Angels return to play with Adenhart on their minds

April 10, 2009 7:11:47 PM PDT
Nick Adenhart was at his locker after pitching the best game of his brief major league career when teammate Joe Saunders leaned over, patted the rookie on the back and said, "Great job." Saunders now wishes he had said so much more. But at the time those simple words let Adenhart know what he had longed to hear - that he finally belonged in the big leagues with the Los Angeles Angels after trying to get there for five years.

"He gave us a chance to win and I knew he was really proud of that," Saunders recalled. "I know he felt elated that he pitched such a great game. That's what I'm going to remember."

The Angels, their fans and Adenhart's parents held tightly to their memories Friday, still stunned by the sudden death of the 22-year-old pitcher and two others in a car crash caused by a suspected drunk driver hours after Wednesday night's game against Oakland.

Andrew Thomas Gallo, a 22-year-old from San Gabriel, was charged with three counts of murder by the Orange County district attorney on Friday. He ran a red light in his minivan and broadsided a car carrying Adenhart and three friends, police said.

Gallo had nearly triple the legal blood-alcohol level and could get nearly 55 years to life in prison if convicted of all charges, police said.

"Unfortunately, it happens every day in our world and it happened to touch us this week in a tragic way," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Flags flew at half-staff at Angel Stadium and around the major leagues to honor a rookie who had accomplished little but showed the promise and potential for a long career.

Still wracked by shock and grief, the Angels returned to work Friday against the Boston Red Sox. The team planned a pregame ceremony to honor the memory of Adenhart and his friends Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson, who also were killed.

On the center-field wall was a black-and-white picture of Adenhart in mid-toss next to a black circle with No. 34 and his name on it.

"We'll all be saying stuff to them during the game," Boston's Kevin Youkilis said. "I didn't know Nick at all, but I wish I would have met him and talked to him."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona and his coaches, usually joking or talking about the upcoming game, instead were silent as their cab approached Angel Stadium.

"You're supposed to show up and have fun going to the ballpark, but it doesn't seem like that is appropriate today," he said.

Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher was closest of all to Adenhart, having helped the rookie develop the mind-set he needed to challenge major league hitters throughout spring training.

Adenhart left Wednesday's game with a 4-0 lead that the Angels' bullpen failed to hold, and the team wound up losing 6-4. Adenhart left the mound and Butcher walked up to his protege, asking him how the ball felt coming off his fingertips.

"Butch, I got it," Adenhart replied.

In recalling the moment Friday, Butcher paused to gather himself, tears glistening in his eyes.

"That was a pretty special moment to see a kid figure it out that early and understand it and own it," he said.

Butcher's cell phone rang at 2 a.m. on Thursday. Grabbing it, he glanced at the screen that identified the caller as Nick Adenhart. Butcher figured he was going to have to go get the rookie somewhere.

Instead, it was Jim Adenhart, explaining that his son had been in a car accident and was hospitalized in critical condition. The older Adenhart had traveled from Baltimore to Anaheim to watch the game at his son's request.

Butcher made his way to the hospital not thinking the worst. The next few hours were a blur of conversations with Adenhart's father about his son and their family and a nurse who kept the men updated with what little information she had about the pitcher.

"I knew we weren't in a good situation at that point, no one was really coming out to talk to us," Butcher said.

"It was only a few hours later where he lost his life. That was a very tough time for his family. It was something you never want to go through as a parent. Very numbing."

Angels pitcher Dustin Moseley, briefly replaced in the starting rotation last season by Adenhart, found out something was wrong when his 22-year-old brother texted him saying he was sorry about Adenhart.

"It seemed like a dream to me. I lost my dad in '04 and the same feeling came over me," Moseley said. "I pretty much cried for quite a while and got to the park and it pretty much started all over again when you see his name on his locker."

Moseley teared up as he spoke about his minor league buddy who had made it to the big time, too. He was drawn to Adenhart's joking personality and ability to mimic people's voices and mannerisms.

"To see someone lose their life at such a young age takes you out of that bowl you think you're in and you say, `Tomorrow could be my last day and what kind of impact am I making?"' Moseley said. "Nick made a huge impact."

Saunders left the team's private gathering at Angel Stadium on Thursday and immediately called his father. Then he went home and hugged his wife and young daughter.

Adenhart's divorced parents, Jim and Janet, each removed jerseys from their son's stadium locker before Friday's game.

His mother took the red cap her son wore in his final game. The rest of the locker's contents were left in place, including Adenhart's iPod, and they will remain there for the rest of the season. On the road, a locker will be set aside for him in remembrance.

"I'm proud to know him," Moseley said. "I'm sure God's proud to know him right now, too."

Another passenger in the car, 24-year-old Jon Wilhite of Manhattan Beach, remained in critical but stable condition Friday and doctors believe he will survive, said John Murray, a spokesman for UC Irvine Medical Center. Wilhite was being medically sedated, Murray said.

Gallo will likely be assigned a public defender at his first court appearance, scheduled for Monday.

According to court records reviewed by The Associated Press, Gallo pleaded guilty to drunken driving in 2006 in San Bernardino. He was sentenced to two days in jail, three years of probation, a $1,374 fine and a four-month alcohol treatment program, court records show. He didn't serve any jail time, however, because he received credit for time served.

A judge also restricted his driving privileges for three months, allowing him to commute only to and from work and his treatment program.

The district attorney, however, said Gallo's license had been suspended since 2006. Assistant District Attorney David Linden Brent said it was not unusual for the California Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a stricter suspension after an administrative hearing.

Court records show Gallo violated some terms of his probation, causing it to be extended by a year, to 2010.

San Bernardino County Deputy Public Defender Maria LaCorte, who represented Gallo in the 2006 drunken driving case, did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.

Hamilton said Gallo was arrested for public intoxication in March 2007 and convicted of disturbing the peace in January.

Court records show Gallo pleaded guilty to possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in April 2007, and was convicted of failure to wear a seat belt in 2006. He also had a minor driving infraction several years ago, court records show.

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