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Tragic end

Former Sox farmhand Stenson struck down as his major league career was just beginning

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- His baseball life started when Boston signed him out of high school at the tender age of 17. His life ended just seven years later in a hail of bullets last week on Boston Street in a dark corner of the Valley of the Sun.

Once touted as the top prospect in the Red Sox system, Dernell Stenson was anointed the heir apparent to former MVP Mo Vaughn at first base and dreamed of playing at Fenway Park. Instead, Stenson, 6 feet 1 inch and 230 pounds, played seven long years in the Red Sox minor league system before being waived last spring.

In the early-morning hours of Nov. 5, just as his future as a Cincinnati Reds outfielder was looking as bright as the Arizona sun, Stenson was kidnapped during a robbery of his SUV. According to police, he was handcuffed and, when he tried to escape, was shot and dragged behind the vehicle for three blocks before being run over.

Stenson was buried Monday in his hometown of LaGrange, Ga. He was given a standing ovation in a packed church of mourners that included Reds teammates Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin. His uncle, Rev. Marshall Stenson, delivered the eulogy, saying, "I don't know what else is in heaven, but heaven has got to have a baseball team."

The 25-year-old outfielder, who was playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League at the time of his death, went out to a nightclub with several teammates the night of Nov. 4 and never came back. Chandler police say the robbery of his 2002 Black Isuzu Rodeo was the motive for his killing.

Four men have been arrested in connection with the attack on Stenson, who police say went down swinging against his captors. "We know there was a struggle in the vehicle based on evidence, including blood, and on statements given," said Sgt. Mark Franzen of the Chandler Police Department.

Haunting vision

Rodrigo Gutierrez, 17, was at his aunt's house talking with his girlfriend on the phone at 1:45 a.m. last Wednesday when "I heard five shots . . . bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Very fast.

"I saw the SUV speed down the street. Then it looked like they were trying to drop him off. I guess he [Stenson] was hanging and dragging. They let him out. Then I saw them back up and run him over with the right rear tire."

Gutierrez, who says he's had nightmares about that night, then "opened the window. He was laying there trying to move a little but he couldn't."

The trail of blood from the attack started on Boston Street, where he was shot; continued to South 94th Place Street, where Gutierrez's aunt lives; and finally in front of 2253 West Butler Drive, where Stenson died, face up, in the middle of the street. Chandler Fire Department paramedic Steve Nicoll was less than a minute away when the call came in. He saw at least four bullet wounds, to Stenson's face, chest, abdomen, and hand.

"He had severe abrasions on both forearms, indicating he had been dragged," said Nicoll. "We put the heart monitor on him right away, but he was gone."

On Wednesday afternoon they brought the grim crime-scene photos to the Scorpion clubhouse as the team was preparing for a game that night. Former PawSox teammate and now Scorpion coach Garey Ingram made the positive identification of Stenson. "It hurts," said Ingram, who also works as a coach in the Dodgers organization. "He was like a little brother to me."

The league canceled the game and brought in grief counselors, major league baseball security personnel, and police detectives to brief players, who still expected Stenson and his light-up-the-room smile to stroll in.

Instead, his name joined those of other professional ballplayers who suffered violent deaths -- Angels star Lyman Bostock, killed with a shotgun while riding in a car in Gary, Ind., in September 1978; Braves pitching prospect Dave Shotkoski, shot in March 1995 in West Palm Beach, Fla., during an apparent robbery attempt; and Gus Polidor who, shortly after ending a comeback attempt with the Montreal Expos, was shot in Venezuela in April 1995.

Joining the Show

Stenson was a third-round pick of the Red Sox in the June 1996 amateur draft. He played his last four years in the Boston organization at Triple A Pawtucket, and in 1998 and 2000 Baseball America selected him as the top Red Sox prospect. But in his minor league career Stenson batted just .265., hardly MVP numbers. In 2000 he showed a glimpse of his potential, belting 23 homers in just 98 games for Pawtucket.

On July 7, 2000, the Red Sox called him up for eight days. But like Moonlight Graham, he never got to hit. In fact, he never got into a game. Some baseball insiders felt that when the Red Sox moved Stenson to first base, he had a hard time adjusting. Released on Feb. 21 of this year, the Reds claimed him on waivers. They promptly demoted him to Double A Chattanooga, where he hit . 306 in 101 games and made the All-Star team.

"That tells you something about his character," said Rick Burleson, the former Red Sox shortstop who manages the Scorpions as well as the Reds' Triple A club at Louisville. After a brief stop at Louisville, Stenson wound up playing with the Reds for the last 37 games of the 2003 season.

In his first big league start Aug. 16 against the Astros, he doubled twice and singled. On the penultimate day of the season, he made three excellent catches to preserve a Reds win. He finished with a .247 average, 3 home runs, and 13 RBIs. As a pinch hitter he was clutch, going 4 for 12 and knocking in five runs. In the last game of the season -- the last major league game of his life -- he smacked a seventh-inning home run.

His Reds teammate and friend, Stephen Smitherman, said Stenson was never happier. He had finally made it to The Show.

Playing for the Scorpions, he was tearing up the AFL, batting .394, second best in the league, with a .453 on-base percentage through 18 games.

