Folks, I didn’t write this–Shane Demmitt, a member of the Angels’ family, did. When I got the news of Nick Adenhart’s death, one of the first things I did was e-mail Shane, a BP subscriber I’ve traded notes with over the years, because I was worried over the news that someone else in the Angels organization had been hurt or killed in the accident (which was not the case, as it turned out). I had no idea of Shane’s past associations with Nick, but his words serve as a reminder of how small and wonderful the world can be, except when something terrible happens. So, here’s Shane:
My dad is the most conservative guy in the world. He is so miserly with praise that the highest compliment I can ever remember him giving was when he once opined that Rickey Henderson should become an umpire after his playing career.
My dad also has been a Little League coach in Williamsport, MD for the last 21 years, long after his own children were grown. He has never been a manager in all that time, preferring instead to remain an assistant coach so that he could enjoy the hands-on teaching aspects of baseball. He has gained a bit of local renown for being willing to work diligently with any kid who shows an avid interest in the game, even those youngsters not on his own team.
That’s why I took him very seriously in the late 1990s when he first told me about a boy named Adenhart who played at a neighboring Little League from the one where my dad coaches. Most of the kids who play in those two leagues feed into Williamsport High School, the same one I attended. Young Nick was quite close with a large family named Taylor, who had several children play on my dad’s team over the years. One day Nick and some of the Taylor kids would be playing high-school ball together, and my dad frequently worked with all of them.
At that time I was trying to fashion a makeshift career for myself in baseball. My whole year revolved around the roughly seven weeks of spring training, where I was employed at Tempe Diablo Stadium—the spring home of the Angels. The smaller Cactus League venues are a wonderful experience, because you get to meet nearly every key person in a major league organization, as well as agents and media. That is where I first met then-Director of Player Development Tony Reagins, then-Manager of Baseball Operations Abe Flores, and agent Scott Boras. When the Angels broke a long post-season drought in 2002, their media relations department asked me to come on as additional help for the playoffs. My fledgling relationship with the club seemed to be bearing fruit and I hoped it would soon turn into a full-time job.
That was also when my dad called and told me that Nick Adenhart—now a star pitcher at my old high school—was throwing in the low to mid-90s and being watched by the Diamondbacks, among others. Dad suggested that I pass the information to someone in the Angels organization, and I knew the club had an area scout just a few hours away in Harrisburg, PA. Hoping to stand out even more during my brief few weeks helping with media relations, I mentioned Nick to both Tony Reagins and Abe Flores. I don’t know whether they paid me any mind at all, or if they even remember, but I’ve always enjoyed lying to myself and taking some pride in perhaps playing a microscopic role in Nick’s signing.
Nick helped Williamsport High School reach the state championship game for the first time ever in 2004; that was when he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. North Carolina intended to honor their scholarship offer despite Nick’s injury, but he ultimately decided to sign with the Angels that summer. It was ultimately a great summer for both of us. The Angels needed a fill-in clubhouse attendant for significant portions of the season due to a pending departure. I was asked to be that substitute clubbie, knowing the position would be mine full-time beginning the next year.
The odd part is that, living in southern California, I had not yet actually met Nick even though I had known all about him for years through my dad. I finally got that chance in spring training of 2006. Nick got invited to big-league camp for the first time as a 19-year-old. He handled it brilliantly from the start, taking care of his work while saying very little. I usually don’t say much at first to the new guys in camp, because I figure they are overwhelmed enough as it is between all the people and trying to make an impression on the major league staff. I tried to handle it the same way when Nick arrived. Finally, though, I found myself sitting alone on a practice-field bench when Nick came off the mound and sat down for a drink of water.
The other clubbies knew about my dad working with Nick as a kid, but I wasn’t sure yet if Nick himself remembered; this was my first chance to talk with him one-on-one. As he took a breather on the bench, I struck up that long-awaited conversation. I proceeded to tell Nick I had been hearing about him for a while from my dad who coached at another Little League, but I also said I wasn’t sure if Nick would remember because my dad is older now. I’ll never forget his response as long as I live: “Bob Demmitt is your dad? Wow, he’s a legend!” It sounds corny to repeat the story now, but if you knew Nick’s typically understated style of speaking, it was a completely genuine moment.
From that point forward, I always felt a special bond with Nick. He was the first and only player from Williamsport High School to reach the major leagues and, as a fellow graduate many years removed, it was somehow amazing that we were both together in the same clubhouse nearly 3000 miles away from our sleepy hometown. I knew it was only a matter of time before he would be in the big-league clubhouse during the season, and not just for spring training. What excited me even more is that my row of lockers at the clubhouse in Anaheim consists of the entire starting rotation and a reliever or two, so Nick would probably be assigned to my area whenever he did reach the show.
