SEATTLE — The shock and sadness of an active player’s death has overtaken baseball the past few days with the announcement that Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room Monday afternoon in Texas.
The Angels and Texas Rangers immediately postponed the series opener on Monday night and then returned to the field on Tuesday night to play through the emotion and pain. Angels players wore a black patch with a white No. 45 — Skaggs’ number — on their jerseys. The Rangers grounds crew also painted a red No. 45 in the dirt at the back of the pitcher’s mound.
Thousands of miles away, the empathy for what the Angels are enduring could be felt from the Seattle Mariners. General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais both knew Skaggs well from their time with the Angels. When Dipoto was the interim general manager with Arizona, he acquired Skaggs from the Angels as part of a large package of players in exchange for All-Star starter Dan Haren. Later when Dipoto took over as GM of the Angels, he re-acquired Skaggs as part of a wild three-team trade with the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Servais was an assistant general manager in charge of player development and scouting with the Angels when Skaggs was a blossoming prospect in the organization.
“It’s a really difficult topic to discuss,” Servais said before Tuesday’s game. “He was a really great kid. I was around Tyler a lot in Anaheim. I was there the night in Baltimore when he felt something in his arm and it led to Tommy John surgery. Loved him as a person. He was a really good competitor. When something like that happens, it’s tragic not just for the Angels but for all of baseball.”
Servais sent a few messages to friends with the Angels, including manager Brad Ausmus.
“When you are leading a group and something like this happens, it tests you,” he said. “I just wanted to let them know I was thinking about them. Hopefully they’ll get back on their feet over there, but it won’t be easy. It’s hard.”
He understood the Angels’ decision to play.
“Playing the game (Tuesday) won’t be easy, but in my opinion it will be a little bit of therapy,” Servais said. “We are so tied into routine and what we do and playing the game every day that you need to get back into the routine. It does get you away from thinking about things for the three hours you are actually playing the game. It’s about the only thing you can do.”
Besides his relationship with Skaggs, Servais also dealt with a similar tragedy during his playing career. After building a close bond with pitcher Darryl Kile as they came up through the Houston Astros’ system and debuting in the big leagues, including Servais’ catching Kile’s no-hitter in September of 1994, there came the awful phone call on June 22, 2002, that Kile had passed away in his hotel room from a heart attack while pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals. Servais, who had retired about a week prior, was crushed.
“It’s tragic,” Servais said. “It goes to show how vulnerable we all are.”
Seattle second baseman Dee Gordon has often said that he thinks about his former teammate Jose Fernandez at least once a day if not more and still gets emotional talking about him. Gordon and Fernandez were teammates on the Marlins, starting in 2015 when Gordon was traded to Miami from the Dodgers. The baseball world was rocked when Fernandez, a perennial Cy Young contender and one of the game’s brightest stars, was killed in an early-morning boating accident on Sept. 25, 2016.
In the first game after Fernandez’s death, Gordon, who was batting leadoff, took the first pitch of the game while batting right-handed in honor of his friend. Two pitches later, he blasted his first homer of the season and ran the bases with tears streaming from his eyes. It was his first of four hits on the night.
“I told those guys, ‘If y’all don’t believe in God, then you better start,’” Gordon said after that game.
Skaggs’ sudden passing is something that gives all people involved a moment to reassess.
“Sometimes you tend to think about struggling in this game and you’re 0-for-50 or whatever, but it doesn’t matter,” Servais said. “It’s still just a game we play. There are bigger things than this.”