dawn, the ballpark empty, he was at Nick's locker.
Nick had come to the Los Angeles Angels' organization going on five years ago, a right-handed pitcher from Maryland with uncommon skills and a bad elbow.
He'd chosen professional baseball over a scholarship to North Carolina, at the time telling the Washington Post, “My future is more straight. And I know what's going to happen.”
Before his first pro summer was through, he'd had Tommy John surgery and, at 18, had begun the endless journey. He made it to the big leagues in less than four years. And Wednesday night he'd thrown six shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics.
So an organization that on its uniform sleeve mourns the offseason passing of 85-year-old Preston Gomez, now bears the loss of a young man it helped raise.
The Angels will recall him as a good kid, one who'd grown up quickly and stayed grown up. They will recall him possessing a confidence, a resoluteness, that bordered on aloof. They will recall an old soul's countenance on the pitchers' mound, and a relentlessness that put him there, and how the repercussions of a single tragic moment have marginalized a baseball season.
A good man is gone. A teammate went with him.
“The Angels' family has suffered a tremendous loss today,” Angels general manager Tony Reagins said in a statement Thursday morning. “We are deeply saddened and shocked by this tragic loss. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Nick's family, friends, loved ones and fans.”
The Adenhart family also issued a statement.
Nick Adenhart, left, celebrates with Brandon Wood, center, and Mark Reynolds after the U.S. clinched an Olympic berth in 2006.
“Nick's family expresses sincere gratitude for all the help the Angels have provided,” it read. “He lived his dream and was blessed to be part of an organization comprised of such warm, caring and compassionate people. The Angels were his extended family. Thanks to all of Nick's loyal supporters and fans throughout his career. He will always be in everyone's hearts forever.”
On a cool night in Anaheim, before a full stadium, Adenhart had pitched. He'd been great and he'd been so-so and he'd been lucky, the usual path for a young pitcher, and he hadn't allowed a run in six innings. A year before, he'd made his big-league debut and afterward told reporters, “I knew I wanted to pitch in the major leagues by the time I was nine years old. It was a great experience. I took it all in.”
Presumably, with his dad somewhere in the stands, and zeroes across the scoreboard, and an entire season stretched before him, he did again. Presumably, with so much ahead of him, he would have again.
He'd touched his teammates' hands on his way off the field, on his way down the dugout stairs, on his way to the clubhouse. He'd become one of them this spring, more than ever.
“He was really starting to come into his own in terms of his personality,” a team official said quietly. “He was a good kid. And he'd come into camp showing a greater fire on the mound.”
Hours later, he was killed in a Fullerton intersection.
“This hurts,” the official said. “This is devastating. It's just such a tough loss. I can't believe it's true.”