SEATTLE — The memories came flooding back to Mike Butcher last week when the Angels pitching coach went to UC Irvine Medical Center to visit hitting coach Don Baylor, who had broken his right thighbone in a freak opening-night mishap.
It was five years ago Wednesday that Butcher rushed to the same hospital the night Nick Adenhart, a promising 22-year-old Angels pitcher who only hours before had thrown six shutout innings against Oakland in his first start of 2009, was killed along with two friends. A car in which Adenhart was a passenger was broadsided by a drunk driver in a Fullerton intersection.
"Going in to see Don that night, that's the first thing I thought of," Butcher said. "I felt everything. So … yeah. It's still difficult. I still see Nick's face like it was yesterday. He is missed on a personal level and on a team level."
Five years may have dulled some of the pain and grief of the tragic accident — which also took the lives of Henry Pearson, 25, and Courtney Stewart, 20 — but not the profound loss.
Adenhart had worked his way back from the Tommy John surgery he had in high school and earned a rotation spot with a superb spring. With a 93-mph fastball and big overhand curve, he seemed on the cusp of establishing a foothold in the major leagues.
"He definitely had a bright future," Angels ace Jered Weaver said. "He was just starting to figure it out. He had great stuff. He was young and fresh. He battled back from Tommy John surgery. He had some hurdles in his life, and it was good to see it come together there that night against Oakland."
Adenhart would be 27 today, a year older than Garrett Richards, who is scheduled to start against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on Wednesday night.
"I think about that quite a bit, to be honest with you," Butcher said, when asked if he thinks about what kind of pitcher Adenhart would have become. "You think about the maturity he would have had. In our rotation, he was just getting that first cup of coffee in the big leagues, figuring everything out.
"The future was so bright for him, you're always going to ask yourself, 'What if?' I envision that now, he'd be one of our top-tier guys — I have no doubt in my mind. I just wish he had the opportunity to get to that point."
Only four current Angels — Weaver, reliever Kevin Jepsen, shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Howie Kendrick — were teammates of Adenhart in 2009.
Weaver and Adenhart had become good friends, and Adenhart was scheduled to move into Weaver's Long Beach apartment the weekend after the accident. Weaver carves the initials "NA" in the back of the mound before every inning he pitches and named his first-born son, Aden, in honor of Adenhart.
"I think about him often," Weaver said. "He's one of those guys you'll never forget. You always want to remember the way he was. He was a great kid, man. He just wanted to be around everybody. He loved playing baseball. He was one of the guys."
Every spring, the Angels take up a collection among players to give to the Nick Adenhart Foundation, which benefits youth baseball in the Williamsport, Md., area, where Adenhart grew up. The team made a $12,000 donation this spring.
"He is important to all the guys who were around the organization at that time, and he'll remain important to the future Angels who play for this organization," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's important for us to have players understand what Nick was about, how hard he worked to get here and how his life was tragically taken for us."
Butcher still remembers vividly the day Adenhart, who was known to take casual attire to extremes, showed up for his first day of instructional league in Arizona in 2004. The right-hander was 18, still rehabilitating from his elbow surgery and enrolled at Arizona State.
"He walked in with flip-flops, tan shorts and a Hawaiian T-shirt that looked like he took out of his back pocket and put it on," Butcher said. "That was Nick. He was going to ASU at the time and had that college-student look about him. He came a long way from that day."