Every time I watch this I end up in tears. Happy (would be) 25th birthday Nick Adenhart.
Also, it’s only fitting that Jered Weaver takes the mound tonight. Weaver, fresh off of his 5 year, $85 million contract extension, was to move into an apartment with Adenhart the weekend of Adenhart’s passing. To this day he still writes Adenhart’s initials in the dirt before every inning.
Here lies Oscar Taveras, unintentionally bowing out of the big stage, a young life snuffed ahead of his time.
Up until Game 5 of the World Series Sunday, those who thought of Taveras at all could see one terrible, life-chaging possibility ahead of the 22-year-old’s life – that his play will never match his lofty talent and warranted hype.
Taveras was rated as one of baseball’s best prospects, his career peak theoretically matching those of Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Mike Trout. Conventional wisdom says it wouldn’t take long for the Cardinals’ hyper-efficient player development system to produce a superstar outfielder.
When the calendar turned to 2014, that scenario loomed fast. Here comes the heir of Albert Pujols. Here’s the best bad ball hitter we’ll have seen after Vladimir Guerrero retired.
Taveras all but arrived. About the only thing bad that could conceivably happen involved an abbreviated career cut short by incompetence.
That was never a possibility from the time he lit up minor league pitching to the day he crushed his first Major League hit for a home run off a looming World Series hero, the journeyman Yusmeiro Petit.
And then the in-between happened.
The Cardinals mostly ignored the growing calls to elevate Taveras after the right fielder smashed through Spring Training, letting the elite hitter’s Super Two calendar run a little longer. Because of baseball’s CBA, late May call ups is a medal pinned on the best minor league talents. Without playing a game, smarter, more analytically inclined teams intentionally held back talent in anticipation of a future that involves said team paying said youngster a ton of money, either, or or both cutting down arbitration years and free agency.
Taveras wasn’t part of the Opening Day roster because he wasn’t ready. It’s because the Cardinals knew that he was. Had he started raking in April and keep it up for multiple seasons, he would have entered arbitration a year early. If, as the Cardinals’ observers predicted, Taveras mashed like Albert Pujols, the 22-year-old would have been a free agent at 27.
Taveras, however, wasn’t needed by the big league club, at least in April. GM John Mozeiak got two outfielders, Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, in a deal involving 3B David Freese. RF Allen Craig looked healthy. Matt Holliday was entrenched.
None of that kept the Cardinals from seeking to even wanting to extend Carlos Beltran’s deal. It was mostly because of Beltran’s age. But it was also because he’d end up blocking Taveras, perhaps as soon as two years from now.
There was quite a bit of howling that grew stronger every time the Birds’ RISP plummeted. On the day Craig’s knees called out no mas, peligro, the very people who howled for Taveras felt vindicated. The kid just hit a homer in his second at bat. Imagine the coming devastation he’d bring with him. Here’s the young man who’ll cure the team’s chronic inability to produce runs.
Such a scenario – that Taveras wins the ROY and reboot its offense – had living proofs, all currently active. At a time when the game is inundated by prodigious hitters, Taveras’ breakout seemed inevitable.
The game has a habit of humbling those who wish to make a wage out of it. The early marches to stardom of Trout, Harper, and then ROYs Yasiel Puig and Wil Myers, allowed many outside the Cardinals front office to assume Taveras’ stardom.
The days and months after Taveras’ first career home run failed to accomplish that task. Called down after nine games, Taveras was an afterthought.
And then Taveras was called up again, a response to a trade that sent incumbent right fielder Craig to the Boston Red Sox. As Taveras struggled to hit, never mind matching Myers and Puig’s franchise altering rookie years, talks simmered. Here was a young man held in contempt by the team’s fans, anonymous teammates, manager Mike Matheny and MLB Network analyst of the big league veteran sorts.
To the credit of the entities mentioned above, what stoked their ire wasn’t a the sub .300 OBP and high strikeout flailing. Those entities are savvy baseball thinkers. No way the kid busts. Too early to tell. And it wasn’t as if Matheny stuck it out with Taveras. Because his dictum from above was to make the postseason so they could start thinking about the World Series, Matheny never had the luxury. And because St. Louis needed production, not really having enough leeway to let one spot in the order sort things through, Taveras mostly sat.
Here’s a spoiled and entitled young man, armed with refined baseball skills but still encumbered by by heedless confidence and self-assurance. Here’s a prodigy whose work ethic was called out. Taveras was in violation of the Cardinals Way. It shows with the way he’s hitting.
If only this 22-year-old male with a rare gift of squaring up 97 mph fastballs would smarten up.
By the end of the regular season, a postseason spot secured, Taveras was an afterthought. The Cardinals kept him just in case. In the manner of building depth, he was given time to adjust to the best stuff in the world, at a time when defense is being optimized.
