A season without the Trout hitting?

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Mike Trout and his wife, Jessica, in a photo they posted to Instagram. If push comes to shove, Trout would rather sit this season than risk infecting her and their child-to-be.

Mike Trout’s virtues include that he’s as close to a hopeless romantic as a baseball player gets. This is the Angel who proposed to his wife by hiring a skywriting team to pop the question. He is also the Angels’ franchise face who’s pondering seriously whether to opt out of playing whatever the 2020 season happens to be.

Jessica Trout expects their first child next month. And her husband the romantic would like to be as certain as a young man can be that he doesn’t bring home such unwanted gifts for mother and child as the coronarivus.

As a matter of fact, the very thought of it makes Trout quake more than any pitcher has ever made the three-(should-be-four-)time American League Most Valuable Player quake. “Honestly,” Trout has told Los Angeles Times baseball writer Mike DiGiovanna, “I still don’t feel that comfortable. It’s gonna be tough. I’ve got to be really cautious these next couple weeks. I don’t want to test positive. I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. It’s a tough situation we’re in.”

Yes, it’s a difference from when Trout was among the players pleading, “When and where,” before the impasse between the owners and the players over starting a season finished. And, yes, there are millions of other people who’ve gone to work at far less lucrative jobs than Trout performs for money some small national economies rarely if ever see.

Let’s just put that into perspective, if we dare. The Wal-Mart or 7-Eleven clerk, the gas station attendant, the Starbucks barista, the cashier or floor walker at Macy*s, the servers at the Olive Garden, the local bartender, the dealers and floor walkers at the casino, are seen doing their jobs and judged on the spot by several thousand people every day.

But not at the same time. Not concurrently on national and even international television aboard which they’re watched by several million as well as the 55,000 who would be in the ballpark in normal, non-viral times. Unless they make a mistake too egregious to ignore, and it happens within range of the nearest smartphone camera trained upon them, their errors are unlikely to go past their boss and their complaining customers.

They don’t get hammered en masse aboard social media for having the occasional 0-for-4 day or night. They don’t get massively insulted for the heinous offense of not coming with 25 clones able to lift a team its best player can’t always be proud of from the ranks of the also-rans.

Whether or not you think it’s a crime, or at least a miscarriage of justice, the clerks, attendants, baristas, cashiers, floor walkers, servers, bartenders, and dealers don’t exactly bring uncounted millions into their companies through sales of their hats, uniforms, and aprons, or other bric-a-brac of their jobs. Nobody’s in half the hurry to hit the nearest Lids, Inc. or call Amazon up on their computers to buy their favourite barista’s Starbucks shirt.

Nobody loves the idea that those folks plus particular farmers, factory or warehouse labourers, repair people, waterfront workers, or airport workers can be replaced simply enough. Replacing a Mike Trout is something else entirely. It’s not his fault the Angels have been a nowhere team for his entire career to date. Good luck asking them (as some social media meatheads have) to just pay the ingrate off and find another player with even a passing resemblance.

Baseball’s paradoxes include one enunciated best by Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, when he returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitching instructor in the late 1970s/early 1980s. “You are part of an entertainment, but you are not an entertainer,” he told Thomas Boswell, reflecting on his pitching career. (The article was re-published in Boswell’s anthology, How Life Imitates the World Series.) “But I enjoyed it, probably more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”

To this day people rub their eyes in amazement that Koufax walked away from baseball at the absolute height of his pitching career, at age thirty, because the thought of living without full use of his left arm—which is exactly what doctors told him he risked if he tried to pitch even one more season—troubled him that deeply. Koufax earned $125,000 in his final season, 1966. That salary in today’s dollars would be about $2 million short of what Trout stands to earn just pro-rated for the 2020 season.

Today there are probably people enough rubbing their eyes in amazement that Trout would even think of walking away from just that salary because the idea of becoming infected with a grave disease he might transmit to his wife and his child-to-be offends him as deeply as the idea of crippling himself for life on behalf of just one more season offended Koufax.

