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Alone with his grief in baseball cathedral

April 10, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

As darkness gave way to dawn, the doctors delivered the awful news: There was nothing more they could do to save his son.

Jim Adenhart found his sanctuary where his son found joy.

The hospital was no place for a grieving father, not in the hour after death, not when there was solace in life, and in baseball. And so the Angels unlocked their stadium, and their clubhouse, for a private sunrise service Thursday morning.

Nick Adenhart had walked through those doors just eight hours before, all smiles. Jim Adenhart walked through those doors, just past 7 a.m., all tears.

Mike Butcher, the Angels' pitching coach, led Jim to his son's locker. Butcher stepped back, leaving a respectful distance.

This would be Jim's first memorial service for his son, all his own.

He saw. He touched. He prayed. He cried.

Ken Higdon, the Angels' clubhouse manager, handed him the jersey his son had worn Wednesday night, when Nick pitched six shutout innings, the finest game of his young life. He was 22.

Perhaps Jim thought about what his son had told him a few days ago. He lives in Maryland, but his son urged him to fly to California for his first start in this new season.

"You better come here, because something special is going to happen," Nick told his father, according to agent Scott Boras.

If the son had not been looking out for the father, then the father would not have been minutes away from the hospital when he got that 3 a.m. call, with the horrible news that his son had been critically injured in a traffic accident.

Jim was not alone in those predawn hours. Butcher was at the hospital. So was Tim Mead, the Angels' vice president of communications. So were Boras and two of his lieutenants, Mike Fiore and Jeff Musselman.

The men accompanied Jim to the stadium and into the clubhouse, then left him alone at his son's locker. Five minutes passed, then 10, then 15.

And then cellphones started ringing, almost all at once. The word had gotten out. The world demanded confirmation, details, reaction.

The Angels arranged a news conference. Jim chose not to attend. General Manager Tony Reagins and Manager Mike Scioscia spoke, not easily but without losing composure.

Boras lost his.

He is the agent fans love to hate, full of lengthy discourses on why his players deserve millions upon millions. He can speak dispassionately, almost robotically.

On this day, he could not suppress his raw emotions. He could barely get through a sentence.

He choked up. He paused, then spoke haltingly. He stopped midway through his first sentence, pulling out a tissue, wiping away his tears.

Boras, an agent for 25 years, said he'd never had a day like this one.

"As you could tell," he said. "This is an industry that is largely youth. We're just not very prepared. It's just shocking to get the phone call."

The Angels, sadly enough, get more than their share of those calls. They're already wearing a memorial patch this season in honor of scouting consultant Preston Gomez, who died this year at 86.

"It seems like, for a while there, something happened to the Angels every year," Cincinnati Reds Manager Dusty Baker said.

Pitcher Donnie Moore committed suicide at 35, three years after giving up the home run that kept the Angels out of the 1986 World Series.

Outfielder Lyman Bostock was murdered at 27. Michelle Carew, daughter of Hall of Famer Rod Carew, died of leukemia at 18. Coach Deron Johnson died of lung cancer at 53.

Pitcher Dick Wantz died of a brain tumor at 25. Three players died in car accidents in the 1970s: infielder Chico Ruiz at 33, infielder Mike Miley at 24, pitcher Bruce Heinbechner at 23.

This is not a curse. That is the stuff of feeble minds. This is a tragedy, not the loss of a baseball player but the loss of a son, the greatest tragedy that can befall any parent.

Jim Adenhart did speak Thursday, not to the media but in a closed-door team meeting. He made a second trip to the clubhouse, eight hours after his first, to thank the players and coaches who had befriended his son.

After a few minutes, Mead escorted him onto the field, where the flags had been lowered to half-staff.

This was the middle of the afternoon, when the players normally would be stretching, playing catch, taking batting practice.

There was no game on this day; the Angels were to have played the Oakland A's, but it was postponed.

There was no one else on the field.

Jim Adenhart, wearing a red Angels pullover, walked slowly to the pitcher's mound. He lingered for a few minutes. He crouched, appearing to cry.

He stood up and looked to the heavens. He fixed his gaze there for a few moments. He bid farewell to his son, from the very place that made him so happy.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Angels scarred by tragedy

1965 -- Rookie pitcher Dick Wantz dies of a brain tumor one month after his only major league game.

1968 -- Pitcher Minnie Rojas is paralyzed in a car accident that kills his two daughters.

1972 -- Infielder Chico Ruiz is killed in a car accident in San Diego.

1974 -- Bruce Heinbechner, a relief pitcher just about to start his major league career, dies in a car accident during spring training in Palm Springs.

1977 -- Shortstop Mike Miley is killed in a car accident in Baton Rouge, La.

1978 -- Outfielder Lyman Bostock is shot and killed in Gary, Ind., but was not the intended victim.

1989 -- Relief pitcher Donnie Moore shoots his wife, then commits suicide in front of the couple's son.

1992 -- Manager Buck Rodgers is seriously injured and misses four months after the team bus crashes on the New Jersey Turnpike between New York and Baltimore. Twelve others are hurt in the accident.

2008 -- Longtime scouting consultant Preston Gomez is hit by a pickup truck in Blythe. He dies in January 2009 without ever fully recovering from the accident.

2009 -- Rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others are killed when their car is broadsided at a Fullerton intersection by a vehicle that runs a red light.

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