TEMPE, Ariz. — There is no memorial patch on their jerseys, no empty locker in their clubhouse. There are new starting pitchers, a new superstar at third base, a new pitching guru in the coaches’ room. This is Joe Maddon’s team now, so there is also a six-foot tin flamingo in the hallway outside the manager’s office. Life goes on for the Los Angeles Angels.
More than any other team in baseball, the Angels needed a fresh start. They were rocked on July 1 when pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead at 27 in a Southlake, Texas, hotel room. They played the final three months of last season in a daze and finished 72-90, the club’s worst record in 20 years.
“We hit a very dark spot with our team,” closer Hansel Robles said on Tuesday through an interpreter. “We lost a great teammate and an even better person. Everybody rallied around each other, trying to pick each other up if somebody needed help. Looking back at it now, we still haven’t forgotten him. We have to continue thinking about him and moving forward.”
Skaggs had fentanyl and oxycodone in his system when he died, a revelation that led to a change in the league’s drug agreement with the players’ union. In December, Major League Baseball announced that players would be tested for opioids and cocaine starting in spring training, with an emphasis on treatment. Only players who do not cooperate with an initial evaluation or treatment plan may be disciplined.
Before Skaggs’s death, major leaguers could not be tested for opioids without reasonable cause because they were classified as drugs of abuse, not as performance enhancers. The new policy is a lasting legacy in the players’ effort to get help to peers who need it.
“You hear guys talk about it in the clubhouse: ‘We’re a family, we’re part of a community,’ and I think there is a real sense of responsibility for one another,” said Angels starter Andrew Heaney, who said he thinks about Skaggs every day. “A lot of guys felt like it was our job to step up and say, ‘Because of the nature of our work, this is something that some guys need to be protected from and need to be helped out with.’”
It was important to Heaney and others that any policy changes focused on help, rather than shame or punishment.
“Taking a pill — I mean, every single guy in here has probably taken a pill this morning,” Heaney said. “Some of it’s fish oil, some of it’s Aleve or Tylenol, whatever it may be, but you don’t really know. That’s the danger of it. It’s really hard to necessarily see what other people have going on. To be able to stand up as a collective unit and say, ‘Hey, we want to really help guys out,’ I was proud of that.”
The Angels rallied for a while after Skaggs’s death; Taylor Cole and Felix Pena combined for a no-hitter in the team’s next home game on July 12, with all of the players wearing Skaggs’s No. 45. But by early August the Angels had slipped below .500, and they would lose 41 of their last 59 games.
Manager Brad Ausmus, after one year on the job, was fired by General Manager Billy Eppler the day after the season ended. The Chicago Cubs also parted with Maddon, who spent decades with the Angels’ organization before leaving to guide the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cubs to the World Series. By mid-October, the irreverent Maddon was back with the Angels, and on Tuesday he basked in the memories of Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels’ spring home.
“You get over here and you see the buttes in the background,” Maddon said. “I remember throwing batting practice to Bo Jackson out there, and having Gene Mauch and Whitey Herzog standing back there watching the whole thing, and Preston Gomez sitting up in the stands right there reading his newspaper.”
He laughed and continued: “No, I have nothing nostalgic about this place. It’s exciting to come here in the morning, and it’s only going to get better.”
Maddon has welcomed generations of former Angels to camp, from Bobby Knoop (1960s) to Frank Tanana (1970s) to Wally Joyner (1980s), and so on. “There’s WAR in the alumni,” Maddon explained, and he has hired an artist to paint stylized words on a blank hallway wall: “relentless,” “tough,” “first-to-third,” “la familia.” He calls it the identity wall.
“Listen, they’re universal words, it’s nothing new,” Maddon said. “But I felt when I was here with the Angels, we played the game a certain way, and there was a toughness about it.”
Maddon was the bench coach for the Angels’ only championship team, in 2002. That team was known for relentless contact hitters who slashed doubles and charged aggressively around the bases. They hit .320 in the postseason and won despite an unimposing rotation.
For these Angels to win, they may need to do it the same way. Their offense is built around the American League’s reigning most valuable player, Mike Trout, and the new third baseman Anthony Rendon, who left the Washington Nationals for a seven-year, $245 million contract in Southern California. But the rotation looks shaky, with the newcomers Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy joining Heaney and several pitchers who were rookies last season, like Griffin Canning (4.58 earned run average), Patrick Sandoval (5.03) and Jose Suarez (7.11).
The new pitching coach Mickey Callaway, the former Mets manager, wants his staff to be fearless in the strike zone, like the 2002 team, for which he made six starts.
“Our pitchers weren’t afraid to throw the ball over the plate, and this is a very similar rotation,” he said. “Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier — they were Teheran and Bundy types. Jarrod Washburn was probably our ace that year, and Heaney is very similar. And then we need some of these young guys to step up, like John Lackey did. Suarez, Sandoval, Griffin Canning — they have big arms and big stuff.”
No Angels pitcher made even 20 starts last season, but Teheran started at least 30 games in each of the last seven years for the Atlanta Braves. Bundy, the former Baltimore Oriole, has allowed a major league-high 70 homers over the last two seasons, but he did make 61 starts.
“The fact that they wanted a guy that can go out there every fifth day is important to me, and I take a lot of pride in that,” Bundy said. “Even though there’s some starts where it might be iffy if you can throw a ball that day, I think it’s important to at least go out there for the team.”
Callaway has implored the pitchers to avoid walks and limit damage, because the offense will keep them in games. That is a hard way to win, but it may be the only path in Anaheim, where hardship is relative and the team deserves to dream.