4-10-09: Nick Adenhart (1986 - 2009)

Hello again everybody...

It's the end of the week, but I'm having a tough time enjoying it. I had all sorts of stuff set to go today, but it was all trumped by yesterday's news of the death of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart.

I went back and forth a dozen times over the last 24 hours or so trying to decide whether I just wanted to mention it today, or make it the whole focus of my column. The Sports Take is supposed to be fun and enjoyable to read. At least, that's my primary intention. But it's also a vessel for me to try to sort through how I feel about things, and that's what I'm trying to do today.

So I apologize for not giving you more gems like:

If you haven't checked out the MLB Extra Innings Free Preview yet, your really missing out. MLB is offering the service up free through April 12th. It's their version of giving the heroin away for free, hoping that you'll get hooked and decide that $170 is a perfectly reasonable price for being able to immerse yourself in the high of baseball all season long. I got hooked last year, and vacillated only a touch during the off-season. Once Spring Training started, there wasn't much question left in my mind. Give me the China White (Matt Garza vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka last night was excellent), I'm hooked baby!

But today's going to be slightly more serious... here it comes.

"Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught."
- Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), British Prime Minister

There's a couple of levels to this quote. One, sometimes being taught requires a submission of one's ego, and that's not always easy. Two, I've always been one to make life difficult for teachers. Once I learned that learning is about saying "Why" until you're satisfied, I drove more than a few teachers to distraction.

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And in a sense, that leads me into today's column. All I've been saying for the last day and a half is, "Why".

Let me take you back to Wednesday night. I've been using the Extra Innings package in 2 ways: one, I check the day's probable pitchers in the morning to see if there's a match-up I'd especially like to see - if there is, I set the DVR and record it; two, if I don't see one of those match-ups, then I come home after work, catch the end of the Twins game and then flip between West coast games until I find something that's interesting.

And that's where I was Wednesday night, flipping between Brewers/Giants, Dodgers/Padres and A's/Angels. The Brewers had Yovani Gallardo pitching, so he was my primary focus. Vin Scully still does Dodger games solo - it's the baseball broadcast version of Wagner. And the Angels had a young right-hander making only his fourth big league start, Nick Adenhart.

I didn't think a whole lot of it at the time. Why would I? He was a big prospect that took longer than expected to get to the Show because he had Tommy John surgery at age 18. He wasn't lights-out, but he did work out of a couple of jams and managed to get through six innings without giving up a run. A solid performance, but nothing remarkable.

Now skip ahead to Thursday morning. I flipped on "First Take" on ESPN 2 like I usually do, and saw a "Breaking News" alert. And they were talking about Adenhart. My first thought was, "Oh no, they're going to say the poor kid blew out his elbow again, or had some other injury that's going to end his season."

Never, not once, did I think they were going to follow "Nick Adenhart made his 4th career big league start" with "and was killed in a car accident while driving with 3 friends after the game".

I was floored. I'd just watched this young, vital, 22-year-old kid pitch in the majors last night! His family was there watching him, celebrating the fact that he'd finally made the Opening Day roster with the big club. And now he was dead? Really?! How was this possible? I was confused. I was saddened. Most of all I just had this empty feeling it the pit of my stomach.

I'd gone through a similar set of feelings in 2001 when Minnesota Viking lineman Korey Stringer died after suffering heat stroke during a Training Camp practice.

How can this happen? And I don't just mean in terms of, "why weren't precautions put in place to prevent stuff like this?" But also in terms of, "in the cosmic, spiritual sense, how the hell does this happen?"

(Ed.'s Note: I should have put the following paragraph in during the initial writing of this column, and just plain failed to do so. So consider this a make-good paragraph:

"I want to stress the fact that the deaths of men like Adenhart and Stringer are no more important than the deaths of the thousands of other people who are lost through no fault of their own every day. The young student from the University of St. Thomas who's been missing the last several days, or Tyesha Edwards, who was sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework and was killed by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting; these deaths aren't any less tragic nor were their lives any less valuable than Adenhart's or Stringer's. And it's probably a failure on my part that I think more about these things when it's an athlete that dies than when it's a previously unknown student. But I guess that however I'm inspired to ask those questions, it's the inner struggle they cause that's central to what I'm writing about."

By all reports, Adenhart was a good kid. One of his high school teammates referred to him as "the kind of guy you always wanted around... he always had your back." Coaches described him as a good team player. Sure he wasn't perfect, but he also wasn't one of those athletes you had to warn your kids against idolizing either.

Korey Stringer was a strong force in the Minneapolis community. He donated his money and his time to helping underprivileged kids. His death not only left his wife with out a husband and his kids without a father, but it left all those kids he was mentoring without a large, positive influence in their lives.

So how the hell does this happen? How does Plaxico Burress bring an un-registered hand gun into a club, accidentally shoot himself in the leg while fumbling for a handle on his drink, and come away with just a scar? How many times did Pac Man Jones put himself in great physical danger, getting in fights at the strip club, and only come away with minor legal troubles? Hell, 50 Cent's been shot 9 times and has kept right on cranking out hits!

So how does all that balance with the fact that guys like Adenhart and Stringer were doing nothing wrong and in the blink of an eye, ended up dead? Nobody in Adenhart's car was violating any traffic laws. It was a drunk driver that ran a red light and hit them. Stringer was working out trying to prepare himself physically for a football season. I can't find any kind of bad karma in any of that.

(Ed.'s Note: Please do not read any disrespect for religion or religious people into the following paragraphs.)

I think when you start asking yourself questions like these, your first instinct is to revert to whatever religious/spiritual upbringing you've had. Personally, I was raised as a Catholic, though I haven't practiced since my early teens. And it's the less-than-personally-satisfying answers I've received to questions like these that led me to look elsewhere.

I hear that I'm supposed to take solace in the fact that God has a plan for us all, and that tragedies like the deaths of Stringer and Adenhart are part of that plan.

Personally, I have trouble finding any measure of solace in that. The first thing that comes to my mind is, "What the f@#! kind of plan requires guys like that to be ripped from their families?! How is that helpful or positive in any way, shape or form?!"

The second thing I struggle with is, "Why can't we be trusted with understanding 'the plan'? What kind of God gives us the ability to reason and learn and grow, yet won't give us the opportunity to understand the 'why' of things like this?"

The dark, cynical part of me wants to just say "F@#! it. There's no rhyme or reason to the Universe. Chaotic s@#! happens and there's nothing we can do to stop it." But I think that's just as overly-simplistic as "God has a plan" is.

I don't want to be critical of people who find solace in "God's plan". I'm actually envious of them. I wish something like that helped me process and deal with stuff like this. But it just doesn't.

So instead, I sit here and struggle. I process it as best I can, and try use tragedies like this to remind myself how precious life is. It reminds me to stop and think before I do things that are potentially stupid. And it's not even my death that scares me as much as it is the thought of what my family and friends would go through if something happened.

I know that I can't live my life over-analyzing every little thing. I know could get hit by a bus taking a wrong step off the curb. But I try to find the balance between living life to the fullest, and taking moments to remind myself not to get too stupid.

But I'd trade all of that - call it wisdom, or whatever you like - to have guys like Adenhart and Stringer still around.

Okay. I hope that wasn't too much of a downer. It's just something that's been bouncing around my head for the last day or so and it helps to write things like that out sometimes.

I'll be back on Monday with stuff that's hopefully more upbeat. Until then, enjoy your weekend, enjoy your families, and thanks for reading!

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