‘He’s here with us’ — How the Angels honored Tyler Skaggs with an emotional, historic tribute

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Most of the Los Angeles Angels struggled to sleep on Friday night. They were still processing the events that unfolded, still too emotional coming off a game that, for some, evoked sentiments of a higher power. Andrelton Simmons, the team’s shortstop, was an exception. He slept more soundly than he had in the 11 nights since the tragic death of his friend and teammate, Tyler Skaggs, because of a comforting presence he couldn’t quite place.

Simmons relived those events the following afternoon and stammered often, struggling to contextualize the Angels’ ability to no-hit the Mariners while wearing Skaggs’ jersey — in their first home game since his passing, mere hours before what would have been his 28th birthday. Simmons ultimately described it as “a very warm, nice feeling that there’s something else, after this. We kind of know now, for sure, that he’s here with us.”

He thought about Debbie Skaggs, the longtime softball coach who inspired her son’s love for pitching, and that perfect strike she threw for the ceremonial first pitch. He thought about all the numbers that eerily pointed back to Skaggs — Mike Trout’s first-inning home run traveled 454 feet, depicting Skaggs’ No. 45 forward and backward; seven first-inning runs and 13 total, symbolizing Skaggs’ birthday on the seventh month and the 13th day; the first combined no-hitter in California since July 13, 1991, the day Skaggs was born.

He thought about that sixth-inning, diving play by rookie third baseman Matt Thaiss, who is still new to the position. He thought about how every other ball hit off Taylor Cole and Felix Pena seemed to travel directly at a defensive player. He thought about the final snapshot, of three dozen No. 45 jerseys lying on the Angel Stadium pitcher’s mound.

“It was just designed perfectly,” Simmons said. “It felt like a guidance.”

Dee Gordon‘s viral postgame quote — “If you don’t believe in God, you might want to start” — made its way through the Angels’ clubhouse and drew laughs. Albert Pujols, a devout Christian, felt validated in his faith. Andrew Heaney, who doesn’t consider himself religious, pondered the possibility of larger forces at play.

“You can’t help but think that something bigger is going on, or someone out there is watching out for us,” Angels reliever Cam Bedrosian said. “You could just feel it. You could feel something different.”

Skaggs’ widow, Carli, visited the clubhouse before players were scheduled to be on the field and offered comforting hugs to several of her late husband’s former teammates. Debbie Skaggs made the rounds in the dugout shortly thereafter, displaying uplifting strength while chatting with Kole Calhoun and Justin Upton, among others. What followed was a video tribute, then a 45-second moment of silence, then an unspeakably emotional ballgame.

Gordon, the opposing second baseman, was in a similar position less than three years ago when he mustered the strength to belt a home run to lead off the first game since Jose Fernandez’s sudden death on Sept. 26, 2016.

When Friday’s pregame ceremony concluded, Gordon felt his own intuition.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “I knew we were gonna get our ass whupped.”

Mike Trout consoles Debbie Skaggs, mother of Tyler Skaggs, in the Angels’ dugout before she threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Friday. John McCoy/Getty Images

Tim Mead touched down in Albany, New York, on July 1, turned on his smartphone and quickly became engulfed by an avalanche of text messages informing him of Skaggs’ passing. (The cause of death is still unknown.) Mead had just returned from London, where he took in a series between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox as part of his new job as president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a position he recently accepted after four decades with the Angels. He spent the entire 90-minute drive to Cooperstown calling old friends and longtime co-workers.

“It was a surreal moment,” Mead said. “Again.”

Mead, who spent the past 22 years leading the Angels’ communications department, was with the organization when 22-year-old pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver on April 9, 2009, hours after an exceptional outing. Mead’s mind immediately retreated there.

Kevin Jepsen, a retired former Angels reliever who teamed with Skaggs in 2014, felt the same way. Jepsen rehabbed alongside Adenhart early on and established a close bond with him as they made their way through the Angels’ system. In the wake of his death, Jepsen was the one tasked with hanging Adenhart’s jersey in his late teammate’s locker before every game.

Throughout that 2009 season, Jepsen couldn’t help but think Adenhart was recovering from an injury in Arizona, like so many others, and that eventually he would return.

“You just kept waiting for him to come back — to get healthy and come back and join the team — and you have to remind yourself that he wasn’t coming back,” Jepsen said. “It was just that constant reminder. The hope, and then the crush all over again, almost every day.”

Jepsen remembers a 2009 Angels team that couldn’t wait to get to the field for a necessary distraction. They thrived that season, winning 97 regular-season games and falling only two victories shy of the World Series. Adenhart’s death put everything else in perspective. Suddenly, Jepsen said, baseball didn’t mean all that much. It allowed them all to play freely.

