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

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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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”



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Sources — Boston’s Dustin Pedroia has serious setback in recovery

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Dustin Pedroia‘s lengthy comeback attempt endured another road block on Tuesday, as the Boston Red Sox second baseman suffered a significant setback with his left knee, sources told ESPN.

Pedroia has played just nine games over the past two seasons trying to recover from the injury. He last played a game on April 17, 2019, and collected three hits in 34 plate appearances over the course of the season.

Pedroia is now discussing his options with his family, the Red Sox and his representation.

News of Pedroia’s setback was first reported by the Boston Globe.

Pedroia underwent knee joint preservation surgery last year, often an alternative to full knee replacement, and spent much of the 2019 season away from the team rehabilitating his injury and spending time with his family.

Pedroia, whose gritty nature and willingness to fight through injuries has endeared him to Red Sox fans, expressed doubts last May that he would be able to return to the field.

“I’m at a point right now where I need some time. That’s what my status is,” Pedroia said. “Some days, I feel fine, and an hour later, walking is tough. If I’m on an hour-to-hour basis of being able to do anything athletically, that’s tough. I think the time will give me the right answer of if I can do this.”

After the surgery, Pedroia’s mindset shifted, and he indicated to the Red Sox that he hoped to return to the field and become an everyday player again. But news of his latest setback brings up the question of retirement, given that the 36-year-old is now three seasons removed from a fully healthy season, when he played 154 games in 2016 for Boston.

As recently as the general manager meetings in November, Red Sox general manager Brian O’Halloran expressed optimism for Pedroia’s return.

“He’s been working out and doing well by his own account and we’re going to talk to him and learn more,” O’Halloran said. “I don’t think anything specifically has changed. I think it’s more that time has passed and he’s been feeling better.”

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Veteran lefty Jerry Blevins joins Giants on minor league deal

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SAN FRANCISCO — Veteran left-hander Jerry Blevins agreed to a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants on Monday that includes an invitation to spring training.

Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi confirmed the deal and said Blevins had passed his physical. They reconnect after Blevins pitched in Oakland when Zaidi was assistant general manager of the Athletics.

The 36-year-old Blevins, who began his career with the A’s and pitched in Oakland from 2007-2013, went 1-0 with a 3.90 ERA over 45 appearances last season for Atlanta. He spent the previous four years with the Mets after pitching with Washington in 2014.

He could fill a bullpen void for new manager Gabe Kapler after the Giants traded away several key relievers at the deadline last summer.

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Why baseball needs Derek Jeter today as much as ever

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Derek Jeter should have been drafted by the Houston Astros. They held the No. 1 overall pick in 1992, and they had it down to Jeter, an Ichabod Crane-ish high schooler, and Phil Nevin, the best player in college baseball. An old Astros scout, Hal Newhouser, was begging his bosses to go with Jeter. Newhouser was a Hall of Fame pitcher in his day, so of course his bosses didn’t listen to him.

Jeter’s first agent, Steve Caruso, landed his teenage client from Kalamazoo, Michigan, in part because he also represented an Oklahoma high school phenom named AJ Hinch, who was the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Jeter’s father, Charles, called Hinch’s father, Dennis, for a recommendation and, Caruso explained years ago, Dennis gave the agent a thumbs-up and ultimately cleared the way for Caruso to do the $800,000 deal that made Jeter a New York Yankee.

Why does any of this matter? Because after the Astros and Hinch were steamrolled last week in a cheating scandal that will forever tarnish everything they accomplished, it was fitting that baseball could almost immediately turn to Jeter, patron saint of the play-the-game-the-right-way athlete, like it turned to him during the steroid era. When the sport desperately needed something to persuade customers to quit paying so much attention to all this unseemly business over there, No. 2 was always the commissioner’s No. 1 option over here.

Jeter will be introduced Tuesday as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2020, and likely as the second player to be voted in unanimously, a year behind his teammate Mariano Rivera. It will be a day to remember what Jeter represented, and who he was long before he became just another owner of a floundering sports team (the Miami Marlins), and just another rich guy who founded a website (The Players’ Tribune) that is still struggling to make a consistently profound impact.

It will be a day to remember that no post-playing business failure can reduce Jeter’s staggering accomplishments over his 20-year career in the Bronx. If The Captain is worried about that, he shouldn’t be. And if he’s worried that he’ll always be viewed through a skeptic’s lens by sabermetricians who ripped his fielding range, and by faraway fans who assumed he was overhyped by the big-city media machine, Jeter shouldn’t lose any sleep over that either.

Maybe you had to be there every day to understand it. Maybe it has to be our little secret in the New York market. But Jeter was every bit the titan he was made out to be, and a Yankee worthy of the blessing granted by his fellow shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, who wasn’t afraid to summon the name of his teammate, Joe DiMaggio. “Derek is very comparable to DiMag in that they both have that sixth sense,” Rizzuto once said. “They both play the game so naturally and beautifully. … Joe never made a mistake, and Jeter doesn’t either.”

