Daily News Sports Writer
1 - 28 - 2010, JOE GIACCHINO sensed something was going on.
After all, he was heading to Maryland last Sunday morning much earlier than usual, his entire family was making the trip and everyone was wearing nice clothes.
The baseball-playing Malvern Prep senior had been told the guest speakers at the last of three midwinter sessions held by the Southern Maryland Baseball Camp would be the parents of former Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim righthander Nick Adenhart, who was killed in an auto accident last April, barely into his major league career.
So, with everyone gathered in the gymnasium of the Annapolis Area Christian School, in Severn - with most in the bleachers and others, Joe included, just standing around the gym's outer edges - Duane Gigeous, Adenhart's stepfather, began his presentation.
"He was talking about adversity, and overcoming it," Giacchino said 2 days ago, before watching the Friars' basketball victory over Germantown Academy. "And then he got into the story of a kid who couldn't catch a flyball anymore, and went to the doctor, and got diagnosed with a brain tumor . . .
"But even though his dreams were once shattered, those dreams came back. He overcame it. Everything worked out for him, and he signed with Delaware. That's when my heart dropped. Up until then, I still wasn't sure what was going on . . . I knew it was me when he said 'Delaware.' My heart was pounding. I couldn't even grasp it . . .
"So, Mr. Gigeous calls me up to the front, and we shake hands, and he asks his wife, Nick Adenhart's mom [Janet], to come over and present me with the Nick Adenhart Courage Award. When I saw her, that was when I lost it. I started crying. I'd seen pictures of Nick, of course. Her face. She looked exactly like him. She gave me the award and everybody - players, parents, scouts - gave me great applause. It was overwhelming . . .
"For these people, who just lost their son not long ago, to come all the way to Maryland [from suburban Chicago] and give an award to someone they don't even know. For them to do such a thing, it's so unbelievable. They're incredible."
Ditto for Joe Giacchino (juh-keeno), a West Chester resident who's projected to start in rightfield this coming spring.
Thanks to gracious teammate Sean Walsh, who has agreed to switch jerseys, Giacchino will wear Adenhart's No. 34. Also, stitched into the outside portion of his Malvern-themed, blue-and-white spikes will be - in Angels' red, of course - the name "Nick Adenhart.''
"There can be no greater honor than wearing his number, and putting his name on my spikes," Giacchino said.
Except that he'd been groomed in the very same baseball camp, which is run by Angels scout Jerry Wargo, the man who nominated him for the award, Giacchino did not know much about Adenhart until his death, at the hands of a drunken driver, made national news.
He delved deeper as time passed, however, and found himself fascinated by the fact that Adenhart, a product of Williamsport High, outside Hagerstown, Md., had made the majors despite blowing out his arm - ligament-replacement surgery was required - in the final game of his high school career.
"Now that's a hero," Giacchino said.
Giacchino's own battle with adversity dates back to the fall of 2008. He knew something was wrong, and the problem turned out to be a double-edged sword.
"It was hard to even wake up," he said. "It came to a point where I was barely strong enough to get out of bed. Took me about 20 minutes. I forced myself to go to school, and sit in my classes, but there was nothing harder than keeping my head up."
You know how kids are, though. Especially the driven ones with dreams of earning a college scholarship. Giacchino attended a baseball showcase sponsored by Villanova.
"I could not catch a flyball,'' he said. "I can't even describe what I was seeing. Almost like knuckleballs were coming at me. The balls were appearing, disappearing, appearing in different places. I was so aggravated. I knew I blew it with Villanova.
"I finally had to tell my parents that something was up. I couldn't figure it out. They took me to get blood work. The diagnosis came back: Lyme disease. OK, that's not good. But at least there's an answer. Vision problems can be associated with Lyme disease.
"So then we go to an ophthalmologist. As he's moving his fingers across my field of vision, he notices a 'jumping' in my right eye. He says, 'There's no way Lyme disease would cause that. Clearly something else is wrong.' "
An MRI showed the brain tumor.
Good thing: It turned out to be benign. Bad thing: It was located in an especially sensitive area. After conducting what amounted to a scouting mission, Joe's parents, Larry and Lynn, decided to entrust his care to Dr. Leslie Sutton, at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. After listening to input from Joe.
"They felt I was mature enough to have my own opinion," he said.
This was what he heard, early on, from Dr. Sutton: Surgery could leave him with Bell's palsy. Or with limited use of his hands. Or with impairments of hearing and/or vision. Or, even in a somewhat positive scenario, unable to ever again play sports.
"To hear those things was actually comforting," Giacchino said.
"Dr. Sutton was so realistic," he said. "That's what I loved about him. The prior hospitals were too optimistic. They made things seem too good to be true."
The surgery, which left a 6-inch, north-south scar on the back, right side of Giacchino's head, was performed Nov. 3, 2008, just days after his parents made sure he attended the Phillies' celebration parade. The ordeal lasted roughly 6 hours, although the original projection had called for twice that, minimum.
"Take away the pain and suffering, everything went great," Giacchino said.
About the pain . . .
"It was unbearable. Crazy," he noted. "They were unable to prescribe pain medication because it could have kept them from picking up on things they needed to know. Dr. Sutton's a firm believer in that."
During his recovery period, Giacchino was inspired by the warmth he received from the Malvern community. Visiting well-wishers were numerous and what kept him going was the thought that he could resume playing baseball and realize his dream of earning a scholarship.
Honestly, though, he was kind of a shell of his diamond self when the '09 season began and wound up playing sparingly as a backup leftfielder.
Then came the summer. The chance to forge ahead. To show his speed (6.59 for 60 yards) and batwork and at least draw interest that would serve him well heading into the 2010 season.
The picture got even rosier. Delaware spotted him and offered a scholarship. Perfect! Joe accepted. His father owns car dealerships in that state and his older brother, Dan, who attended Archmere Academy, is a 2008 Delaware grad. Another brother, Brian, a freshman, is a three-sport athlete at Malvern.
A member of the National Honor Society, Joe intends to pursue business or journalism.
"This has definitely been an eye-opening experience," he said. "It went from being a heartbreaker, to thinking my dreams of playing college baseball were shot, to getting a scholarship and winning an award and getting to meet Nick Adenhart's parents . . . I got to hang out with them afterward. Definitely cool.
"The pain and suffering was worth it. It made me the person I've become today. I see the world differently. A regular day isn't so regular anymore. I have a better outlook. I see great things in stuff that I wouldn't have paid much attention to before."
Soon, in the No. 34 jersey and special spikes, in his final season at Malvern Prep, Joe Giacchino will begin honoring Nick Adenhart's memory.
"This has all been a blessing," he said.