His advice for the current Angels is to “lean on each other.”

“It’s OK to break down,” Jepsen said, “it’s OK to tell your guy next to you in the locker that you’re struggling one day, because odds are he’s feeling the same way.”

The Angels together in their Skaggs jerseys before no-hitting the Mariners. Kelvin Kuo/USA Today Sports

Mark Gubicza, in his 13th season as an Angels broadcaster, immediately felt a kinship with Skaggs. Gubicza spent the early years of his playing career fighting the label of a talented pitcher who couldn’t figure it out. He eventually did, making a couple of All-Star teams in a career that spanned 14 seasons, and he was confident that Skaggs — a first-round pick out of high school who was seemingly beginning to turn the corner — would do the same.

The two established a ritual on July 26, 2016, in Kansas City, on the morning of Skaggs’ first start since undergoing Tommy John surgery. Skaggs walked into a nearby Starbucks, saw Gubicza and asked to talk. They sat together for hours, nearly losing track of time. Gubicza told old stories from his playing days, broke down Skaggs’ mechanics and implored him to maintain a competitive edge.

Skaggs pitched eight scoreless innings that night. And so before each of Skaggs’ next starts, they either met at a Starbucks on the road or texted each other pictures of their orders at home. For his last outing, on June 29, Gubicza sent a picture of his sweaty Starbucks cup resting on a scorebook. After that game, in which Skaggs pitched four scoreless innings before facing trouble in the fifth, Gubicza sent another message: “Your stuff is great right now. This is your chance to go to the next level.”

Skaggs’ response: “I’m getting there.”

To those who knew him within his profession, Skaggs was an extremely talented pitcher who was noticeably eager to become great. But he was also affable, magnetic, charming, inclusive, generous. Nobody on the Angels dressed better or had a more refined taste for music or was more beloved by the clubhouse attendants. Few, anywhere, did a better job of combining arrogance with endearment.

Angels catcher Dustin Garneau, who became friends with Adenhart days before he died, once guided Skaggs through a recruiting tour of Cal State Fullerton and said he “had a cockiness to him that I absolutely appreciated.” Huston Street, the Angels’ former closer, described Skaggs as “uniquely confident and real and cool and damn good but still hungry.”

Tim Salmon, the longtime Angels right fielder who still spends a lot of time around the team, recalled a cruise they embarked on together with season-ticket holders.

“We had some great conversations about what it takes to be a successful major leaguer,” Salmon said. “He was so eager to learn anything he could from my experiences.”

Mead will never forget the joy he felt introducing Skaggs to Chuck Finley, whom Skaggs identified as his favorite Angels pitcher. He’ll miss walking up to Skaggs the day after his starts and asking, “What did your mom say?”

“I know he was a fantastic husband,” Mead said, “and I think he would’ve been a tremendous father.”

Mike Butcher was the Angels’ pitching coach from 2007 to 2015. He was the first person Adenhart’s father called on the night of the accident, a moment that shook him to his core. Weeks later, Butcher stayed for a pre-draft workout at Angel Stadium and saw a wiry, fresh-faced, Santa Monica High School left-hander throwing fastballs, sliders, changeups and curveballs.

He pulled Skaggs aside, asked his age and learned the pitcher had just turned 17.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Butcher, currently on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ coaching staff, said. “It blew me away.”

The Angels, at the behest of Butcher, drafted Skaggs 40th overall that June. They traded him to the Diamondbacks in August 2010, then got him back in December 2013. Skaggs made the Opening Day rotation the following spring, and Butcher still remembers the smile that swept across Skaggs’ face when he was given the news.

“I could still see it,” Butcher said. “He was just special, in every single way. And he could make everybody around him feel good.”

Angels lefty Tyler Skaggs pitching in April earlier this season. Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

Bedrosian keeps thinking about the first time Skaggs and former teammate Blake Parker summoned their deepest voices and yelled, “We’re nasty” on a bus trip to the stadium. It became a thing, and it made Bedrosian cackle every time. Skaggs kept using the phrase after victories, yelling it while bounding up the dugout steps. It has since become the team’s rallying cry, emblazoned on red T-shirts and plastered across a wall in their clubhouse.

After completing an on-field interview following Friday’s no-hitter, Pena, who pitched the final seven innings, returned to the microphone, made sure the camera was still rolling and yelled, “We’re nasty,” igniting a roar from the 43,140 fans in attendance.

By late Sunday afternoon, the shrine in front of the main gate of Angel Stadium had grown to somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 caps and 100 posters, some of which read statements like “best curveball ever” and “the brightest stars burn the fastest” and “we’re all going to miss you.”

