The Angels win with overloaded hearts

2019-07-03 TrevorCahill
Angels relief pitcher Trevor Cahill gives a salute to the late Tyler Skaggs. Showing class to burn, the Rangers installed Skaggs’ uniform number—in the Angels’ uniform font—behind their pitching rubber in memorial tribute for Tuesday’s game.

A teammate dies without warning as a season comes to within sight of the halfway marker. Your scheduled road opponent is gracious enough to cancel the game scheduled that night out of respect for your loss. The grief within your clubhouse and your front office is too real to suppress. And back home your fans are laying out item after item, flower after flower, message after message in your teammate and friend’s memory.

“LTBU in heaven!” said a scrawl on one souvenir batting helmet left among the memory gifts, referring to Angel fans’ customary call (Light that baby up!) after Angels wins, to light the halo around the original stadium big A scoreboard now implanted in the back parking lot.

Angel fans get to mourn Tyler Skaggs a little longer than the Angels themselves in terms of the schedule, because the Angels still had a game to play against the Rangers in Arlington Tuesday night.

Whether you’re in the depth of a pennant race, on the race’s fringes, or headed for the repose where the also-rans will commiserate when it’s all over, you know in your heart of hearts, gut of guts, and mind of minds, that the young man you mourn would rather you suit up, shape up, and step up on the mound, at the plate, on the bases, in the field, than spend more than a single day’s grief without playing the game he loved with you.

So the Angels did what they knew their lost brother wanted. They suited up, shaped up, stepped up, with Skaggs’s uniform number (45) on a small round black patch on their jerseys’ left breasts. They carried Skaggs’s Angels jersey for a pre-game moment of silence in his honour.

“It was just kind of something unplanned. His jersey was hanging in his locker. We wanted to take him out there with us one more time,” said pitcher Andrew Heaney later. “He was definitely my best friend. There’s probably about 100 other people out there that would say he was their best friend, too, because he treated everybody like that.”

His best friends beat the Rangers, 9-4, on a night during which the Rangers showed the Angels such respect as canning the walkup music and others among the normal rackets for Ranger feats at home. The Rangers even installed a red number 45 behind the pitching rubber. In the Angels’ uniform font. To do Skaggs and his team honour.

And not a single Angel tried to hide his grief at a post-game conference.

Their all-everything center fielder, Mike Trout, spent most of the game walking three times and scoring on a base hit. Maybe the single greatest star in the Angels’ firmament, ever, Trout couldn’t get through a simple expression of what Skaggs meant to himself and their team without several chokings back of tears.

“Lost a teammate, lost a friend, a brother, we just got to get through it,” he said shakily. “He was an unbelievable person. It’s all about him. Husband of Carli, what a sweet girl, Debbie his mom, you know, a good relationship with them. You know, it’s just a tough, you know, 24 hours.

“We’re getting through it, tough playing out there today, but like Brad [Ausmus, the Angels’ manager] said earlier, Skaggs, you know, he wouldn’t want us to take another day off,” Trout continued. “The energy he brought into this clubhouse, you know, every time you saw him he’d pick you up. It’s going to be tough, you know, these next couple of days, the rest of the season, the rest of our lives, you know, to lose a friend . . . All these guys in here, you know, I see these guys more than my family. To lose somebody like him is tough.”

In Washington, Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin, close friends with Skaggs since their Diamondbacks days, switched his uniform from 46 to Skaggs’s 45. Then he went out to pitch his regular turn, his manager Dave Martinez saying it was just about all Corbin could do. Corbin himself affirmed it after the Nats beat the Marlins, 3-2, Trea Turner walking it off with an RBI hit.

“When you have a loss, you want to keep things as normal as you can and just try to go out there and do what you have to do,” Corbin said after that game. But he never said it would be easy to pitch through the memories of their being drafted together by the Angels, traded together to the Diamondbacks, and in each other’s wedding parties this past offseason.

Corbin not only changed his uniform number to Skaggs’s but scratched the number in the dirt behind the mound before he managed to pitch seven innings despite being disrupted by a rain delay of over an hour, surrendering one run, no walks, and seven strikeouts.

Another Nat had personal ties to Skaggs. Adam Eaton played in the fall instructional leagues with Skaggs. And they were eventually traded away from the Diamondbacks in the same three-way deal that returned Skaggs to the Angels and sent Eaton to the White Sox.

“Saw his debut. Saw his first hit. Saw his first strikeout. Know his wife. My wife knows his family. It’s just . . . I’m not quite sure it’s hit me yet,” the outfielder said, shades covering his teary eyes. “My family, our hearts go out to his family. He’s kind of kicked us in the pants in his passing that we need to take every day as it’s our last and enjoy our family and love our family and what’s important in our life, and know that we’re blessed to play this game every day. That’s the gift he’s given us, even after.”

