Last week the Los Angeles Angels announced the Nick Adenhart "Pitcher of the Year" award, in memory of their young starting pitcher who was killed by a drunk driver on April 9.
The award will go each year to the team's most outstanding pitcher, as selected by his teammates. But the real intention of the award is to celebrate Adenhart—a terrific young pitcher and (perhaps more importantly) a quality human being.
Adenhart stands as an example of everything that is good in professional sports.
While the rest of baseball is caught up in steroid accusations and football is inundated with talk of Michael Vick and Donte' Stallworth, Nick Adenhart is the player that every dad wants his son to see and that rising players should emulate.
At the time of his death, he was the youngest pitcher on a Major League roster and promised to be a reliable, perhaps dominating, starting rotation pitcher for years to come.
But even at age 22, he'd already overcome a lot to get there.
Straight out of high school, Adenhart had been projected as a top-10 pick in the draft. But fate struck, as it often does, and Adenhart went out with an elbow injury just two weeks before the draft. It was revealed that he would have to have the dreaded Tommy John surgery, and Adenhart slipped from the top 10 to 413th in the draft.
Tough blow for an 18-year-old.
He pulled through it, though—he recovered, rehabbed, and rose through the Angels' ranks to become one of baseball's top prospects and the Angels' top prospect going into 2009.
He made his MLB debut in 2008 at the fresh age of 21 and pitched three games for the Angels over the course of the season, including his first win in a victory over the White Sox at Angel Stadium.
On April 8, 2009, he pitched his first game of the 2009 season—the game that would be his last.
After a stellar performance, striking out five and allowing no runs, a minivan struck the Mitsubishi Eclipse that Adenhart was riding in around 12:30 a.m., and Adenhart died shortly after at the UC Irvine Medical Center.
The tragedy is not the death of a pitcher, or even a top prospect—it's the death of a human being. A son and a brother.
What brings this story into greater focus is that just over the fence in the NFL, Donte' Stallworth finds himself on the other side of this situation. Stallworth struck a pedestrian with his Bentley while driving drunk around 7:15 AM on March 14, 2009.
The pedestrian was killed. Another son, likely a brother, and possibly a father as well.
It's easy to forget that guys like Nick Adenhart still exist. Good guys still fill rosters everywhere, in every professional sport, despite the societal dregs that too often fill the headlines. Normal people still rise to the pinnacle of physical achievement through simple hard work and unyielding focus.
"His life's goal was to be a Major League Baseball player," said his agent Scott Boras, shortly after his passing. "And he certainly achieved that standard."
That's all it requires. The posturing, the tattoos, the cars, the women, and the lawless lifestyles aren't requisite to success in sports. They're just often the unfortunate result.
As we all too often get caught up in the celebrity of professional athletes, we don't remember that they are, or were once, normal people.
They spit up as babies. They went to school like every other kid, perhaps even underachieving academically.
They also have families, often of their own. Adenhart's father Jim was in attendance at Nick's final game, seeing his son do what he'd worked his whole life to do.
"I hate that this happened, but this is part of life. This is the real deal," said Adenhart's Angels teammate Torii Hunter. "That's why you've got to kiss your kids, kiss your family every day when you get up in the morning and before you leave for work."
The death of Nick Adenhart represents much more than just the need to fill a hole in the starting rotation—and Donte' Stallworth's crime means more than just a suspended wide receiver. It's bigger than sports.
The Angels keep Adenhart's locker just as it was and still assign him a locker at away games.
And every once in a while, when we've suffered some loss of our own, we understand.