Rarely have warnings about being careful what you wish for proven this prescient. If Joe Maddon really wished to return to the Angels he served three decades plus, and as their manager, yet, he couldn’t have picked a worse time to get his wish.
Amidst the thrills of the two League Championship Series a bomb exploded a couple of days ago. There was more to Angel pitcher Tyler Skaggs’s shocking death in Texas before the All-Star break than just an accidental overdose. Too much more.
Now Maddon will take the Angels’ bridge. It may have been a done deal from the moment the Angels pinked first year manager Brad Ausmus, which just so happened to be almost the precise moment in which Maddon learned he wouldn’t be returning as the Cubs’ manager once his contract expired at season’s end.
And if it was bad enough the Angels just had a second straight losing season and a third in four, despite having the best all-around baseball player on the planet, even that was nothing compared to the firestorm now erupting around Skaggs’s death.
“When stuff comes out, you want to know if it’s true,” said Mike Trout when autopsy results made public in early September showed how Skaggs died. “Obviously, if I knew I would definitely have said something or did something.”
Nobody has any reason to disbelieve Trout. But he may not like what transpires further. Especially after signing the gigabucks contract extension making him an Angel for life before spring training ended.
This is what we know so far: Skaggs, the likeable pitcher who was a clubhouse and fan favourite, was an opioid addict. For just how long seems unknown just yet. Also unknown for dead last certain at this writing is what manner of pain led Skaggs to the stuff in the first place. His family hired a Texas legal wolf to get to the bottom of it all. The digging is getting very disturbing.
What we also know so far is that the Angels’ communications director, Eric Kay, himself an opioid addict, knew about Skaggs’s issue with the drugs, procured them for the pitcher, and often used them with him. Kay has also told agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that five more Angels, so far unnamed, use opioids and that there were other team officials aware of Skaggs’s issue with them.
The Angels deny such knowledge. And Kay issued a statement this past weekend concurrent to his denial that he provided the actual pills that provoked Skaggs to overdose accidentally and asphyxiate in his sleep in a Texas hotel room in early July:
I felt and continue to feel that it is time for everyone to stand up and take responsibility for their respective roles in this. Nothing anyone does will ever provide closure for the Skaggs family. I can’t, the Angels can’t, and the courts can’t, regardless of what happens there. But at least I can help them “know”‘ instead of “wonder.” My hope is that there is some peace in that for them.
But four Angels past and incumbent—pitchers Trevor Cahill, Matt Harvey, Andrew Heaney, and Noe Ramirez—have been interviewed and questioned by federal agents. NBC Sports says those four aren’t suspects, just witnesses. So far.
And ESPN’s T.J. Quinn says the Angels may face heavy sanctions from baseball’s government if it’s proven any team officials knew about Skaggs’s problem but didn’t speak up to the commissioner’s office about him using substances banned by baseball. The sanctions could include up to a $2 million fine against the Angels and the officials in question banned from baseball for life if proven.
An Angel spokeswoman, Marie Garvey, issued a statement on Tuesday in which she said the team had no knowledge that Kay provided Skaggs opioids:
We have never heard that any employee was providing illegal narcotics to any player, or that any player was seeking narcotics from him. The current and former employees that are being accused of knowing this behavior have categorically denied that assertion. The Angels maintain a strict, zero tolerance policy regarding the illicit use of drugs for both players and staff. Every one of our players must also abide by the MLB joint drug agreement.
There could be a reason why any Angels officials who did know about Skaggs’s problem, if they did know, were loath to speak up and out. A few years ago, then-Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton—a recovering substance abuser whose Angels seasons were throttled by injuries—had a relapse while watching a Super Bowl. Hamilton didn’t flinch. He reported it to the team and to baseball’s government immediately. That’d teach him.
It wasn’t enough then for Angels owner Arte Moreno. Never mind that Hamilton could have tried to run and hide but didn’t. For his forthrightness Hamilton was run out of town on the proverbial rail, right back to the Rangers from whence he’d come, with Moreno paying Hamilton’s entire salary just to be rid of him.
Adding insult to injury: Hamilton’s forthrightness didn’t impress then-manager Mike Scioscia one degree, Scioscia all but demanding that Hamilton owed the Angels a public apology, if not a perp walk. All Hamilton did was his absolute duty under baseball’s drug agreement when he relapsed. And his reward for doing his duty and shooting straight was orders to be out of town before sundown.