“Our fans,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said, “are extremely loyal and protective.”

ESPN’s Buster Olney leads the discussion of the latest news and notes around baseball with the game’s top analysts. Listen

The team preserved Skaggs’ locker and placed the game ball from the no-hitter on its top shelf. All of the players signed two Skaggs jerseys, which will be given to Debbie and Carli. A “45” patch will appear on their uniforms for what remains of this season, as will an image of Skaggs that looks on from the center-field wall.

Several members of the Angels learned that Skaggs had been found dead in his Southlake, Texas, hotel room while boarding the bus to prepare for their game against the Texas Rangers. Foul play wasn’t initially suspected and suicide was quickly ruled out, but the cause of death won’t be revealed until an autopsy is completed in early October.

Major League Baseball canceled that day’s game, and Globe Life Park featured Skaggs’ “45” on the pitcher’s mound the following afternoon. Elsewhere, the likes of Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer and Chase Anderson staged their own tributes while they pitched. Heaney began a start with a loopy curveball to honor Skaggs, and Trout played in the All-Star Game wearing the No. 45.

Skaggs’ likeness was displayed on a wall in Venice Beach, California, and on the cleats of former teammate Hector Santiago, who now plays for the Chicago White Sox. Several moments of silence were held in honor of Skaggs; countless players immortalized him through messages on their social media accounts.

Said Eppler: “I’ve really come to appreciate the reach of Tyler.”

Fans created a makeshift shrine in front of Angel Stadium before Friday’s game. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

The first pitch of Friday’s ninth inning was a chest-high, 89 mph fastball that Mariners outfielder Mac Williamson hit well to center field. Pena slumped his shoulders. He was almost certain the ball would travel for a home run, as did most of his teammates. But Garneau, stationed behind home plate, had a better view than anybody.

“We’re good,” Garneau yelled, prompting Pena to turn around and watch Trout settle in for a routine catch.

Two pitches later, Gordon hit a tapper to the left side that elicited anxiety. Twenty days earlier, in St. Louis, Pena fielded a bunt in almost the exact same spot and threw wildly to third base, prompting two runners to score. This time, he calmly retrieved the ball, spun and fired accurately to first base, retiring one of baseball’s fastest runners.

The last out came on the Mariners’ hardest-hit ball of the night. It was off the bat of Mallex Smith, a 101.7 mph one-hopper near second base. Luis Rengifo, who had just been inserted into the game, quickly ranged to his right, took the baseball off his chest, recovered and secured the out.

Rengifo instantly thought back to the fourth-inning throwing error he made on June 29. Skaggs turned to Rengifo after the play and said, “I got you.” Two batters later, he induced an inning-ending, 6-4-3 double play to escape damage.

“I’ll never forget that,” Rengifo said, pausing for a moment to gather himself. “It’s hard.”

Simmons felt uncommonly sore throughout Friday’s game. Given the sizeable lead, he thought about asking out to rest his body. The continuing no-hitter triggered an obligation to stay. Angels manager Brad Ausmus didn’t want to remove Thaiss for defense because he didn’t want to sap a young player’s confidence, but he made the move for Rengifo in the final inning. The magnitude of the moment swayed him.

The Angels’ game-worn Skaggs jerseys adorn the mound after Friday night’s no-hitter. John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

Ausmus has since been overwhelmed by all the messages he has received from that game.

He called it “a silver lining for a dark cloud.”

“But I don’t know how it plays out from here. It’s a silver lining, but it’s also emotionally draining.”

Heaney, Skaggs’ best friend on the team, has lost loved ones before but has never experienced something that felt this senseless.

“There was no reason for his time to go,” Heaney said. “That’s the hardest part, really. Especially in a group like this, where you’re literally with these guys, your baseball family, for 10, 12 hours a day, every single day. You get halfway through the off-day and you’re enjoying it and you’re like, ‘F—, man, I just wanna go back to the guys. I wanna go back to the clubhouse.’ When that family dynamic gets disrupted, it just really throws everybody off.”

Heaney spent the first four days after Skaggs’ death unsuccessfully trying to keep himself from crying. By Saturday afternoon, however, he had brightened up. What unfolded the prior night had infused him with happiness in the wake of tragedy. It provided him with a cheerful memory to replace some of the bad thoughts that lingered following Skaggs’ death, a turn of events Heaney considered “emotionally therapeutic.”

“I think it was really just such a great thing for everybody to celebrate him, to honor him, to be able to have a moment in time that when you think back, it’s all positive, all happy,” Heaney said. “I think that’s going to be great for all of us.”

Read this article from its source at http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/27192926/here-us-how-angels-honored-tyler-skaggs-emotional-historic-tribute