It was Skaggs, the Angels’ 27-year-old left-handed starter, who came up with the idea for the team-building stunt — as the Angels started a week-long road trip through Texas — and Skaggs who had approached Manager Brad Ausmus to get permission.
“The last picture I have of him,” Ausmus said through tears late Tuesday afternoon, “was on the plane, with that awful cowboy shirt on, playing cards.”
Even as they prepared to play a game Tuesday night in Arlington, Tex., against the Texas Rangers, the Angels were still struggling to process the devastating news that came a day before — when Skaggs, their friend, teammate, clubhouse DJ and de facto social director, was found dead in his room at the team hotel Monday afternoon of unknown causes.
“He was an exceptional young man, with an entire life so full of promise yet to live,” Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said at a news conference Tuesday at Globe Life Park, flanked by Ausmus, Angels owner Arte Moreno and team President John Carpino. “For some reason that is incomprehensible to all of us, he lives on only in our minds and in our hearts.”
Much of the circumstances of Skaggs’s death remained unknown more than 24 hours after his body was discovered. The Southlake (Tex.) Police Department has said only that foul play did not appear to be involved, and on Tuesday spokesman Brad Uptmore said, “At this early point in the investigation, it does not appear at this time as if suicide was the cause of death.”
An autopsy was scheduled for Tuesday, and Uptmore said it likely would be four to six weeks until those results were available. Other estimates, however, pointed to October for the results to be made public.
“It’s like a punch in the heart,” said Moreno, who has owned the Angels since 2003. “… The team is such a family, and when you take a piece out from the family, there is always a hole.”
On Tuesday, the Angels quietly packed up and moved to another hotel in the Dallas/Fort Worth area — the same thing the 2002 St. Louis Cardinals did when pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead in his room from a heart attack at the team hotel in Chicago. The Cardinals have not stayed at the Westin on Michigan Avenue since that night.
While Monday night’s game was postponed until August — and Angels players and staff who had already reported to Globe Life Park were hustled back to the hotel after learning of Skaggs’s death — the teams announced Tuesday afternoon that the game scheduled for that night would be played. The decision was not made until the Angels players signed off on it.
“The game itself can be a refuge for players, where they can turn their minds off and focus on baseball,” Ausmus said. “And I don’t know that sitting in a hotel room would do them any good.”
The teams observed a moment of silence for Skaggs — as did other teams around the game — before the first pitch of Tuesday night’s game. The Angels hung Skaggs’s No. 45 jersey in their dugout, and the Rangers’ grounds crew painted a large, red “45” into the back of the pitcher’s mound. Rangers hitters came to the plate without their typical “walk-up” music on the public address system — instead conducting their own individual moments of silence.
Skaggs was scheduled to make his next start for the Angels on Thursday, Independence Day, which was somehow fitting. He was an all-American success story — a Southern California kid, the son of a locally renowned softball coach, who went on to pitch for his hometown team, suffered a devastating elbow surgery, and this summer was finally healthy and finally fulfilling his potential when tragedy struck.
Skaggs was as L.A. as you can get: born in Woodland Hills, schooled at Santa Monica High — where his mother, Debbie, was a longtime and widely respected softball coach — and married this past New Year’s Eve in Malibu. Skaggs and his wife, the former Carli Miles, did not have children.
“He was a staple in our community,” Eppler said.
Skaggs was drafted by the Angels in 2009 — part of an impressive draft class that also included two-time AL MVP Mike Trout, two-time all-star pitcher Patrick Corbin and other big leaguers such as Garrett Richards and Randal Grichuk.
“Words cannot express the deep sadness we feel now,” Trout, a former roommate of Skaggs’s in the minor leagues, tweeted Monday night. “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.”
The Angels have suffered an inordinate amount of tragedy in their 58-year history, from outfielder Lyman Bostock’s death by a gunshot in 1978 to closer Donnie Moore’s suicide in 1989, just three years after he blew the save in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. Just this past December, 33-year-old infielder Luis Valbuena, released by the team the previous August, was killed along with another passenger in a car crash caused by highway bandits in their native Venezuela.
In April 2009, pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed along with two friends by a drunk driver in Fullerton, Calif. Adenhart, a 22-year-old rookie ranked among the top prospects in baseball before the season, had just made his 2009 debut the same night. Earlier this season, the Angels held a brief memorial ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of Adenhart’s death.
“It was the same feeling,” Moreno said of the phone calls 10 years apart informing him of the tragedies. “You can’t believe it. You keep thinking someone is there, and they’re not there.”
While there is no guidebook for dealing with such a jarring in-season tragedy, the Angels’ familiarity with the Adenhart story at least provides a template. The 2009 Angels dedicated the rest of their season — which included a division title and a trip to the AL Championship Series — to their fallen teammate, wearing black patches with his No. 34 on their jerseys, keeping his locker intact in their home clubhouse and hanging his jersey in their dugout for all remaining games.
“You just have to go with your honest feelings,” Ausmus said. “I think if you do that, then you’re not going to be wrong.”
Miami Marlins all-star pitcher Jose Fernandez was the last active MLB player who died during the season; Fernandez was killed in a boat crash off Miami Beach in September 2016.
“My message to the @angels while having no time for yourself to grieve,” New York Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton, who was Fernandez’s teammate in Miami, wrote in an Instagram post, “is to hug each other, laugh, cry, lift [up] the ones taking it extra hard.”
Skaggs battled arm injuries over the course of his seven-year career, including missing the 2015 season following elbow surgery, but had his best season in 2018, going 8-10 with a 4.02 ERA, and was in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career this summer. He was 3-1 with a 2.49 ERA over his past four starts, the last of them coming Saturday, while holding opponents to a .209 batting average and .525 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
For his career, he was 28-38 with a 4.41 ERA, including 7-7 with a 4.29 ERA in 2019. He was a fundamental part of a team that, after Tuesday night’s emotional 9-4 win over the Rangers is 43-43 and four games out of a wild-card spot, and he led the team in starts (15), innings pitched (79 2/3) and strikeouts (78) when play began.
On Tuesday, Ausmus recalled having lunch with Skaggs, at one of the latter’s favorite restaurants in Santa Monica, shortly after Ausmus took the Angels’ managing job in October, and telling him how good he thought he could be.
“I told him I thought he could be an all-star,” Ausmus said, before slipping subconsciously into present tense. “I still think he can.”