Back home, there's no letting go of Adenhart

The next day, it still didn't make sense. They thought they would wake up to something different. They thought if they kept talking about it, if they kept reading news articles on their computers, it would help them understand.

"It just doesn't seem like it's possible," Dave Warrenfeltz says. "I mean, just the other night, we were watching him live out the dream. He'd worked so hard for it. And now this. You wake up thinking it didn't happen and it's not real. It all seems so impossible."

You'll have to forgive the people of Washington County if they aren't quite sure how to process the week's news. It's not often that someone like Nick Adenhart comes along. Not in Western Maryland. And it's not fair that they have to say goodbye to him so soon.

Just hours after making his season debut with the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday night, Adenhart, who at 22 years old was one of the game's most promising young pitchers, was killed by an alleged drunken driver in Fullerton, Calif.

A day later and more than 2,000 miles away, Hagerstown was still struggling with the news. Warrenfeltz had known Adenhart since elementary school. He was his catcher from Little League through their prep careers at Williamsport High. He's 22 years old and has limited experience with death. But he has always known what Adenhart meant to Western Maryland, so it was no surprise that news of his friend's death quickly spread from street to street, touching every neighborhood.

"I don't know if Nick realized it or not, but he was really carrying this entire area on his shoulders. I know all of us who grew up playing with him, it was our careers and our dream he was living out," says Warrenfeltz, who's a senior at UMBC and a catcher on the Retrievers' baseball team. "When he finally made it, in a small way, it felt like we made it, too."

Warrenfeltz returned to Hagerstown on Thursday, where similar sentiments were expressed all over town. They had been there for all the ups and downs of the young career - how it took off like a fastball, dropped like a knuckler and then curved its way back toward the plate. Forget all the rankings, all the gospel spoken by scouts and analysts; Hagerstown always knew Adenhart would make it.

"Everyone knows Nick," says Lisa McAfee, who runs an asphalt company in town. "We've all just watched him grow up. What he was doing now, this is what we've all been waiting for, what we've been talking about since he was just a kid."

McAfee's son played Pony League ball with Adenhart when they were 14. Like everyone else in town, her son has been shaken by Adenhart's death. Sgt. Jeremy McAfee, 22, had just completed a 15-month tour of Iraq last month. He's stationed in Hawaii and watched Adenhart's season debut on television. He called home to rave to his mom the other night. It was the best start of Adenhart's young career - six scoreless innings.

Fewer than 48 hours later, Jeremy McAfee was flying home to attend Adenhart's funeral service.

"We're worried about Jeremy because he's been facing death for 15 months, and now he comes back to face it again here at home," his mother says. "I called him last night and said, 'Are you sure?' and he just said, 'I have to.' I think everyone probably feels that way."

Lisa McAfee went from church Thursday to the Williamsport High baseball field. More than 100 people gathered for a vigil. She left a stuffed teddy bear clutching a baseball bat hanging from the fence.

In high school, Jeremy McAfee and Adenhart pitched for rivals South Hagerstown and Williamsport. In fact, those were the teams that were playing that spring day in 2004 when Adenhart, a senior who was just a weeks away from baseball's amateur draft, felt something in his arm.

Adenhart would require ligament-replacement surgery, and a sure-fire top draft pick fell to the 14th round of the draft. But Adenhart kept playing that season. Williamsport used him as a designated hitter, and he nearly led it to a state title.

"That's how much he cared about his team," said Rod Steiner, Adenhart's coach at Williamsport. He described Adenhart's impact on Hagerstown and Williamsport High simply: "He put us on the map.

"When he pitched, we'd have 500, 1,000 people here. You're lucky to see 20 people at a normal high school game. But he was special."

Those who knew him say Adenhart seemed to understand that his right arm could take him places, but he remained down to earth. Even when Adenhart was drafted and only able to return to town for brief visits during the winter, Warrenfeltz said he still saw the same kid who brandished a shovel and helped turn a backyard into one of Hagerstown's finest Wiffle ball fields.

"We cut up my mother's boots to make a catcher's mitt," Warrenfeltz says. It was one of those shared memories. Kind of like a shared dream. Thursday morning's crash couldn't take those.

And though Western Maryland will say goodbye to a young man who carried his entire community to the mound, it won't soon forget him.

When Adenhart made his major league debut in May, Bob Parasiliti, a sportswriter for the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown who had covered the pitcher since his Little League days, wrote a piece that's as true today as it was then:

Thanks, Nick, Parasiliti wrote. You made our dreams the ones we could only fantasize about before come true.

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