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.

“They want to get to the bottom of it.”

Los Angeles Angels

For their first home game after Tyler Skaggs’s death, the Angels wore his uniform and beat the Mariners in a combined blowout no-hitter, before laying the uniforms around the mound. Skaggs’s widow and parents have now sued the Angels for negligence over the pitcher’s death.

Two days before the second anniversary of his death, Tyler Skaggs’s family struck in court. His widow, Carli, filed suit in the Texas county where Skaggs was found dead of an opioid overdose; his parents filed in Los Angeles. Texas law allows only a spouse to claim damages for wrongful death or negligence.

ESPN writer T.J. Quinn says both Carli Skaggs and her in-laws are suing the Angels’ former communications director Eric Kay, who admitted to buying the drugs for Skaggs, and Kay’s former boss Tim Mead. Skaggs died at 27 1 July 2019 of asphyxiation provoked by fentanyl in his system, on the night the Angels arrived in Texas for a road set with the Rangers.

“The crux of the lawsuit is that the Angels were negligent in allowing Kay, a longtime opioid abuser, to have access to players, and that Mead failed to properly supervise him,” Quinn writes.

Kay told U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents that he also had provided oxycodone for five other players at Skaggs’ request. No other players have been publicly identified. The lawsuit claims that the Angels had a culture that pushed players to play through injury and that the club knew or should have known about Skaggs’ use of opioids.

The Angels didn’t respond to Quinn directly when he contacted them, he added. But the team issue a statement saying the suits’ accusations “are entirely without merit . . . baseless and irresponsible,” promising a “vigorous” court defense.

In 2019, Angels Baseball hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation to comprehensively understand the circumstances that led to Tyler’s tragic death. The investigation confirmed that the Organization did not know that Tyler was using opioids, nor was anyone in management aware or informed of any employee providing opioids to any player.

The Angels alone? One of the worst-kept secrets of professional sports for decades, including baseball, has been teams pushing players to play through their injuries before those injuries are healed completely. Who knows how many teams either looked the other way or feigned ignorance when injured players turned or were turned to addictive substances to get back out there faster?

One of the worst-kept companion secrets, of course, is that players smart enough to know when they’re not quite healed up, insisting they’re not going to be fool enough to get back out there before they’re fully healed, often get dismissed as fragile hypochodriacs most politely—and as feline euphemisms for a woman’s vagina most impolitely.

Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014. “[O]pioid abuse often begins after surgeries, when the drug may be prescribed to the patient,” wrote Halos Heaven‘s Jessica DeLine three months after Skaggs died. “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 had TJ Surgery in 2014 and didn’t pitch at all in the 2015 season.”

DeLine cited an Outside the Lines report suggesting Skaggs and Kay had a shared opioid history of over four years: “Did Skaggs manage to keep this a secret from all his teammates over the years? Was his TJ surgery in 2014 an inciting event for his opiate abuse? That would seem to fit with the timeline Kay provided.”

“As the federal grand jury indictment made plainly and painfully clear, were it not for the fentanyl in the counterfeit pill provided by Angels employee Eric Kay, Tyler would be alive today,” said Skaggs family attorney Rusty Hardin in a statement following the lawsuit filings. “And if the Angels had done a better job of supervising Eric Kay, Tyler would be alive today.”

Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know for dead last certain.

What we should know is that this business of dismissing players injured in the line of play as mal-constructed vaginas should have ceased and desisted a very long time ago.

“Leaving it all out on the field” works both ways. Would you like a litany of players from most eras who left it all out on the field and had to leave it before their times thanks to injuries in the line of duty?

Dizzy Dean, Pistol Pete Reiser, Rex Barney, Monte Irvin, Herb Score, Ralph Kiner, Roger Maris, Wally Bunker, Jim Bouton, Sandy Koufax, Tony Conigliaro, Frank Tanana, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, Pete Vuckovich, Joe Charboneau, the entire Oakland starting rotation of 1981-83, Bo Jackson, Eric Davis, Don Mattingly, Kirby Puckett, Darin Erstad, Nomar Garciaparra, Mo Vaughn, Jason Kendall, Justin Morneau, Grady Sizemore, Ryan Howard, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Mark Mulder, David Wright, Prince Fielder, and Jacoby Ellsbury are just a few who should ring a few bells for having gotten their bells rung in various ways.

