The deeper issue at play in the Kay trial

Matt Harvey

Harvey admitting on the witness stand that he did coke as a Met shouldn’t be bigger than Harvey suggesting too many players still feel desperate to return to action despite not being recovered fully from injuries.

The Eric Kay trial—in which the former Angels communications director faces up to twenty years in prison on drug charges if convicted, stemming from the unexpected overdose death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs in 2019—seemed the sleeper of the week. Until it suddenly wasn’t, after sworn testimony from one-time Angels pitcher Matt Harvey.

Harvey, once a star in New York but still trying to rebuild a career compromised less by his once-notorious night life than by the aftermath of thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. Harvey, once the Dark Knight, but since struggling to find any semblance of the form that once made him what his old rotation mate Jacob deGrom has become.

You had to strain yourself, though, to hear anyone discussing what ESPN writer T.J. Quinn  tweeted Tuesday morning from the trial. “[Matt] Harvey is describing culture of MLB,” Quinn wrote, “guys desperate to stay on field and play through injuries.”

That was about as cryptic as a sledgehammer blow. Harvey wasn’t exactly revealing classified information he’d formerly flushed down the nearest precious-metal commode, either.

But for every one who got what Quinn described him saying during his testimony, there were probably a few hundred more interested in Harvey copping to doing coke as a Met and how many Angels were getting and gulping assorted painkillers from Kay directly or by way of others.

Joe and Jane Fan would rather just dump on the druggies than admit a big reason they get their meathooks on assorted painkillers and other naughty pills and powders in the first place is that too many team medical staffs—even today, even with everything we know about sports injuries that wasn’t known or ignored for generations preceding—could still be tried by jury for medical malpractise.

The Twitterpated are more titillated that the former Dark Knight had a few too many off-field nights partying than that he, too, felt all but forced to perform despite his body’s inner warnings. The talk about the “drug culture” on those Angels (and don’t think it doesn’t exist on other teams) seemed to override talk about the pressures placed upon the injured to get back onto the mound or onto the field like yesterday—no matter how fully they’ve recovered from their injuries.

Harvey wasn’t the only one of Skaggs’s teammates looking for pain relief. Pitcher Mike Morin, an Angel from 2014-2017 now with the Marlins, testified he sought Kay’s help after Skaggs mentioned Kay as someone who could provide painkillers like oxycodone to help Morin, too, deal with what turned out thoracic outlet syndrome. Former Angels relief pitcher Cam Bedrosian (now with the Phillies) and first baseman C.J. Cron (now with the Rockies) also said they got painkillers from Kay.

Harvey also copped to giving Skaggs one Percocet. Why? He thought he was doing his teammate in pain a favour and wanted to be a good teammate. That may still be enough to get him suspended under baseball’s drug policy. Now a free agent, after an up-and-down 2021 that ended almost a month early due to a knee injury, Harvey may have a harder time catching on when the current lockout ends.

In case you forgot or didn’t know in the first place, Skaggs himself had an injury history. He underwent Tommy John surgery after returning to the Angels in a trade from Arizona and starting eighteen games in 2014. Missing all 2015 recovering and rehabbing, he subsquently incurred oblique, adductor, and ankle injuries. And it’s not impossible that he was given something powerful enough coming out of TJ surgery to hook him.

When the Texas coroner’s report revealed fentanyl may have caused Skaggs’s accidental overdose death, USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale wrote of him as a young man in pain.

“Perhaps more physical than even the doctors and trainers knew,” he wrote. “Maybe more mental than even any team therapist knew. 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.”

It’s not just a particular contingent among current players talking these things, on a witness stand or elsewhere. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez is talking about those pressures, too. His freshly-published memoir, Pedro, includes a portion where Martinez says that, as a Met, then-chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon forced him to pitch despite a toe injury that affected either his push off the rubber or his landing as he threw—in September 2005, despite the Mets being out of the pennant race.

Before Joe and Jane Fan start barking ohhhhhh, he was forced to earn his keep when his itty bitty toesy hurt, they should try to remember Dizzy Dean. That Hall of Fame pitcher once forced himself to alter his delivery to compensate, after suffering a broken toe courtesy of an Earl Averill batted ball in the 1936 All-Star Game. Dean ruined his shoulder with the new motion, turning the second half of his career from Hall of Fame great to nothing special.

Maybe if Dean had been allowed to recover completely from the toe fracture it would have been a different story? “I was unable to pivot my left foot because my toe hurt too much,” the ever-locquacious Dean was quoted as saying, “with the result I was pitchin’ entirely with my arm and puttin’ all the pressure on it and I felt a soreness in the ol’ flipper right away. I shouldn’ta been out there.”

When the 1969 Cubs burned out and faded down the stretch as the Miracle Mets heated up to take the National League East en route their championship series sweep of the Braves and World Series conquest of the Orioles in five games, it turned out that manager Leo Durocher cowed too many of his players into not disclosing injuries for fear he’d denounce them—in the press as well as in clubhouse reamings—as quitters.

Now retired, Jacoby Ellsbury was oft injured even in his Red Sox years . . . and accused of malingering when he tried his best not to return prematurely. After shining in his contract walk-year during the Red Sox’s 2013 World Series conquest, Ellsbury signed big with the Yankees—and ran into the injury bug again.

And again. And again. Knee injuries, concussions, hip injuries, setbacks rehabbing. Joe and Jane Fan wrote him off as a waste of Yankeebucks. Some even called him a quitter, never mind that his injuries came from playing the game as hard as he could with what he had.

Was it Ellsbury’s fault he’d been injuried on the job, in honest competition? Maybe we should wonder that, so far as anyone knows, Ellsbury didn’t seek the kind of extracurricular pain relief others have, clearly enough.

Skaggs’s death at 27 “shines a harsh spotlight on the dark underbelly of playing professional sports,” writes FanSided‘s Gabrielle Starr. “Many players feel forced to go to extremes to be able to compete, and we’re now witnessing the worst possible outcome of that desperation.”

What is it with the Angels’ organisational culture that compelled several players including Skaggs to seek extracurricular pain relief? Were they, too, being pushed beyond reasonable expectation to come back from injuries? Do you really think they’re the only team who’d be guilty of that?

Could those Angels have been pushed unreasonably compared to the team’s Hall of Famer-in-waiting Mike Trout, who’s been injured often enough but was never pressured improperly so far as anyone knows to return before he was healed completely? As in were the Angels’ administrators sending the message Trout himself would never send, that, well, he’s Mike Trout and . . . you’re not?

Don’t dismiss the Kay trial as just another sports drug trial. It’s easy to denounce the druggies. It’s a lot harder to remember that a lot more of them than we might have thought went there not for kicks but for genuine pain relief. It didn’t have to take the death of a still-young major league pitcher, whose death provoked game-wide grief, to mean those issues might finally be addressed with the seriousness they deserve.

Unless you’re diffident or soulless, it makes you stop to ponder that maybe we shouldn’t be too swift to worship the players or teams who “grit” or “gut” or “grind” it out through various injuries of all dimensions. (The 2019 Yankees, the Broken Bombers, using 53 different players and sending thirty to the injured list that season, come to mind as a recent example.)

Maybe, instead, we should question the sanity lost when they push themselves or are pushed to play injured—with the reward now barely worth what might be lost to their futures. Think about that before you denounce the injured as gutless, heartless, useless quitters. Again.

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.