That day came last season, for all too brief a time. Nick was indeed assigned to my row of lockers, which means I got to hang his laundry and clean his shoes and tidy his space, and all the other duties of a clubbie. When he got his first major league victory, I made sure to pull two game-used balls for him to sign—one for my dad, and one for our high school. Nick thought it was pretty cool that I wanted to send one to the school. He was sent down shoftly thereafter, but you knew it was just the beginning of his big-league career.
When the rash of injuries hit our pitching staff this spring, it was quickly apparent Nick would be starting the 2009 season in the rotation. He was in my row of lockers again, too. Nick charted pitches on one of the clubhouse televisions during Dustin Moseley’s start on Tuesday night, as is the custom for the following night’s starting pitcher.
For the past 4 ½ seasons, I supplied the home-plate umpire with balls during Angel home games. That also entailed chasing foul balls in the area behind home plate, which requires quite a bit of running. It can be quite grueling, particularly during sweltering day games. This year, however, I switched to doing bats. I now have different responsibilities, which include walking up into the clubhouse to assist with laundry in the top halves of some innings when the visitors bat. It was during several of these trips inside that Nick and I exchanged a few snarky comments about how that night’s game was unfolding. What was said doesn’t really matter as much as the feeling of camaraderie, just to commiserate and share a few laughs.
Then Nick had his turn on Wednesday, and Jered Weaver was charting pitches whenever I walked inside. Nick seemed to be in trouble every inning, but kept working out of it. I remember him escaping yet another jam as I headed back down to the field and told Weaver, “The high-wire act continues….” We laughed, because we knew it was true. Nick didn’t know yet that he shouldn’t be getting out of trouble so easily. After five innings of the Houdini routine, he surprised us yet again by finally retiring Oakland in order in his final inning of the night. He was in line for a win after six scoreless frames.
I had a chance to congratulate Nick and pat him on the back when he came out of the game, and up into the clubhouse for treatment. Unfortunately we let the game get away in the final two innings, but Nick had a perfectly appropriate outlook on that as well. My good friend and fellow clubbie Kris later told me what Nick said when we lost the lead. His calm, almost ironic response was emblematic of his laid-back demeanor: “Goddammit… well, that’s baseball.”
The game ran over three hours, and Nick met with his father and his agent Scott Boras afterward. He didn’t leave until around 11:30 p.m. Less than an hour later, his life and the lives of several other people were permanently destroyed. Just that quickly, a guy I viewed as a surrogate relative or something would never walk into our sanctum again.
A major league clubhouse is a special place, an insulated enclave that often seems permanently immune from the world’s problems. I don’t truly belong, because that privilege is only really for the players; it is their home. and our presence is merely a necessary function. Yet, you still spend more time with them than you do with your own family, and eventually some of them become “your” guys. Whether it’s the guys in your row or players not in your row that you get along with really well… it doesn’t matter. You adopt them. You take a special pride in their performance.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have four different starting pitchers from my row make the All-Star Game and one of them even won a Cy Young Award. It always pumped me up just a little bit extra to think about my infinitesimal part in their successes, as if I shared a fraction of that by proxy. As special as every one of those players has been, I felt a deeper connection with Nick. He was the definitive “my” guy. Although I am 15 years older than Nick, we were the only two people in the majors from our tiny high school in our hometown, and we also had the common link of my dad having had an influence on both of us.
Don’t make the mistake I—like many of us—often make in thinking only about the loss of Nick Adenhart; you feel like you know him because we all share the bond of baseball. That feeling isn’t wrong; there are probably dozens of other stories, like mine, that intersected with Nick’s life or Mike Darr’s life or Darryl Kile’s life or Dernell Stenson’s life, or too many other fallen favorites. Those same bonds exist for the other lives ruined in Thursday morning’s tragedy. It might be the bonds shared by college friends or cheerleaders or beloved co-workers, or maybe even just message-board acquaintances, but they exist and they’re just as important as our bond of shared interest with Nick.
Thursday was one of the hardest days of my life. Awakening early after a night game is never easy, but when the phone starts ringing at that time of the morning, it is rarely good news. I usually get to the ballpark around 12:00-12:15 p.m. for a night game, but I knew to be ready early yesterday. You can’t imagine the number of people and activities behind the scenes when events like this occur. Someone must tend to seemingly ordinary things that would completely slip your mind in times of crisis, but which nevertheless must be done.
Now, sadly, one of those tasks falls to me. Nick was in my row, and his locker is my responsibility. It will remain that way for the rest of the season. The first thing we do each day when we arrive at the ballpark is remove the final load of the previous night’s laundry, separate it into each clubbie’s row, and then hang it in the respective players’ lockers. I gathered my pile for row three, as usual, and began subdividing it into individual piles for each player. I saved my #34 pile for last.
Just a day earlier, our strength and conditioning coach had passed out dry-fit shirts with the EAS logo to each of the players. They’re navy blue, and there was very little room to mark them with a black Sharpie, perhaps just on the logo itself. I had marked the guys in my row with a silver Sharpie first, but they all had faded in just one wash.