They didn’t get hurt showing off slam-dunk techniques on the street, hauling a heavy side of deer meat up the stairs, trying to rip Manhattan-thick phone books apart with their bare hands, or staying too long on tanning beds, to name a few examples. (Those really happened. In order, to Cecil Upshaw, Clint Barmes, Steve Sparks, and Marty Cordova.)

Few players in any era took the abuse Ellsbury took for the multiple injuries he incurred playing baseball. As if a nine-figure Yankee payday could turn Clark Kent into Superman. Even before he became so ill-fated a Yankee, Ellsbury finally couldn’t wait to high-tail it out of Boston in free agency, where he’d been an often-injured Red Sox star with two World Series rings on his finger. Too many whisperings that he took too much of his sweet time recovering from injuries.

Thank God they also don’t all get hooked on opioids or other drugs out of surgery or because of doctors administering or prescribing them.

Uh-oh. Remember Denny McLain? Now, forget everything else you know about his post-baseball history, and maybe some of his career history, and think about this. McLain felt something pop in his shoulder during a 1965 start. By 1967-68, he’d hooked himself on cortisone. He used it practically the way most of us drink coffee at the breakfast table. Used to excess—and sound medical opinion has long since determined you should have no more than ten cortisone shots in your entire lifetime—cortisone can weaken the areas where it’s administered.

Now are you surprised that McLain’s shoulder was shot to hell by the time he ended up a very disgruntled Washington Senator in 1971? When, somewhat insanely, he was allowed to start 32 games anyway, and was charged with two more losses in one season (22) than he’d been charged with in his previous three? Or that he only got to pitch in twenty more games the following year before he called it a career?

Or that he eventually said, emphatically, “The name of the game back then was you gotta win one for the Gipper. [Fornicate] the Gipper!”

“The myth that baseball players were tougher and more resilient back in the day, that they were willing to endure anything for the sheer love of the game, is just that—a myth,” wrote Sridhar Pappu in The Year of the Pitcher four years ago. “In truth, they were victims of terrible medical advice, merciless management, and unforgiving fans who believed that a worn-out, hurting arm signaled a kind of moral weakness.”

The grief over Skaggs’s unexpected death was very real. So was the staggering joy when the Angels returned home following his death, memorialised him movingly (including the team all wearing his uniform number 45), and beat the Mariners with a combined no-hitter and a 13-0 final launched when his buddy Mike Trout smashed a two-run homer in the first inning.

But his widow and his parents may be out to prove that he and too many other players are still victims of terrible medical advice or practise, and merciless or at least ignorant management. In more ways than one.

Indictment in Skaggs death, but . . .

Los Angeles Angels v. Seattle Mariners

Wearing Tyler Skaggs’ jersey as his teammates did that night, Mike Trout walks in front of the center field fence displaying a memorial to the pitcher who died of an overdose in Texas last year. A former Angels media person is now indicted for giving Skaggs the drug that helped kill him.

Beckham Aaron Trout was born 30 July. His father, a baseball player of some renown, attended his son’s birth, returned to his team, and hit a 2-2 slider over the left center field fence. This morning, Jessica Trout tweeted a photograph for her husband’s 29th birthday, their new son proclaiming himself the best present ever.

In a career that would indeed qualify him as a Hall of Famer should it end after this season, and Los Angeles Angels fans aren’t the only ones who hope devoutly that that doesn’t prove the case, Mike Trout has shown among other things a genuine human decency and a penchant for rising to particularly heartfelt occasions.

Homering his first time up after fatherhood blessed him is just one. Last year, alas, Trout did it in the middle of soul-wrenching grief.

His teammate Tyler Skaggs died unexpectedly after the Angels landed in Texas to finish a pre All-Star Game road trip. When the team returned home, to face the Seattle Mariners, a wrenching pre-game memorial to the fallen pitcher was followed by Trout opening the scoring with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first.