After almost three months worth of the owners trying to game the players out of their previously-agreed pro-rated season salaries for whenever a season might be played, the coronavirus world tour shows few if any signs of winding down.

The least sensible among us accuse them of malingering while injured; the completely witless have been known to accuse them of inviting the injuries. When Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. incurred a few too many injuries during his Cincinnati years, I had a few too many arguments with a few too many Reds fans accusing him of failing to stay in proper shape and thus leaving himself injury prone. As if the most perfectly conditioned athlete could yet avoid three season-ending injuries in four years and their impact on his swing, bat speed, and outfield range.

We see ballplayers as wealthy sport savants and forget more often than we should that they’re human men. (How often do you hear the least sensible fans accuse them of malingering while injured, simply because proper recovery time is longer than fans like?) We barely accept when they’re injured on the field; we wrestle with them now wrestling between their itch to play, our itch to watch them play, and their too real need to safeguard themselves reasonably and their families profoundly.

The most fearless player on the planet finds no reason to quake facing a 100-mph fastball, or running to haul down a fly ball only a foot between himself and disaster against a particularly unforgiving outfield wall. A virus with a particular penchant for death makes him fearful for his family and for himself. Trout knows it.

“I got to be really cautious these next few weeks,” he told an online news conference Friday morning. “I think the biggest thing is obviously I don’t want to test positive and I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. We thought hard about all this, still thinking about all this. It’s a tough time, tough situation we’re in, everyone’s in, and everybody’s got a responsibility in this clubhouse to social distance, stay inside, wear a mask, and keep everybody safe.”

ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez cites an unidentified major league infielder’s concern “how the quick ramp-up to what MLB is calling ‘Summer Camp’ might prevent teams from having the logistics in place to ensure proper social distancing at their respective facilities. He also expressed doubt that all those people making up Tiers 1 and 2 — up to 125 per team, consisting of players, coaches, trainers, front-office executives, public-relations employees and clubhouse personnel, among others — will care enough to consistently adhere to all the health-and-safety protocols.”

Later Friday, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced 38 of the first 31,185 people going through its screening process tested positive for the coronavirus, and 31 were players. Thirty-eight overall out of 31,185 is .001 percent. Thirty-one out of 38 is eight points higher than Hall of Famer Rickey (The Man of Steal) Henderson’s lifetime stolen base percentage. (.808, if you’re scoring at home.)

Previously, it became known that Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and twelve members of the Philadelphia Phillies were infected. Today, the Atlanta Braves revealed first baseman Freddie Freeman tested COVID-19 positive.

The game’s government and players have developed protocols for testing and social distancing. But Gonzalez warns, “It will come down to discipline, accountability and self-policing. Positive cases are inevitable; the hope is to avoid the type of outbreaks that might postpone or even cancel the season. If one person wavers, the entire system might collapse. And even if players adhere to monklike sensibilities over the next three to four months, the realities of a pandemic that forges on might render their efforts meaningless. It’s why so many players are hesitant.”

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake was the first player to exercise the opt-out option on playing this year. Following suit were two World Series-champion Washington Nationals (first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Joe Ross), another Rockies outfielder (Ian Desmond), and free-agent pitcher Tyson Ross. There could be more to follow, with or without Trout joining their number.

A third National, relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, who’s become something of a social media star with his wife, Eireann Dolan, through their articulate tweets, has said aloud that he fears baseball won’t work this year no matter the protocols. Eireann suffers chronic lung issues leaving her prone to respiratory infections and with several hospital stays on her resume.

Doolittle would love to play this year but hates to make things worse for her. He’s popular above and beyond his team’s fan base, but he’s not exactly the final face of the Nats. Neither is Leake for the Diamondbacks; they’d take a bigger blow if they lose freshly-minted Madison Bumgarner or breakout star Ketel Marte. Blackmon’s arguably the Rockies’ face (when you can see it under his hat and behind his Bunyanesque beard), but not yet baseball’s. Freeman’s one of the Braves’s two faces. (Ronald Acuna, Jr. joins him.)