Taveras, perhaps for the first time in two years, was ignored. The team, sans Yadier Molina for a minute, was creaming the baseball, hiting like a team full of Vlads and pitching like crazy. Without Taveras’ help, Matheny’s team smoked the National League Central, waylaying the rival Milwaukee Brewers and winning enough to force the Pittsburgh Pirates into the Wild Card.
Before dying in a tragic car accident Sunday that also killed his girlfriend in the Dominican Republic, Taveras reaped his moments as a Major League ballplayer, exploding as a valuable (and powerful) pinch hitter.
After slashing .239 BA / .278 OBP / .312 SLG / 65 adjusted OPS, with three home runs, eight doubles and 37 strikeouts against 12 walks in 80 games, Taveras lit up when it mattered the most.
Unpredictably, Grichuk seized the postseason starter opening after posting 22 points higher than Taveras in adjusted OPS, which at 87 was a shade below replacement level.
Grichuk got more at bats in the playoffs because his approach was mature beyond his and Taveras’ age. He yielded two key home runs in the playoffs. One precipitated Clayton Kershaw’s blow up. Grichuk slashed below .200 on his batting average and on base percentage in 36 plate appearances. Taveras was batting above .400 with three hits and two runs scored in just plate appearances. Quality over quantity Totally an efficient play.
In his final big league moment, the budding star who’ll always occupy our minds as a tragic figure whose death kept him from realizing his presumed greatness, Taveras gave St. Louis’ national audience a glimpse of greatness. After losing in the National League Championship Series to the San Francisco Giants, the Cardinals family at least had Taveras’ breakout season to look forward to. There you go. Here was a man who’ll turn the Cardinals into the Odd Year team. Book a World Series next year. Taveras has figured it out. The front office will unleash him on the league in 2015’s Opening Day.
Like Angels SP Nick Adenhart, Taveras had left an impression that gave their teams’ fan bases a dose of optimism. Adenhart tragically lost his life in a DUI-involved car crash on the night of his first career victory, a convicted drunk driver plowing through what was then being celebrated as a milestone in life. Taveras’ experience was bittersweet, hitting a Game Two homer in the only game the Cardinals took from the berzerking Giants.
You never forget. I definitely keep in touch with them [Adenhart’s family] just to let them know someone’s thinking about them. It’s never going to be easy for them and I just don’t want them to feel that nobody remembers or cares. I just want them to know we’re always thinking about them and remembering Nick. It could have been a situation where we didn’t need to go out and sign C.J. (Wilson) this winter. The rotation might have been set. You think about what he could be at this point – he could be one of the elite pitchers in this league. He had such great stuff and he was just starting to figure it out.
On the morning of Dec. 8, when his team signed free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, Angels ace Jered Weaver woke up to an overflow of missed calls, voicemails and texts.
His initial thought: fear.
Still in his mind was the morning of April 9, 2009, when he woke up to a similar array of messages, only to find out his teammate, Nick Adenhart, had died in a car accident a few hours earlier. On Monday, as the Angels got set to take on the Twins at Target Field, that was a thought still prevalent in Weaver’s mind.
“I wish he was here,” Weaver said of Adenhart on the three-year anniversary of his death. “He was a great kid. I don’t think there’s just one day where you remember him. There’s a lot of days that go by where you think about him and wish he was still here.”
In the 103 starts Weaver has made since April 9, 2009, the 29-year-old right-hander has kept the same routine: He’ll say a prayer for Adenhart, then write his initials on the back of the mound just before toeing the rubber to deliver his first pitch.
“It’s still tough,” said Weaver, who took the mound in the first game the Angels played after Adenhart’s death. “It’s hard to talk about it to this day. We try to remember him as much as possible.”
A product of Maryland who overcame major elbow surgery, Adenhart was taken by the Angels in the 14th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. After four years in the Minors, and a three-start big league stint in ‘08, Adenhart finally put it all together at Angel Stadium on April 8, 2009, hurling six shutout innings against the Athletics with his father in the stands.
Shortly after midnight, though, the 22-year-old Adenhart and two other passengers – Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson – were killed by a drunk driver in Fullerton, Calif. The Angels suspended their game against the A’s the following day and have held several tributes since, most notably on Sept. 28, 2009 – when players sprayed beer and champagne on an Adenhart jersey after clinching the American League West title.
Weaver’s most vivid memory of Adenhart?
“He was happy-go-lucky, funny, loved to imitate people,” Weaver said. “He loved coming to the field, he loved being a part of the clubhouse, a part of the guys, and not only that, he was very talented on the field, too. It was definitely a tragedy, and it’s still tough to talk about to this day.”
So I’m wearing my Nick Adenhart jersey at the game, reading the Angels magazine before the doors open and all of a sudden this woman says to me, “Oh I really like your jersey.” So I said ohhh thank you! And she says, “I’m Nick’s mom.” I nearly fell over. It was amazing. His mom and dad were beautiful people and so thankful that I’m keeping his memory alive. My day has been made oh my goodness!