That launched a 13-0 blowout and a combined no-hitter by Angels pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena that electrified a game wracked in grief over Skaggs’s mortal demise. (“Absolutely incredible,” Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander tweeted. “Meant to be.”) His teammates, all of whom wore Skaggs jerseys for the game, laid those jerseys around the mound after the game, leaving only Skaggs’s number 45 behind the rubber exposed.

On the same morning Jess Trout helped her new son tell his father who was the best present ever, the news broke out of Texas that former Angels media relations employee Eric Kay was indicted by a federal court for distributing at least the fentanyl that contributed to Skaggs’s overdose death last year.

The Tarrant County, Texas coroner’s report revealed alcohol, fentanyl, and oxycodone in Skaggs’s system when he died, but, as the Los Angeles Times reports, an affidavit on behalf of the criminal complaint against Kay suggested the fentanyl presence was the likely specific cause of the asphyxiation that killed Skaggs. The Angels themselves said in a formal Friday statement that they hired a former federal prosecutor to help the team investigate their pitcher’s death.

We learned that there was unacceptable behavior inconsistent with our code of conduct, and we took steps to address it. Our investigation also confirmed that no one in management was aware, or informed, of any employee providing opioids to any player, nor that Tyler was using opioids.

As we try to heal from the loss of Tyler, we continue to work with authorities as they complete their investigation.

The statement contradicts Kay’s statement last October that team officials knew there was an opioid issue involving at least five Angels while he denied providing the fatal pills to Skaggs, a fun-loving and popular teammate who seemed to shield his issues with the drugs effectively enough until his death. (How effectively? His widow, Carli, told the Times two months ago her husband didn’t behave like an addict.)

Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, missing the entire 2015 season rehabbing. “Keep in mind,” wrote Halos Heaven‘s Jessica DeLine, “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.”

Two years after that rehab season, Skaggs went to the old disabled list for 98 days with a strained oblique, followed by missing three months in 2018 with hip adductor muscle problems. “If he wasn’t prescribed any opiate after his Tommy John surgery,” I wrote last October, “who’s to say the pain of those injuries instead didn’t lead him to opiates’ doors?”

Kay’s remarks in his statement last fall practically accused the Angels of covering up. “I felt and continue to feel that it is time for everyone to stand up and take responsibility for their respective roles in this,” the statement began.

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.

Recent Angels history says the team’s administration didn’t necessarily suffer drug issues gladly or sympathetically. When talented but drug-recovering outfielder Josh Hamilton signed a big free agency deal with the Angels, but saw his Angels service and performance disrupted by injuries, he relapsed infamously while watching a Super Bowl game.

As required by MLB’s drug agreement, Hamilton didn’t waste any time reporting his relapse to the Angels. They rewarded him for his forthrightness by running him out of town before sundown on the first unoccupied rail they could find. Right back to the Texas Rangers from whence he’d come in the first place. Barely caring either that Hamilton manned up or that they looked grotesque punishing him.

Angels owner Arte Moreno paid Hamilton’s entire remaining salary just to get him out of sight. Then, insult-to-injury: then-Angels manager Mike Scioscia demanded Hamilton apologise publicly when the Rangers next came to town. Don’t think there aren’t Angel personnel fearful that, if Moreno could exile a Hamilton, he might be liable to hang those aware of Skaggs’s ultimately fatal struggle.

Kay’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, said last fall that blaming Kay alone for the Skaggs tragedy was shortsighted and misguided. “When all the facts come out,” the attorney continued, “I think that what happened is a tragedy. What happened is very sad on many levels. But to say it’s any one person’s fault is not right.”

Barring any plea bargain, Kay’s trial is liable to bring at least a few such facts forward. It won’t be pleasant. It surely won’t assuage the Skaggs family’s loss and grief. But it may not leave the Angels—to whom Mike Trout plighted his baseball troth for life, and for the equivalent of a tiny island republic’s economy—smelling pleasant, either.

“When stuff comes out,” said Trout, after the Skaggs toxicology report was made public last fall, “you want to know if it’s true.” If the Angels’ administration really does have any responsibility, even if it was mere knowledge upon which the team didn’t act, Trout may not want to know.

The Maddoning crowd

2019-10-16 JoeMaddonAngels.jpg

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.

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.