"He was a class act from Day One," said Burleson. "He was a great kid, very quiet, always very polite. `No sir, yes sir.' Very professional. He had a future with the Reds as a lefthanded hitter. He was my cleanup hitter."

Ongoing investigation

That Tuesday night, Stenson went to Sugar Daddy's, a Scottsdale nightclub that features live music. He was still sitting at the bar when several of his teammates left at 11:30. Police don't know if he stayed at Sugar Daddy's or went elsewhere, only that at some point he was abducted during the theft of his vehicle and driven to Boston Street, part of a Chandler neighborhood where neighbors peek out from behind barred windows.

At the three-block crime scene last week there was a white sneaker and a black sneaker in the middle of the street, surrounded by yellow police tape. A Cincinnati Reds outfielder is dead, his 14-month-old son left without a father, his girlfriend left pregnant, and a family and teammates left empty except for a host of unanswered questions.

"It's an ongoing investigation," said Franzen. "We are still trying to determine why they did not just take his vehicle and whether they knew each other." Detectives have flown to Indiana, where one of the suspects has an outstanding warrant, seeking further information.

Reginald Riddle, 19, of Harvey, Ill., and David Griffith, 20, a local drifter, were charged with first-degree murder, robbery, and kidnapping. According to court records, Riddle admitted to police that he was involved in the murder of Stenson. On Saturday, Griffith surrendered without incident at his mother's home on the Salt River Indian reservation.

The key break in the case came quickly, when Riddle's half brother, Kevin Riddle, 43, was stopped by Mesa police driving Stenson's SUV just two hours after the murder. He was charged with possession of stolen property. Both Riddles had only been in the area for two weeks, police said. Robert Lee Maye, a cousin of the Riddles, was arrested Sunday for hindering prosecution. He later told police that he and Kevin Riddle met Griffith and Reginald Riddle after the murder, and that Griffith was hopping on one foot with only one shoe.

Emotional swing

At Scottsdale Stadium last Friday, a weary Burleson tried to get his team ready to play an afternoon game against Peoria. "If the players were given the option, everybody would scatter and there would be no closure," said Burleson, 52. "Everyone would be grieving by themselves. By finishing the season together we can lean on each other. The locker room is pretty sad and quiet." The season ends Saturday.

Smitherman, Stenson's lockermate in both the majors and minors, said his friend deserved better. "The Red Sox never gave him a chance, but he finally got to play at the highest level in the world this year," said Smitherman Friday, his eyes still swollen from crying. "How many people can say that?

"He had a beautiful kid, and he was a great dad. And what hurts is that the kid is never going to know his father. I remember me and him and Griffey sitting down and just chilling on the couch in the clubhouse, talking about life beyond baseball. I'm going to celebrate his life and that I got a chance to know him."

Smitherman replaced his friend in left field at Scottsdale Stadium, where banners of AFL alumni such as Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Piazza, and Jason Giambi hang on the outfield wall. It is also where Michael Jordan fell to earth as a baseball player. And where Giants home run king Barry Bonds patrols left field in spring training.

"It's good for the soul to come out here and continue to do what he would do, said Smitherman. "Justice will prevail either in this life or the other life."

Before Friday's game, the players hung up Stenson's No. 63 in the dugout. The league, made up of six teams stocked with mostly minor league prospects, held a league-wide moment of silence that night.

The Scorpions and the Peoria Saguaros lined up on the foul lines and faced the flag at half-mast, the Scorpions wearing Stenson's 63 or his initials on their hats.

It was a gray day in the Valley of the Sun, the crowd sparse and silent. Stenson's teammates say he used to love to recite famous movie quotes while traveling to games on the bus. Today the famous Tom Hanks line from "A League of Their Own" . . . "There's no crying in baseball" . . . will be proven wrong. Several of Stenson's teammates from the Reds organization openly weep. Reds left fielder Smitherman drapes his huge arms around them. Players cry in their hats, they cry behind dark sunglasses, they cry on each others' shoulders.

The Scorpions decide to honor their teammate in a special way, each player using Stenson's black 32-ounce bat for his first at-bat. "We are going to sign it and give it to his mom at the funeral," said Smitherman.

Smitherman got the first hit. "I saw the third baseman stab it and I went down the line as hard as I could," said Smitherman. "I felt like he [Stenson] was standing right next to me."

The game was eerie. You could hear the umpire call balls and strikes in the last row of the grandstand. You could hear the radio announcer up in the press room from the first row of the box seats. The scouts pointing radar guns behind home plate looked like they want to be somewhere, anywhere else. One woman behind the Scorpions' dugout wept for nine innings. After the game, Scorpion players hugged instead of shaking hands.

"He had a smile that just lit up. It glowed. I never saw him in a bad mood," said Susan Price, a fan who likes to bake brownies for the team.

After the 7-2 win, Scorpions shortstop Sergio Santos, a first-round draft choice of the Diamondbacks, looked like he was in a trance. "It was pretty cloudy all day," said Santos, "but in the sixth the sun was trying to peek through and I said, `I know that's Dernell up there.' I said, `Dernell, give me a sign so I know you made it to heaven.' The next inning, I went up to bat and I hit a home run. I had chills running through my whole body."

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