The Angels are a franchise with a sad enough history of calamity in its ranks. It’s a shame to think of things this way, but it’s been a decade since the last death among their active family, young pitcher Nick Adenhart. Just maybe the franchise’s sad history of active duty rendezvous with the Grim Reaper would get an even longer break.
Then came the news that pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead at 27 in the team’s Southlake, Texas hotel Monday afternoon, as the Angels were about to open a road set with the Rangers. Even the Rangers were staggered by his death. They had no issue at all with cancelling Monday’s game.
Skaggs was a Santa Monica High School standout, the son of their longtime softball coach Debbie Skaggs, a good if sometimes inconsistent pitcher in the major leagues, and with a reputation for approachability that went back to his high school days and a sense of humour that got wicked without getting nasty.
Only recently Skaggs deployed his humour on behalf of getting teammate Tommy LaStella to this year’s All-Star Game, in a hilarious video in which Skaggs interviewed Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani—with Skaggs in English and Ohtani, playfully, in his native Japanese. It must have helped, since LaStella was voted by fellow players to the American League All-Stars “in a career year nobody saw coming,” least of all LaStella.
“I will remember the smile and spirit he always showed during his Santa Monica High days,” wrote Los Angeles Times baseball writer Eric Sondheimer almost immediately after learning of Skaggs’s death. “The beach, the ocean, the air — it helps creates a personality that people want to embrace. He’s left us but won’t be forgotten. Now’s the time to remember all the joy he brought people through his 27 years.”
Skaggs was a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter whose best pitch was considered his curve ball while he also owned a changeup that could be effective but wasn’t quite fully developed. He missed all 2015 and most of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery; he battled subsequent injuries including adductor strains; he was still freshly married to his wife, Carli, having tied the knot last December.
And he was a prodigal Angel, having been dealt to the Diamondbacks in mid-2010 in the deal that made Dan Haren an Angel, but returning in 2013 in the three-way deal that brought him back to the Angels, sent slugging but defense challenged outfielder Mark Trumbo to the Snakes, and sent Adam Eaton from the Snakes to the White Sox, with the Angels also getting swing pitcher Hector Santiago while they were at it.
He was posting a fine season marked by a little hard luck this year, his 4.29 ERA counterweighted by a fine 3.84 fielding-independent pitching rate and a mere 3.8 runs to work with from his mates during his times in the games to prove the hard luck spells.
None of which matters as heavily as the Angels having to say a permanent goodbye to a good pitcher who was an apparent joy in the clubhouse. Police say no foul play was suspected. Leaving us only to speculate sadly over just what could have taken a young guy with as much to live for as Skaggs had.
My son, Bryan, an inexhaustible Angels fan since early boyhood, called me to tell me the news, my cell phone ringing just as I was stepping into a supermarket. His first words were, “Another Angel’s going to heaven.” He’d been shattered by Adenhart’s death at the hands of a drunk driver ten years earlier.
He probably had little enough idea that the Angels have been there only too many times in their franchise life. Since 1965, when they were freshly relocated to Anaheim, and when rookie pitcher Dan Wantz surprised observers by pitching his way onto the staff with an unexpected strong spring training, only to die of a brain tumour at 25 four months later.
There was Minervino Rojas, late blooming but seemingly inexhaustible relief pitcher. (“He’s got three pitches,” a rival said of the deceptively effective Rojas, formerly buried in the Giants’ system. “Slow, slower, and come and get it.”) A fireman’s fireman whose off-speed repertoire helped him lead the American League retroactively with 27 saves in 1967, in the era when the one-inning closer wasn’t even a topic. Arm trouble forced his retirement in spring 1969. A year later: a hit-and-run driver killed two of his three children, though his wife and infant son survived, and left Rojas a paraplegic until his death at 68 in 2002.
There was utility infielder Chico Ruiz—once famed stealing home as a Red to kick off the once-infamous September 1964 Phillie Phlop—dead in an offseason auto accident in 1972, a year after he’d helped poison an already-poisoned clubhouse by threatening talented but deeply troubled outfielder Alex Johnson, who loved him yet also loved to needle him incessantly, with a pistol. At 33.
There was Bruce Heinbechner, pitching his way onto the roster in spring 1974, seen as the Angels’ forthcoming lefthanded relief specialist, until the 23-year-old was killed in a pre-season auto accident. There was Mike Miley, shortstop, three years later. Seen as a prospective Rookie of the Year challenger at 23–before he, too, was killed in a pre-season road accident.
There was Lyman Bostock, outfielder, one of the Angels’ earliest big-money free agents after a promising career to date with the Twins. Like Skaggs, outgoing and popular. So enthusiastically chatty in the clubhouse that Bostock’s Angels teammates nicknamed him Kareem Abdul Jibber-Jabber. Shot to death at 27 a year after Miley’s death, while riding in a car with a relative and friends in Gary, Indiana. The shooter said he was aiming at his estranged wife; the case prompted Indiana to change its insanity defense laws.
There was Donnie Moore, relief pitcher, haunted both in his own soul and in the aftermath of surrendering the fateful home run to Boston’s Dave Henderson when the Angels were a strike away from going to the 1986 World Series—still coming to terms with the end of his career and his personal demons when he shot and injured his wife before shooting himself to death, in 1989.
And, there was Adenhart, who threw six shutout innings in his first 2009 start, scattering seven hits and striking out five, killed at 22 by a drunk driver while riding as a passenger in a mini-van. The driver, Andrew Thomas Gallo, was sentenced to 51 years-to-life behind bars.
Skaggs took his lady to the Bahamas in November 2017, to propose to her. He looked happier with Carli Skaggs on their wedding day than at any other time in a life most accounts say was as happy as the day was long.
"Words cannot express the deep sadness we feel right now," tweeted Mike Trout, who'd first been a teammate of Skaggs's in the minors before they were reunited in Anaheim. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Carli and their families. Remembering him as a great teammate, friend, and person who will forever remain in our hearts... we love you, 45."Even rivals paid Skaggs tribute, most notably Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton in an Instagram post: "My message to the @angels while having no time for yourself to grieve is to hug each other, laugh, cry, lift the ones taking it extra hard up."
That only makes his death now even more heartbreaking than any game lost, any pitch that didn’t make it the way he wanted it. The Angels lose a teammate and friend but a young lady loses a husband whom she knew deeply had too much life to share and live.