Truth is, Jeter was not a perfect player, captain or human being. He could be thin-skinned, and he could hold a grudge over real and imagined slights with the best of ’em. Yankees officials, including manager Joe Torre, were afraid to talk to Jeter about improving his strained relationship with Alex Rodriguez, with one saying that an A-Rod conversation surely would have been his last conversation of any kind with The Captain. “I would’ve been dead to him,” the official said. “It would’ve been like approaching Joe DiMaggio to talk about Marilyn Monroe.” General manager Brian Cashman had to confront Jeter on the A-Rod issue before the shortstop tried approaching the high-maintenance third baseman for some heart-to-hearts.

Jeter also could have used his platform to become a much more forceful advocate in favor of strict drug-testing measures, to push the players’ union to protect its clean members from the PED cheats. But that squandered opportunity doesn’t alter the fact that Jeter proved he could conquer an unconquerable game and lift his team to a dynastic level while playing drug-free in a sport overrun by chemically enhanced stars.

He fought off the temptation to use PEDs to keep up in the long-ball arms race because, he often said, his father was a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. Jeter worried about the moral and health consequences of taking banned substances. “Eventually,” he said, “I think you’re making a deal with the devil.”

The Captain engaged in no Faustian bargains while winning five World Series titles and becoming the first Yankee to reach 3,000 regular-season hits; it only seemed that way. Newhouser retired from baseball, on the spot, after the Astros declined to draft Jeter, though the scout and former two-time AL MVP with Detroit did attend his Cooperstown induction ceremony that summer. The Cincinnati Reds were supposed to take the Kalamazoo Kid with the fifth overall pick in ’92, at least until their scouting director, Julian Mock, defied his underlings and decided at the 11th hour he preferred a college outfielder named Chad Mottola, sending Jeter to the team of his childhood dreams at No. 6.

“I can tell you one thing,” the Yankees’ scouting director at the time, Bill Livesey, said the other day by phone. “I can still hear how our room erupted when the Reds made their choice.”

Born in New Jersey, young Derek had assured everyone from his Michigan grade-school teachers to his AAU basketball teammates that he would someday play for the Yankees. His eighth-grade classmates at St. Augustine had predicted in a graduation booklet that he would end up in pinstripes and on Wheaties boxes. Jeter had all but willed it into existence. In his famous scouting report, next to the category labeled “Summation and Signability,” Yankees scout Dick Groch wrote, “A Yankee! A Five Tool Player. Will be a ML Star!” Groch later called the prospect “Fred Astaire at shortstop.”

But Jeter’s early struggles represent a meaningful part of his story. A homesick and overmatched Derek cried himself to sleep in Tampa many nights in the summer of ’92, telling his parents the Yankees had wasted their money on him and wishing aloud that he had gone to the University of Michigan on scholarship. While he was committing 56 errors for the Class-A Greensboro Hornets in 1993, Hornets official and former big leaguer Tim Cullen told Yankees executive Gene Michael that Jeter was the worst shortstop he’d ever seen. A Yankees official had to call the Hornets to order their official scorer to quit wrecking the kid’s confidence by assigning him so many errors.

Some in the organization considered testing Jeter in center field; Jeter promised his roommate, teammate and best friend R.D. Long, that he would never, ever let the Yankees move him from shortstop. George Steinbrenner, who didn’t like waiting on high school draft picks to develop, peppered his scouting director with jabs to the nose. “George would always ask me during those first two years, ‘How’s your player doing?'” Livesey recalled. “It was always, ‘Your player.’ And then after the third year, I never heard George use that expression again.”

Jeter tore through the Yankee system in 1994. “Suddenly Derek became a man,” Livesey said. “He just dominated.” The shortstop grew more impatient than his employer, Steinbrenner. After hearing the December 1994 news that the Yankees had acquired Tony Fernandez, Jeter half-jokingly told a friend that he would go play basketball for Steve Fisher at Michigan if the Yanks didn’t soon promote him to the bigs. Jeter got that call in ’95 from Buck Showalter, and then played the Opening Day hero for Joe Torre in 1996 to launch a career that was hard to believe.

The Jeffrey Maier homer. The four championships in five years. The flip play against Oakland. The Mr. November homer. The face-first dive into the stands against Boston. The on-field speech he gave to close down the old Stadium. The fifth and final title he won in the first year of the new building. The incredible homer off David Price for hit No. 3,000. The even-more-incredible walk-off hit to win his final game in the Bronx in 2014.

In the middle of it all, Jeter became about as big in New York as any athlete has ever been. In 1998, the same year he would appear on the cover of GQ and break up with Mariah Carey (the star he predicted to many, as a teenager, that he would someday marry), Jeter attended the NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden — Michael Jordan’s farewell All-Star appearance — with his then-close friend Alex Rodriguez. It was clear who was the biggest attraction in the house. A-Rod stood alone, ignored, near a concession stand while Jeter was surrounded by awestruck admirers, including a college senior named Peyton Manning, who sheepishly introduced himself with a handshake and told the Yankee, “You’re having some career.”

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