ANAHEIM, Calif. — There wouldn’t seem to be much room for the baseball anymore. Not for a while. Not like it was. Not when the friend you played it with, who lived the same life and dreamed the same dreams and replayed the same games was gone.
How fair it would be to wonder about the game when it is exposed in the worst way as a game, just a game, something to do between the hard questions and the anger and the tears.
In the end, always, it was something shared with him, and now he is a picture on a wall and a shrine of old ball caps and an untethered ache in their souls, and how fair it would be to wonder where that leaves the game.
The answer comes slowly, and builds, in a silent crowd, in a grieving mom’s strike one, in a head cast skyward so to hold the tears, and finally, finally, finally, in the assurance that this is OK, that the incomprehensible might live alongside the extraordinary.
For on a Friday night in mid-July, hours after they tried again to say goodbye to 27-year-old Tyler Skaggs, when the crowd at Angel Stadium had risen to its feet and hollered for the best of them, for the best of the game, the Los Angeles Angels no-hit the Seattle Mariners.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Mike Trout said. “He was definitely looking down on us. He’s probably up there saying, ‘We’re nasty.’ What an unbelievable game to be a part of. It was pretty, pretty crazy.”
Trout had galloped from center field upon the final out, a grounder to second base induced by Felix Peña, who’d thrown the final seven innings behind Taylor Cole. He’d laughed and looked into the night sky, sharing one more of these things with his pal, allowing himself to grant the game was worth playing, worth winning, worth sharing.
They’d all worn his No. 45 on their backs, his SKAGGS across their shoulders, after the jersey that hung still in his locker. When they’d finished celebrating the 11th no-hitter in team history, after a 13-0 win, they’d stripped off their jerseys and one or two at a time laid them on the mound. They needed him to be part of this, from Debbie’s ceremonial first pitch to Peña’s last, from their pregame tears to their postgame howls.
“This team’s been through, this is obviously the worst thing that can happen for a team,” Trout said. “Just to be out there where he loved to pitch from, where he dominated, threw that curveball from the sky …”
There is another young man on the center-field fence here, another ghostly photo of a young man captured as he was, in mid-delivery, never to throw that pitch, never to look back, never to grow old.
Grievously familiar with that place on that wall in this ballpark, with a young man there and gone forever, the Angels coped with another calendar page, managed another day toward they knew not what, and held tight to the family of Tyler Skaggs -- his mom, his wife, Carli, all those brothers, new and worn, by blood and otherwise, themselves included.
They bowed their heads for another 45 seconds. They said goodbye again, in case he’d missed the first million times they’d said it, and they hugged his mom and wife and step-dad and step-brother. Debbie, the former softball player, threw a hard strike to Tyler’s best friend, Andrew Heaney, then looked to the sky.
He’d smiled sweetly at her from behind the plate, then nodded as if to say, “All right, bring it” and crouched.
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“Anybody who knows her knows how strong she is,” Heaney said. “Know anything about her, you know why Tyler is how he is.”
Strong. And with a heck of an arm.
“It all started today with Debbie’s first pitch,” Cole said. “Threw it right down the middle. Unbelievable.”
How often they’d played catch together. How often she’d driven to a sandlot or a ballpark or a stadium. How many anthems she had stood for. How many hellos she’d waved to his teammates. How many baseball games she’d seen with him on that mound, 10 inches above the rest. Now his teammates held her and told her how sorry they were, how much they loved him, and she rested her head on their shoulders.
Those 11 days after Tyler Skaggs died in a Texas hotel room, 10 years after Nick Adenhart was first on that wall, the Angels had themselves another hard cry. For him. For themselves. For his widow. For his mom.
Moments before the ceremony, Carli sat on the dugout bench beside a framed jersey. She rested her hand on the frame.
Then the Angels played that near-perfect baseball game on a night they were all Tyler Skaggs, No. 45, ballplayer, guy who would have absolutely loved this.
A child is raised. He is decent and kind. He finds a world about which he is passionate. He makes it his life’s work, which sometimes doesn’t seem like work at all, which is the best kind. He calls plenty, remembers what he’s supposed to remember, laughs at what he’s always laughed at. He hardly changes at all in his mom’s eyes. There’s simply more of him, until there’s not.
A friend arrives. He is shy at first, but for the impish grin that gives him away. He seems to know when to lead, when to follow, when to stand at his friend’s shoulder. He is the first to celebrate, the first to grieve, this gangly and good-natured and real friend who hardly changes at all in a complicated world. It’s always, always, simply him, until it’s not.
A teammate grows. He is a good ballplayer and that is fine, that is expected. He is here, after all, a big leaguer. He also cares. He helps push or pull or whatever is required, sometimes what is not required, so just a little bit more. He is there for them often enough that they must be there for him, even if his picture is in that place on that fence. Especially if he is in that place on that fence.
So a memorial rises at the entrance of the stadium, another memorial on the bricks where they put the flowers and caps and knick-knacks, along with the messages written in the practiced penmanship of children.
So Mike Trout homers on the first pitch he gets and he scans the crowd for the family, because he needs them to know Tyler is on his mind. Tyler’s step-brother, Garret, wears the white No. 11 Tyler wore at Santa Monica High School, back when the Angels picked him out and made him theirs.
So a group of men and a baseball franchise and a brotherhood and a sport tries to hoist themselves, to catch their breaths, to carry on.
“Obviously we lost somebody way too soon,” union chief Tony Clark had said earlier in the week. “What’s difficult for me, as I’m assuming was difficult for many of you, is that at 27 years old you go to sleep one night and you don’t wake up.”
He wondered if Tyler had called home to say goodnight, to say I love you. He presumed he had. And the thought became stuck somewhere in his throat.
Angels manager Brad Ausmus shrugged and said he hoped another day passing and a public grieving might, “Ease the pain a little bit,” though he did not seem convinced.
And general manager Billy Eppler said he keeps a document on his computer desktop that holds the organizational depth chart at every position, including at pitcher.
“I haven’t even looked at it,” he said. “I haven’t even opened the document. I can tell you that.”
As they have done most days since, the Angels played the baseball game that was on the schedule. On this night, they stepped around the memorial out front. They passed the locker on the far side of the room. They gathered up Tyler Skaggs’ family, taking strength from that, giving the strength they had. They said goodbye again.
They honored the young man in that place on that wall in this ballpark, whom they’d help to raise, whom they’d seen arrive, whom they’d watched grow. He’d been their friend. Is their friend. Is their brother, by blood and otherwise.
It’s why they play. Why, when it is just a game, it’s still plenty enough.
“I think baseball teaches you,” Ausmus said, “that when you think you know the game, it’ll remind you you don’t know anything.”
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