ANAHEIM, Calif. — Debbie Skaggs was noticeably anxious as she boarded the elevator that would take her to the field for the heart-wrenching ceremony to honor her lost son. She was to deliver the ceremonial first pitch, in front of a row of Los Angeles Angels players outfitted in Tyler Skaggs’ No. 45 and an entire stadium full of fans still reeling from his sudden death. She was to throw it to Andrew Heaney, her son’s best friend on the team.
“I hope I make him proud,” Debbie, a longtime high school softball coach who in many ways inspired Tyler’s love of baseball, said from the suite level of Angel Stadium on Friday afternoon.
She threw a perfect strike, without hesitation, then took four steps to the edge of the mound, brought her hands together and looked up to the heavens. Minutes later, she watched as Mike Trout, another one of Tyler’s closest friends, pulverized a first-inning home run, his seventh in the seven games he has played since Skaggs’ passing.
In that time, Angels general manager Billy Eppler has seen Trout emerge as a leader.
“His shoulders are broad because he carries around a lot,” Eppler said prior to the game. “This kid — or this young man — has just continued to be there for everybody.”
Skaggs, 27, died in his hotel room in Texas on the afternoon of Monday, July 1. A release from the Southlake Police Department stated that “at this time, no foul play is suspected,” and a police spokesperson ruled out suicide. But the cause of death will not be known until the autopsy is completed in early October.
“At this point, I don’t really care,” Angels manager Brad Ausmus said. “His loss is his loss, and there’s an emptiness regardless of the cause. I’m not in any rush to find out. All I know is Tyler Skaggs is no longer here. He had a lot of friends and family that cared about him a lot. The reason he died isn’t what hurts; the fact that he died is what hurts.”
Skaggs was a local product who was drafted 40th overall out of high school by the Angels in 2009, then found his way back here in 2014 after three years with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Tommy John surgery followed shortly thereafter and the occasional struggles arose from time to time. But Skaggs was at his best leading up to the time of his passing, with a 1.62 ERA over his last three starts. He was emerging as the best pitcher in the Angels’ rotation.
“He became the ace of the staff,” said Angels broadcaster Mark Gubicza, the former All-Star pitcher who forged a close bond with Skaggs. “He’d really figured out how to pitch.”
The Angels postponed their game the Monday of Skaggs’ death, then continued on with their final six games of the first half, splitting them against the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros, two teams ahead of them in the division.
When players returned from the All-Star break on Friday, they saw the shrine that was built by fans in front of the main gate of Angel Stadium now filled with caps and candles and hand-written letters. They saw images of Skaggs everywhere, including on the center-field wall. They saw his locker preserved in its usual spot. They saw his No. 45 painted behind the pitcher’s mound. And they found their own No. 45 jersey hanging in their own locker.
“Tonight’s about him,” Angels infielder Zack Cozart said. “We’re going to do what we can to honor him and keep his legacy going.”
Debbie walked toward the Angels’ dugout with her arm around Skaggs’ wife, Carli, and her step-son, Garret Hetman, who was wearing Skaggs’ Santa Monica High School jersey, by her side. Debbie made the rounds in the dugout, hugging Heaney and Trout and Kole Calhoun, among others, while Carli sat on the bench next to the framed Skaggs jersey that would be carried onto the field. A video montage played, followed by a 45-second moment of silence.
Upon crossing home plate — after a home run that traveled, fittingly, 454 feet — Trout stopped to make eye contact with Skaggs’ family in the upper deck. It drove in the first two of what became a seven-run first inning against Mariners starter Mike Leake. The last two runs came off Trout’s bases-loaded double.
Eppler was still visibly shaken while conducting a news conference before the game.
“I just reflect back to everything he’s contributed to this organization,” Eppler said of Skaggs. “I’ve really come to appreciate the reach of Tyler and how many people here, outside of that locker room, or outside of just baseball operations, that he had some level of impact on.”