If you think that didn’t scare the living you-know-what out of anyone else working for the Angels, I have a fully-operating California bullet train to sell you for a song. Maybe a short medley. The scared may have included Kay and his boss/mentor Tim Mead, now running the Hall of Fame, but then the Angels’ vice president for communications.
We know that Kay’s mother, Sandra, claims her son told Mead about Skaggs’s opioid issues a few years prior to Skaggs’s death. We know Mead once visited Kay in the hospital with Kay’s mother present, and that Kay checked into a rehab program this past July. (Coincidence? Convenience?) We know Sandra Kay claims to have talked to Mead about Skaggs’s drug issue and that Mead denies the conversation.
“Keep in mind,” says Jessica DeLine, a writer for the SB Nation blog Halos Heaven, “opioid abuse often begins after surgeries, when the drug may be prescribed to the patient. Per the Mayo Clinic, opioids are highly addictive and your risk of addiction is increased after taking the drug for just a few days.”
Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, during his first Angels season after two with the Diamondbacks, and missed the entire 2015 season recuperating and rehabbing from it. It’s entirely possible that things happened for him just as the Mayo Clinic describes: he may have been prescribed one or another opioid (oxycodone and fetanyl were found in his system after his death) after the surgery and he got hooked.
In 2017, Skaggs spent 98 days on the disabled list with a strained oblique; in 2018, he spent three months on the DL with hip adductor muscle issues. If he wasn’t prescribed any opiate after his Tommy John surgery, who’s to say the pain of those injuries instead didn’t lead him to opiates’ doors?
“Someone is lying here,” DeLine writes, “and it’s either Tim Mead . . . or Sandy Kay. What would be the reasons either of them would lie? Sandy’s benefit would perhaps be to shift blame away from her son and onto the Angels. Mead’s reasons should be rather obvious.”
Skaggs’s death shocked baseball. The Angels were thoroughly waylaid by it. They went public with their grief. The Rangers in Texas allowed them to postpone the opening game of their pre-break series out of respect and even laid Skaggs’s number 45 on the back of their home mound, in the Angels’ uniform font style, out of further respect.
The Angels took two of three from the Rangers, lost two of three to the Astros, then returned home after the break to host the Mariners. What they did to open that series shocked baseball even further.
Wearing Skaggs jerseys and numbers one and all in tribute, pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena combined to pitch a no-hit, 13-0 blowout against the Mariners in which Trout himself, emergent as a team leader over his friend’s death, opened the carnage with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first. When the game ended, the players left their jerseys on the mound surrounding Skaggs’s number 45 as a final tribute.
The news of opioids in Skaggs’s system the night he died came forth not long after that game. Now the possibility of the Angels administration sleeping at the switch while their pitcher battled such an addiction, and one of their P.R. people looks to have abetted him, stains their familiar logo halo.
That’s what Maddon is walking into right off the bat after signing a reported three-year contract to manage the team for whom he served as Scioscia’s longtime (and 2002 World Series-winning) consigliere on the bench before starting his own mostly successful managing career.
And Maddon has his own unfortunate small history of being caught with his pants down over comparable troubles. He looked almost entirely clueless in his responses when Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was exposed as a domestic abuser by Russell’s former wife last fall. Nobody with brains suggests Maddon condones domestic violence, but his tepid response at first, upon Russell’s exposure, was a terrible look for the man who shepherded the Cubs to their first World Series win (2016) in over a century.
Now Maddon has to think about more than just bringing a club together under a new bridge commander and thinking about percentages and execution on the field. He has to think about the potentials around disturbing revelations that may or may not prove to have been true involving the death of a popular pitcher and its continuing effects on his new players.
He may even have to think about the ramifications if it should turn out that any Angel players, other than the four current or former pitchers interviewed by federal agents, knew Skaggs had a serious addiction problem and did or said nothing to intercede before it was too late. Especially if the Manfred administration comes to appear more interested in making players do a Pittsburgh drug trials-like perp walk than in making real moves to solve a too-real, too-dangerous issue.
And those will still be nothing compared to the additional anger and grief Skaggs’s widow and family will suffer.