Dispirited Angels begin path toward healing after Tyler Skaggs' death

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ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JULY 02: A view of a Los Angeles Angels jersey with a patch to honor Tyler Skaggs #45 of the Los Angeles Angels at Globe Life Park in Arlington on July 02, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
A view of a Los Angeles Angels jersey with a patch to honor Tyler Skaggs No. 45 at Globe Life Park in Arlington on July 02, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — We keep moving, as simple as that, one foot in front of the other, no matter how strenuous, how impossible it may seem.

So his friends get on the bus at the required time. His old teammates take batting practice when they’re supposed to. One of them changes his number for a night, wears No. 45 and pitches that way. His old coaches, who think of him as a son or a little brother and a worthy student, make their charts and hold their breaths and get on with the details of another night, another game, another set of problems in an imperfect game.

So A.J. Pollock runs the bases at Dodger Stadium mid-day, and Dino Ebel leans against a fungo bat, and David Freese thinks about him and grins and says, “He was Skaggs, man. He was just Skaggs,” like if he could think of a better compliment he’d offer that. And Archie Bradley hustles around a clubhouse looking for the television remote so he could see Patrick Corbin pitching in that 45, and then he folds his arms and sinks into his chair, as though it were sadder than he thought it would be.

They were friends and teammates and coaches. And while the Los Angeles Angels put a shaky foot in front of the other in Texas, and while their manager, Brad Ausmus, quieted a sob and said, “We understand life has to go on. The baseball season has to go on. It’ll be with heavy hearts for a while,” the game itself tested itself against the need to stop and weep for Tyler Skaggs and those who loved him.

They move ahead, move ahead, move ahead, believing there is a morning out there when it won’t be the first thought in their heads, when the job will feel normal again, when the life will too. It’ll be easier. Never right. But easier. More routine. Their friend won’t be back, not like he was, but they can be back, and they can take him with them. They can laugh. They can breathe. They won’t have to feel quite so alone.

So 10 years and 2 ½ months ago Mike Butcher had started out with a footstep, this away from the hospital where Nick Adenhart was pronounced dead. He’d cried himself dry and stood beside Nick’s dad and watched him do the same, and they held each other up on will alone. Nick was 22 and gone, taken by a drunk driver. Butcher, Nick’s pitching coach with the Angels, got the call after midnight, raced to the hospital and arrived only in time to mourn. In time for life to go on. For the baseball season to go on.

Not two months later, those footsteps, one after another, took him to another day on the job, to another day between that horrible night and now, to a pre-draft workout for a willowy left-hander from a high school in Santa Monica.

“Hey, man, so how old are you?” he asked Skaggs when the workout was over.

“I just turned 17.”

Butcher turned to Eddie Bane, the scouting director, and said, “Are you telling me there’s another 17-year-old as good as this kid in the country? Because if there is, I’d like to see it.”

It was, perhaps, the day an organization began to heal, to get on with the business of baseball, best it could. The Angels took Skaggs 40th overall. They traded him to Arizona, traded for him back, and in 2014, five years later, it was Butcher who told Skaggs he would open the season in the big-league rotation, and Butcher who watched from the dugout a week later as Skaggs allowed a run over eight innings in Houston.

“He was, like, really excited,” Butcher said. “He wasn’t really expected to make our team that year. And I remember seeing a smile that, uh … ”

Some steps are so heavy. Butcher sat in the dugout early Tuesday evening, remembering the kid with the curveball that he loved so much he called it “my moneymaker,” the life in a body that was growing stronger and surer, that whimsical way Skaggs looked at the world, and the words wouldn’t come.

“Pretty cool,” Butcher concluded.

Later, Butcher would call up a photo on his phone of Skaggs delivering a pitch in his Santa Monica High School uniform, the jersey billowing over his skinny frame, his eyes on the target, a slight smile across his face.

“That’s the smile,” Butcher said. “That’s the smile I was talking about. Just like that.”

Monday was a terrible day. Tuesday was as terrible. Butcher, like them all, like us all, stood and began to walk. One foot. The next. It’s supposed to get easier. He told himself that. He’d believe that, impossible as it may seem. Some steps are so heavy.

“I can’t believe he’s not here,” he said. “I just can’t.”

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