Even a truncated season without Trout would shatter not just the Angels but the game itself. Even if commissioner Rob Manfred once decided the reason Trout isn’t the face of the game above and beyond just the sport itself was . . . Trout himself, considering Trout is possibly baseball’s least self-promoting young man.

It’s almost to worry, should more players such as himself finally opt out of playing this year, that Manfred might see any coming opt-outs and decide it’s all . . . Trout’s fault, for opening his big yap, and admitting that push coming to shove would mean he’d rather take the season off than infect his wife and child-to-be.

The Angels bag Tony Two Bags

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Anthony Rendon hitting the two-run homer that started yanking the Nationals toward winning World Series Game Seven. Tony Two Bags swaps his shark teeth for a halo now.

In need enough of upgrading their starting rotation, the Angels missed their chance to bring either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg back to their California roots. So they signed Strasburg’s fellow now-ex-National, third baseman Anthony Rendon, for the same time and dollars (seven years, $245 million) it took for the Nats to grant Strasburg’s real wish to stay home in Washington (he’d bought a home there quite recently) for the rest of his baseball life.

Tony Two Bags swaps his shark’s teeth for a halo. And now that they’ve turned third base from a swamp into rolling rapids, the Angels can get right back to the pitching pursuit.

They needed to upgrade at third base almost as badly as they need a pitching upgrade. A trio of third basemen produced a combined 2019 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) .359 lower than Rendon’s 1.010. And if nothing else Angel fans should be frothing at the mouth over the prospect of Rendon joining the game’s prize Trout in a tag team that accounted for 14.6 wins above replacement-level last season. That’s a remarkable enough difference if they could have been together then.

Fourteen wins might have meant an 86-76 instead of a 72-90 Angels season. Assuming the Angels don’t stop with Rendon on this winter’s market, free agency or trading alike, they still have room for the pitching upgrade. And to say the Angels require a pitching upgrade is to say Washington, the government and not their world champion baseball team, requires remedial constitutional training.

The entire 2019 Angel staff encouraged walking for sound mind and body; they walked 3.9 batters per nine innings while striking out 8.8 per nine. Their collective earned run average was 5.12 and their collective fielding-independent pitching was 5.04. Collectively they were stingy when it came to surrendering big flies (1.7 average per nine innings) but generous beyond belief when it came to atoning for strikeouts by letting the other guys do the stroll. (2.44 K/BB ratio.)

The bullpen was superior enough to the rotation that you wondered for a few moments why the Angels didn’t go to more bullpen games when feasible than they did. (The crown jewel, of course, was that 13-0 combined no-hitter blowout against the Marines in their first home game following the shocking death of Tyler Skaggs, their best starting pitcher.) The only Angel with an ERA and an FIP below three? Hansel Robles, relief pitcher, the former Met who succeeded where another former Met (Matt Harvey, started) had his moments but collapsed enough to be designated for assignment and released.

What to do this winter, then? At this writing Madison Bumgarner, whose postseason jacket has only Strasburg for a near-equal match, remains on the market and a solid candidate to continue the remaking/remodeling he began in 2019. Also on the market is Hyun-Jin Ryu, the National League’s 2019 ERA leader. Angels owner Arte Moreno is nothing if not a man with stupid money to spend and a reputation for several times spending stupid, but the Angels aren’t exactly hurting for resources and a Rendon signing doesn’t pull them out of the market quite yet.

Bumgarner isn’t likely to cost as much now as he might have a few years ago, and the latest reporting as I write indicate he seeks five years at $100 million, pricey in terms of the average annual value but something of a bargain over the life of the deal. He has a reputation as a Fun Policeman but isn’t otherwise sinister so long as you keep him away from dirt bikes and remember that Angel Stadium’s power alleys don’t point into the Pacific Ocean or any other body of water.