As for the Angels, they started the game with a first-inning, run-scoring ground out before a first-inning sacrifice fly, a third-inning solo homer, and a double steal including home put the Rangers up 3-1. The Angels tied it in the fifth on a base hit that turned into two runs home on an outfield throwing error; a four-run sixth—an RBI single, a runner-advancing throwing error, another RBI single, and a sacrifice fly—put them ahead to stay.

The Rangers got their final run on another sacrifice fly, and the Angels got their final two when shortstop Andrelton Simmons opened the top of the eighth with a walk and, one out later, right fielder Kole Calhoun drove a middle-high fastball parabolically over the right center field fence. The win pulled the Angels back to .500 and to within four games of the American League wild card hunt.

Those small details were probably the last things on their minds Tuesday night. They might be a little more concerned for Tommy La Stella, their breakout All-Star, who had to leave the game in the sixth after fouling a pitch off his right leg below his knee. But La Stella probably thought his injury was tiny compared to the wrench in the team’s hearts.

“It’s bigger than the game. The friendship and the love I had for him and his family, it’s more than that,” Trout said.

“Today it was just different,” said Calhoun after the game, “and there’s no playbook on how it’s supposed to go today and you’re supposed to act and react. But getting back to the game definitely is what he would have wanted. Today was a day that we leaned on each other like we really needed to do.”

The same thing happened ten years earlier, after rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver while out celebrating after a splendid first start of the season. The day after Adenhart’s death, the Angels beat the Red Sox, 6-3, in Angel Stadium. The win was only partial comfort then just as it was Tuesday night in Arlington.

It doesn’t always work that way.

Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died unexpectedly of a heart attack in June 2002, while the Cardinals were in Chicago to play the Cubs. The following day, they lost to the Cubs, 8-2, with the Cubs scoring all eight before the eighth inning including a four-run sixth, and the Cardinals able to muster only two in the eighth—on future Hall of Famer (and current Angel) Albert Pujols’s two-run homer—and one in the ninth on an RBI single.

When Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was killed in the crash of his own aircraft, the Yankees played the Orioles the day after and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in Yankee Stadium. In a game featuring three future Hall of Famers (Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage) and a pitching duel between Scott McGregor of the Orioles and Luis Tiant of the Yankees, the lone run came when John Lowenstein hammered a Tiant service over the fence.

A year earlier, Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock was murdered while on a visit to Gary, Indiana, in a car, when a man fired at the car hoping to hit his estranged wife, whom he suspected having an involvement, shall we say, with another man in the car. The next day, the Angels beat the Brewers in extra innings, Carney Lansford singling home Danny Goodwin with two out in the tenth.

Death in season sometimes rallies teams and other times knocks them apart. Maybe no death in Reds’ history was as shocking as the 2 August 1940 suicide of reserve catcher Will Hershberger—whose own father had committed suicide previously. Blaming himself for a doubleheader loss, Hershberger reportedly told manager Bill McKechnie more than that troubled him but nothing to do with the team, and McKechnie never disclosed the rest.

The Reds played another doubleheader the day after Hershberger’s death. They swept the Boston Braves (then known as the Bees), then went on to win the pennant with a 23-8 September before beating the Tigers in seven in the World Series. McKechnie publicly dedicated the rest of the season and the pennant chase to Hershberger, and the Reds awarded a full winning World Series share to Hershberger’s mother while they were at it.

And when Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died after being coned by Carl Mays’s fastball in 1920, the stricken Tribe—with just a little help from the explosion of the Eight Men Out being taken out in Chicago at almost season’s end—ended up winning the pennant and the World Series.

The 1955 Red Sox were headed only to a fourth place finish but they suffered the unexpected death of promising young first baseman Harry Agganis to a pulmonary embolish on 27 June that year. The following day, the Red Sox swept the Washington Senators in a doubleheader compelled by a rainout earlier that season. The scores were 4-0 in the opener and 8-2 in the nightcap.

These Angels may or may not band up and make a surprise run to the postseason from here. But they honoured their effervescent pitching teammate now gone in the only coin all accounts suggest Skaggs would have accepted. They played ball. And they beat a team who probably didn’t really mind getting their tails kicked for just one night, because the grief felt around baseball over Skaggs’s unexpected death was just too real.

“We knew what they were dealing with on the other side,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said after the game. “We were trying to comprehend the impact something like that would have on our ball club. I can’t even describe the feelings they were having. Obviously, it wasn’t our best game, but clearly it affected us in some way. Honestly, I don’t know how to describe that feeling. It was just kind of obvious they deserved to win.”

“We know we’ve got an angel watching over us now,” Calhoun said. “When I got to the plate, it felt right to pay some respect to him, and like I said, we know we’ve got somebody watching over us up there.” Somebody who didn’t deserve to die at 27.

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