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Five years later, Nick Adenhart's death still impacts two Orioles pitchers

Nick Adenhart never played for the Orioles, but five years after the Maryland native's untimely death at age 22, he still has a lasting impact inside the Orioles' clubhouse.

Orioles right-handed pitchers Darren O'Day and Miguel Gonzalez, two undrafted free agents who have both developed into successful major leaguers since Adenhart's death, played with the Los Angeles Angels' top pitching prospect in that organization's minor league system.

Both cherish their brief friendships with Adenhart that were forged through their time in the minor leagues. And they also recognize the preciousness of life and know that nothing is guaranteed on or off the field.

"It feels about right," O'Day said this week, when asked if it feels like five years since Adenhart's death. "Not because I don't miss him, but sometimes life just kind of speeds up. A lot has happened since then. I still think about him every time I pitch, so he's been with us every step."

Through stops in four different organizations, O'Day said he still writes Adenhart's initials under the brim of his cap — something he has done since Adenhart died on April 9, 2009.

It serves as a daily reminder to O'Day that he's lucky to still be playing the game he loves, an opportunity that was stolen suddenly from Adenhart just four starts into his big league career.

"Every new hat I get, I write it in there, and it kind of keeps things in perspective," O'Day said. "Sometimes in baseball, we tend to not keep things in perspective. If you're in a jam in the eighth inning with guys at second and third and no outs, yeah you've got problems in that game, but you don't have problems in your season or your career. That's not a real problem.

"It helps keep things in perspective and makes the game easier to realize what a privilege it is to be playing."

Adenhart, a 2004 graduate of Williamsport High School in Washington County, was killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident in Southern California. The tragedy occurred hours after Adenhart held the Oakland Athletics scoreless for six innings in his first of the 2009 season.

"Nick would have been a special player, but that was taken from him, so I try to enjoy every time I go out and pitch," O'Day said. "Even if I'm in a terrible situation, it's still a privilege to be there."

O'Day, Gonzalez and Adenhart all played together with the Angels' Double-A Arkansas Travelers in 2007. All three dreamed of a future in the big leagues, but if anyone had his path to the majors paved — even after hitting a speed bump three years earlier — it was Adenhart.

In high school, Adenhart was regarded by some as the best high school pitcher available in the 2004 draft before he suffered an elbow injury as a senior and needed Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery. He fell to the 14th round, but the Angels took a chance and signed him to a $710,000 deal.

"He was a prospect," Gonzalez said about Adenhart. "He was a little different than I was when I came up. When I signed with the Angels, I was a free agent. He was a [top prospect], but I think he would be saying the same thing [if he was here]. It doesn't matter who you are or how you get there. The important thing is to get there and stay there and never look back."

When Adenhart and Gonzalez participated in major league spring training together in 2007, Gonzalez liked one of Adenhart's gloves. Adenhart gave it to Gonzalez to keep.

"It was a Rawlings Gold Glove," Gonzalez said, shrugging with a smile. "It was a great glove."

Gonzalez kept the glove with him in his travel bag throughout his long journey to the major leagues — through missing two years with elbow and knee surgeries, after being released by the Boston Red Sox, and when he was discovered by the Orioles while pitching winter ball in Mexico.

And five years later, before Gonzalez made his first major league start in Anaheim, Calif., on July 6, 2012, O'Day asked him if he still had Adenhart's glove.

"O'Day brought it up, and he's like, 'You have Nick's glove?'," Gonzalez said. "I told him I was thinking about using it, but I wasn't sure. He said, 'Yeah, do it, man;' So, I did. I'm glad he did tell me to, because it was pretty special to go out there and pitch with the glove [Adenhart] gave me. I think it was the right thing to do."

With Adenhart's name clearly stitched on the glove, Gonzalez held the Angels to one run and three hits over seven innings to earn the win.

Gonzalez said he believed Adenhart helped him on the mound that night and continues to do so now.

"I think he's always with us," Gonzalez said. "I know he's looking down on us right now, and he wants us to do well."

O'Day said he wasn't as close to Adenhart until the two players attended major league camp before the 2008 season. O'Day made the team out of spring training that year, and Adenhart opened the season at Triple-A Salt Lake City. But O'Day's first stint in the majors was brief. In the second week of May, O'Day was sent back down to Triple-A.

"When I got sent back to Triple-A, my first day there, he called me and told me I had to come out," O'Day said about Adenhart. "We went to watch the [Utah] Jazz play a playoff game. The first night back in Triple-A, it's really easy to feel sorry for yourself. You just sit there and mope, but he took care of me, and even then, was helping me keep things in perspective.

"It was just kind of his approach to life. He was a really laid-back dude. He was a stud prospect, and I was a nonprospect, really, and he was looking out for me, even though I was older than him. In big league camp, we were two of the younger guys there. I didn't know anybody in camp, so he really helped me with that, and he invited me out a couple of times."

Gonzalez doesn't travel with Adenhart's glove any more — partly because he has a Nike sponsorship and can't wear Rawlings equipment — but he said it is in a safe place at his home in California and he will get it framed one day.

"I'll have it forever," Gonzalez said.

Two years ago, O'Day was an instructor at the annual Nick Adenhart Baseball Camp in Williamsport, where he relished hearing all the stories about Adenhart growing up.

"Everyone had a story," O'Day said. "Nick was like the Paul Bunyan of Hagerstown."

It has been five years, and while time goes on, their memories of Adenhart remain strong.

"Nick was a special guy, he really was," O'Day said. "He was obviously talented. That's easy to see. But he was a good dude. He was a fun guy, he always made you laugh. He always kept it light. He was a joy to be around and be on a team with.

"It's easy to miss a guy like that."

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

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