He might find himself having a blast challenging two-way Shohei Ohtani to home run contests in batting practise. And, swapping notes on postseason heroism with Rendon, who landed himself a lifetime of quaffs and steaks on the house or at cut rates with such heroics as Game Five of this year’s division series, Game Seven of the World Series, and a 1.093 OPS toward the Nats’ run to the Promised Land.

Ryu may or may not be a more elusive target, not that he’s seeking stupid money but that there are several teams training their sights upon him, including (it’s said as of this morning) the White Sox, the Twins, and the Dodgers for whom Ryu laboured six seasons. And the White Sox have a kind of incentive with Ryu’s former Dodger catcher Yasmani Grandal having signed with the White Sox for four years and $73 million and said with certainty enough that he’d love to catch Ryu once again.

The better incumbents among the Angels’ starting pitchers, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning, are suited better to number three and four positionings pending any adjustments they might begin making come spring. The talent is there for both pitchers but so has been the inconsistency. But the Angels have a concurrent dilemna with teams interested in prying Canning and their plus right field prospect Jo Adell away in any trades the Angels might seek for a starting pitcher. The Angels may have interest in David Price (a trade candidate) and Price might find himself having a bounceback in Angel Stadium, and the Indians’ Corey Kluber, another former Cy Young Award winner and incumbent bounceback candidate, might be another trade target, but general manager Billy Eppler’s challenge would be to bring them aboard without surrendering the family jewels or at least the holiday china.

Still, you have to hand it to the Angels for landing Rendon, the no-questions-asked best regular player on the open market this winter, who’s going to earn more per season than any third baseman in major league history. Just when it looked as though the Rangers had the most solid track to lay down for Rendon, they derailed it when they offered him six years when the third baseman sought the seven to which the Angels agreed. That, and not such silliness as ejaculated by some who think it’s the media’s fault because, you know, the media prefers the Rendons to be in New York or Boston or southern California, not Texas, is why Rendon chose to wear the halo. That and (never discount this car on a baseball player’s train of thought) the challenge of becoming a big enough part of the Angels’ return to contention and, who knows, the postseason soon enough.

Which is no less than the least the Angels could do en route reconstructing themselves into a team their and the game’s best all-around player, the one who made himself an Angel for life last spring, can be proud of. ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez isolates the point: “In short, the Angels want to win, they know there is a sizable gap to make up, and they’re willing to do what it takes to accelerate their timeline. They made a promise to Trout, who eschewed free agency to sign a 12-year, $426.5 million extension, despite barely sniffing October relevance. And the Angels made a promise to [Joe] Maddon, who chose to return to the organization, despite having his pick of managing jobs. The Angels told them they were going to do what it takes to compete. And with the Houston Astros engulfed in a sign-stealing scandal that could yield significant punishment, perhaps now is as good a time as any to take the leap.”

Nationals shortstop Trea Turner only wishes the Angels hadn’t taken the leap at their expense. He got tight enough with Rendon that they had T-shirts made proclaiming each other best friends. When Turner got the news that Rendon has become an Angel, he had shot for himself a video showing him removing his “Anthony Rendon is my favorite player” T from his drawer and kicking it against the wall. Nats reliever Sean Doolittle was a little less, shall we say, demonstrative, posting a GIF of Baby Yoda and a simple, “Goodbye, Tony.”

Maybe the Lerners could have afforded both Strasburg and Rendon. I thought so myself. But then Thomas Boswell knocked me back down to the planet in gentle but firm terms, when he wrote after the Nats re-signed Strasburg, “Before chanting, ‘The Lerners are billionaires, so just pay Rendon his money!’ look ahead just one year. After 2020, the Nats will have to replace or re-sign — in most cases at higher prices — Adam Eaton, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle, Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki. Also, Trea Turner and Juan Soto will soon cost much more.” So maybe they couldn’t afford to keep Rendon among the sharks, too.

