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  • Faced with immense tragedy after the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs on Monday, the Angels returned to the field Tuesday and honored their late teammate.
By Jon Tayler
July 03, 2019

“Right now, he’d be saying, ‘We’re nasty.’”

After nine innings of baseball that probably felt like a thousand, the reporters in Dallas asked the Angels how Tyler Skaggs would have felt about the 9–4 win his teammates had secured over Texas. Through the tears, a brief moment of levity broke through—a dozen men in red hoodies, suddenly laughing, despite all the pain they carried for the man they’d called a friend who was suddenly gone.

“There was nobody happier to win a ballgame than Skaggs,” said Justin Upton. “Every time he came off the mound and he’d just got done pitching, he’d stay in the dugout and pump the guys up. There was no more energy than what he brought.” And then Upton hung his head, overcome with emotion, his voice thick as he held back a sob.

Tuesday night’s game against the Rangers was the Angels’ first since the passing of Skaggs, who was found dead in his hotel room on Monday. It left his teammates and manager struggling to comprehend his demise and the baseball world reeling at his loss. And yet the sport had to go on without him. So the 24 men left on Los Angeles’ roster, after 24 hours of crying and questioning and heartache, picked up their bats and gloves and put on their uniforms and tried to get on with the season as best they could.

“It’s just a tough 24 hours,” said Mike Trout. “We’re getting through it. Tough playing out there today, but like [manager] Brad [Ausmus] said, Skaggsy wouldn’t have wanted us to take another day off.”

“There’s no playbook on how it’s supposed to go today and how you’re supposed to act,” added Kole Calhoun. “But getting back to the game, it’s definitely what he would’ve wanted.”

So they got back to the game. They played with a giant “45” painted on the mound of Globe Life Park. They brought out Skaggs’s jersey—still hanging at his locker—and held it with them during a pregame moment of silence. “We wanted to take him out there with us one more time,” said a crying Andrew Heaney. They pitched and fielded and hit with black “45” patches on their jerseys, and when Calhoun homered in the eighth, he pointed skyward when he touched home plate.

“It just kind of felt right,” he said after the game. “We know we’ve got an angel watching over us now.”

The Angels weren’t alone in their grief. Across the country, the baseball fraternity came together to mourn one of its own. In Washington, Patrick Corbin, one of Skaggs’ close friends and former teammates, pitched wearing No. 45 instead of his usual 46. “He’s just all I’m thinking about,” Corbin said afterward through tears. In Cincinnati, the Brewers’ Chase Anderson, another former Skaggs teammate, drew “45” in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound before his start. Trevor Bauer took to the field for Cleveland against Kansas City with “TS45” written on his cap. Back in Anaheim, fans descended on Angel Stadium to leave flowers and candles and cards and gather in remembrance.

And in Dallas, all the Angels could do was play on. “He lives on only now in our minds and our hearts,” Los Angeles general manager Billy Eppler said before the game. “Our team will never be the same.”

For a franchise touched by tragedy with appalling frequency—Lyman Bostock in 1978, Donnie Moore in 1989, Nick Adenhart in 2009, Luis Valbuena last December—Skaggs’s death is just the latest savage blow, and one that both robbed the team of a beloved member and cruelly cut short what had been a promising career. Through ups and downs, trades and Tommy John surgery, good starts and bad, the 27-year-old lefty kept grinding away. He’d carved out a spot in the Angels’ rotation; he was counted on to do big things for a team in the thick of the AL wild-card race. Instead, all the Angels are left with are memories as they try to bury the pain and win without him, to find some semblance of normalcy in a year that’s now been twisted beyond recognition.

“A lot of problems go away when the first pitch is thrown until the last pitch is thrown,” Eppler said on Tuesday, and maybe, for a few brief hours, the familiar rhythms of the game helped drown out the sorrow. Yet as Trout stepped to the plate for the first time, all he could think of, he said, was Skaggs, and how much he loved him.

“It’s going to be tough, these next couple days, the season, the rest of our lives,” he said afterward. “It’s bigger than the game.”

The last person to speak in Tuesday’s postgame press conference was a man who is unfortunately no stranger to this kind of loss. Three years ago, Justin Bour was a member of the Marlins when Jose Fernandez, the team’s young ace, died in a boat crash in late September. The shock, the pain, the hurt, the confusion—Bour had been there before. So, he was asked, did he have any advice or counsel he could give to his teammates who were now struggling with those same feelings?

“I know how tough it’s going to be every single day,” Bour said. “It takes a really long time to sink in, and sometimes it just doesn’t. But we’re going to keep grinding every day and playing hard and playing with his spirit.”

It may seem silly if not downright impossible, this idea to fight for wins in the face of tragedy—to try to find comfort in a game against a permanent loss, to perform through unspeakable pain and express joy amid horror. But it’s what Skaggs would have wanted, the Angels said. All they could do to honor their teammate and brother and friend and loved one is keep going, one inning at a time, just like he did.

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