The Maddoning crowd

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Shown here during his years as Mike Scioscia’s consigliere, Joe Maddon returns to the Angels as their new manager—right in the middle of a further storm over Tyler Skaggs’s death.

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.

A homecoming for Maddon?

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Joe Maddon (right) was Mike Scioscia’s consigliere in the Angels’ dugout before he became a successful manager himself.

So you think Joe Maddon isn’t the real reason the Cubs imploded down the stretch? What do you think about the man the Angels just cashiered while Maddon is a managerial free agent?

Sure, Los Angeles Times reporter Maria Torres has said Brad Ausmus was safe through the end of 2020 at minimum. And the Chicago Tribune said Maddon returning to the Angels was “unlikely.” But two better known and normally sharp baseball reporters, Buster Olney (ESPN) and Ken Rosenthal (The Athletic) have said a little more strongly that if Maddon became available, Ausmus became a retroactive lame duck.

Even as I sat down to write, the Angels weren’t the only team being tied to Maddon. The safest wager now is that Maddon’s unemployment isn’t liable to last as long the postseason probably will. It’s just a question of who’s going to employ him gainfully again.

Ausmus is the Angels’ first manager of the post-Mike Scioscia era, which ended sadly in three straight losing seasons. Hell of a way for the franchise’s single most successful manager to finish his tenure. But Ausmus started with one arm tied behind his back as it was and finished with his arms amputated, so to say. And he has even less culpability for the Angels’ disappearance than Maddon had for the Cubs’.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s brilliant idea that this year’s Angel starting rotation would be an injury-and-inconsistency infected mess almost from the beginning. Or that the Angel bullpen (their collective 5.10 ERA was the fifth worst in baseball this year) would be their own game morticians. Even working in one of the Show’s most favourable pitchers’ parks as their home park.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea to miss Justin Upton in the outfield for most of the year or that the Jonathan Lucroy experiment behind the plate and the Matt Harvey experiment on the mound would implode.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea that Albert Pujols—a Hall of Famer in waiting otherwise, but an injury-compromised wreck for most of his Angels life—can still play at mere replacement-level on his best days, now, no matter how earnest he remains, no matter how honest his effort. (For that matter, tell yourself it was Pujols’s idea that his legs and feet should begin a continuing betrayal after just his first Angels season.)

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea that the morale winds got knocked completely out of the Angels’ sails when Tyler Skaggs was found dead in a Texas hotel room to begin their final road series before the All-Star break. Skaggs’s death shocked all baseball but nobody really knows just how deeply it cut into the Angels’s psyches. The Angels were a game under .500 at the All-Star break but 22 below it in the second half.

If you can consider it good news, Skaggs’s death brought Mike Trout forward as a team leader who leads with far more than just what he does in the field and at the plate. (He was striking firmly for his third American League Most Valuable Player award before his foot nerve issue forced him to season-ending surgery in early September. The Astros’ Alex Bregman could very easily win this year’s award if Trout doesn’t.)

But what good is leadership on a team that still isn’t really worthy of its own and baseball’s continuing greatest all-around player? Trout remained Trout and then some even after Skaggs’s death. Ended prematurely, his season was still a season for the books: he still led the majors in on-base percentage and OPS+ and the American League in slugging, OPS, and intentional walks.

The Angels otherwise? That magnificent combined no-hit blowout of the Mariners in their first home game after losing Skaggs was maybe the season’s most spiritually transcendent game—and maybe their last real gasp. Their clubhouse may have held together but they just weren’t a good team on the field. And it’s no more Trout’s fault than it is Ausmus’s.

Ausmus may not be one of the game’s better tactical or strategic managers but neither has he really made the kind of brain-twisters that may yet put paid to men like Mickey Callaway, Gabe Kapler, and maybe even a couple of postseason entrants whose futures probably depend on how far their teams go toward the Promised Land this time.

But Ausmus is now history with the Angels and Maddon has history with them. He took the bridge briefly in 1999 after Terry Collins walked rather than deal any longer with a clubhouse he helped blow up himself, when he was younger, more foolish, and more like a walking exposed nerve. He led those Angels to a 19-10 finish before handing Scioscia the bridge and becoming Scioscia’s consigliere on the bench.

He served long and well as Scioscia’s bench coach. He earned the respect and affection of owner Arte Moreno while he was at it. And now that he’s a free agent, the Angels—as MLB Trade Rumours so delicately phrases it—are “contemplating” Ausmus’s job status.

Rick Renteria, call your office. The Cubs “contemplated” your job status once upon a time as Maddon became available, too. You know how that worked out, amirite? Sure you might be content on the south side of Chicago helping to bring the White Sox back to the land of the living, but that’s not the same thing as you knowing the Cubs were on the threshold of postseason revival and conquest.

And the Angels aren’t considered the only prospective suitors for Maddon’s hand in managerial marriage.

The perpetually rebuilding Padres pinked Andy Green with eight games left this season and they’re thought to have eyes for Maddon now. The Mets and the Phillies are thought to be pondering execution orders for Mickey Callaway and Gabe Kapler, respectively. Don’t think Maddon isn’t in their dugout wet dreams now. (For that matter, don’t think all three teams aren’t pondering further alterations in the front offices, either.)

The Pirates dumped Clint Hurdle somewhat unceremoniously on the final day, letting bench coach Tom Prince have the bridge for a season-ending 3-1 loss to the Reds. The man who skippered the Pirates back to competitiveness for awhile watched his 2019 edition earn a reputation for headhunting, his front office swap out assets for liabilities on field and in the clubhouse, his clubhouse turn into a toxic mess, and himself almost helpless to stop the mass suicide.

(Early last year, when the Nationals were thought to have clubhouse trouble, former manager Dusty Baker observed, “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.” The Pirates could probably say, “Andrew McCutchen. That’s who we miss in this clubhouse.” Just as the Cubs can say, “David Ross. That’s who we miss in this clubhouse.”)

Maddon may be in the Pirates’ periscope sights, too. But then, maybe not. Maddon isn’t the whiplash type. Like legendary Navy fleet admiral Chester Nimitz, Maddon’s command style is reason, not reaming. This collection of Pirates probably needs something more blunt in the dugout. And maybe something a lot more broad-sighted in the front office.

It must be humbling for Maddon, who’s not exactly bereft of modesty, to realise he’s one of those men who inspires others to dump their incumbents when he shows even a hint of actual or pending availability. But for growing members of the club becoming known as Men Fired (Or Likely To Be) That Joe Maddon Be Hired, it must be a little sobering.

Absent answers, don’t judge Skaggs

2019-08-31 TylerSkaggsAngels

Mike Trout (in blue T-shirt, front) and the Angels paid a final tribute to Tyler Skaggs after blowing out the Mariners in a combined no-hitter in their first game home following Skaggs’s unexpected death. The toxicology report now raises even more questions.

No, I don’t know yet what delivered Tyler Skaggs into the clutch of opioids, whether a one-time or more-than-once deliverance. And neither do you. But that doesn’t stop people from drawing conclusions, and it doesn’t stop some of those conclusions ranging from the dismissive to the ridiculous all the way back to the obscene.

The prospect of the 27-year-old Skaggs merely being reckless in taking even once doses of fetanyl and oxycodone and maybe washing them down at once with a stiff drink is a prospect not to have been wished in the hurricane of grief his death whipped up all around baseball in early July.

“Now, we are faced with our own emotions,” writes USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale, “knowing the death wasn’t an act of God or a suicide, but self-induced by the careless use of pain killers.” Remember that “careless” doesn’t mean reckless, exclusively.

We’re also faced with asking honestly whether Skaggs acted entirely on his own, as the Angels arrived in Texas for a pre-All Star break set against the Rangers, or whether he was prompted persuasively enough by someone who thought he was doing Skaggs a pain management favour.

Skaggs’s family wants to know for dead last certain. They’ve hired Texas attorney Rusty Hardin to help them know. “We are heartbroken to learn that the passing of our beloved Tyler was the result of a combination of dangerous drugs and alcohol,’’ they said in a formal statement. “That is completely out of character for someone who worked so hard to become a Major League Baseball player and had a very promising future in the game he loved so much.”

The Angels want to know, too. Suspicions point as I referred on Friday, toward a so far unidentified Angels employee the family and perhaps the team itself thinks or fears had a hand in Skaggs’s demise, perhaps by supplying him fetanyl and oxycodone through other than lawful or proper medical means.

“Everyone’s searching for facts, and everyone within the organization wants facts,’’ said general manager Billy Eppler at a press session before the Angels played the Red Sox Friday night. “Which is why we are actively cooperating with an investigation. It kind of goes without saying that I cannot comment more on the situation until the police conclude their investigation.”

Asked whether the employee the Skaggs family suspects is still with the team, Eppler wouldn’t answer. “I’m sorry,” the GM replied. “I really understand your asking that question, but again, it’s an active investigation.” Eppler said only that the Angels have told investigators everything they know. Which may or may not yet be anything substantial. Thus the proverbial thickening of the plot.

The least-kept secret in professional sports is that performing athletes are not always the best tended alive by their teams or supervising organisations when it comes to injuries or illnesses. For too many decades sports medicine involved the fastest remedy available to get the player back onto the field, the court, the course, as fast as possible.

And for too many of the same decades athletes took to their own measures of desperation to get back to the field, the court, the course, as soon as they could, within what they considered reason, the better to keep someone else from taking their jobs when they knew in their heart of hearts that there was always someone else behind them just itching for the chance.

It was one thing, for example, to know that there were enough baseball players dabbling in actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances because they were led somehow to believe the dabbling might help them inflate their performance papers. But the arguable Joe Valachi of the actual or alleged PEDs, the late third baseman Ken Caminiti, stepped forth after his career ended to say it started for him not out of any statistical interest but out of desperation to escape the deep pain of a 1996 shoulder injury.

Caminiti surely wasn’t alone in turning that way when few to none of his team’s medical personnel seemed able to provide such relief. To name another somewhat notorious example, longtime Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte is on record as saying he took to a brief usage of human growth hormone because his continuing elbow pain finally drove him mad enough to give it a try.

Skaggs had an injury history. After the Diamondbacks traded him back to the Angels for 2014 (he’d previously gone to the Snakes with current Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin in a deal making pitcher Dan Haren an Angel), Skaggs pitched in eighteen games before his elbow sent him to Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the entire 2015 season.

He returned to make ten 2016 starts, then missed 98 days in 2017 with a strained oblique. In 2018, Skaggs opened with sixteen starts and a 2.64 ERA before his adductor muscle gave out and cost him three months. And this year, he sprained his left ankle after making three season-opening starts. costing him most of April.

“[A] normally developed, well-nourished and well-hydrated large build adult,” the toxicology report described him. Except that it couldn’t determine whether or to what extend he remained in any pain. Physical or otherwise. That, too, would be something both his family and the Angels should want to know.

Skaggs otherwise was known as a likeable fellow who was freshly married when spring training began this year and had everything else for which to live. He loved his young wife, Carli; he loved his teammates; he loved the game. The hurricane of grief his death provoked around baseball was real.

So were the emotions when, after the Rangers kindly canceled the game the day Skaggs died, they re-convened with Skaggs’s uniform number 45 in the dirt behind the pitching rubber in the Angels’s uniform font style. And, when the Angels beat them, 9-5.

And, especially, when the Angels returned home, the players fashioned a loving pre-game tribute including Skaggs’s mother throwing out a ceremonial first pitch, before the Angels hit the field one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys and beat the Mariners in a combined no-hitter and an 11-0 blowout. Paced by Skaggs’s closest friend and team leader Mike Trout blowing the lid off all emotion with a two-run homer in the first inning.

And, after the game, when Trout and his fellow Angels covered the entire pitching mound except for the number 45 behind the rubber with the Skaggs jerseys they wore all game long.

The toxicology report wasn’t close to completion that night. Now that it is, the questions continue as only too many seem to think they have the answers. Nightengale isolates several of the key questions. Did Skaggs slip somehow into drug addiction? Did anyone know to the extent that they may carry a degree of guilt for lack of previous intervention? Did something appear to indicate such a problem?

But Nightengale doesn’t stop there. Appropriately. “This was a young main in pain. Perhaps more physical than even the doctors and trainers knew. Maybe more mental than even any team therapist knew,” he writes. “It will be a bigger tragedy if we never understand why. Prescription painkillers are a scourge in this country, and professional sports—with catastrophic injuries and the expectation to play through the pain they cause—are ripe for potential abuse.”

This wasn’t Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs, who’d only taken up flying a few months earlier, flying his single-engine Cessna propeller airplane over Utah and crashing to his death in spring 1964, running into an atmospheric disturbance he was probably too inexperienced to navigate successfully. The tragic irony: Hubbs took up flying to conquer his fear of it.

This wasn’t Yankee legend Thurman Munson, who’d bought a sophisticated Cessna Citation jet the better to spend more time with his wife and children during the season when the Yankee schedule allowed, and crashed at an airport near his Ohio home while practising evening landings. Munson was still well short of full qualification to handle the complex jet entirely on his own.

This wasn’t the Indians’ spring training boat crash of 1993. In which relief pitchers Tim Olin and Steve Crews were killed when their off-day boating with Crews at the wheel ended with a crash into a dock, killing Crews at once, with Olin dying the next day and pitching teammate Bob Ojeda suffering a severed scalp. Crews was considered legally drunk at the time of the crash.

This wasn’t Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, as effervescent a young player as you ever saw, around whom the Marlins only thought they’d build for seasons to follow. He and two friends drank somewhat copiously before boarding his 32-foot boat, Kaught Looking, and with Fernandez at the wheel crashed a jetty killing all three. Fernandez’s estate faces litigation from the families of the other two passengers; Fernandez’s attorney argues the pitcher was framed in the crash investigation.

This wasn’t Oscar Taveras, the young Cardinal who electrified the game in his postseason debut, hitting a pinch homer in the 2014 National League division series against the Dodgers. (He’d also hit one out in his first regular-season major league game that year.) He was killed with his girlfriend a month later when his Camaro ran off a wet road in their native Dominican Republic. Driving six times the legal limit for drunk driving, perhaps. Seven years after another Cardinal, pitcher Josh Hancock, died in a DUI crash.

On the other hand, Ojeda needed and received copious therapy to relieve him of suicidal thoughts following that ferocious case of survivor’s guilt. And Rays minor league pitcher Blake Bivens will need about a hundred times that to survive the murder of his wife, baby son, and mother-in-law last week, for which his teenage brother-in-law has been charged.

Hubbs and Munson died from inexperience. Crews, Fernandez, and Taveras could be argued to have died irresponsibly and likewise causing others’ deaths. But we don’t know yet what led Skaggs to the Elysian Fields. Was it irresponsibility? Did he battle heretofore unsuspected and/or undetected drug addiction or even mental illness to even a small degree? Did he have physical pain greater than his known baseball injuries?

One dismisses the kind of reckless thinking that prompts the likes of one particularly witless Tweeter who dismisses Skaggs as a junkie. Ignorant of the point that “junkie” customarily applies to heroin addicts, heroin being nicknamed “junk” for a very long time.

Absent any final answers otherwise, it’s wise not to assume the judges’ robes. As if even wisdom would prevent that from happening, anyway.