After Tyler Skaggs’ Death, M.L.B. Turns a Cautious Eye to Its Drug Policy

After Tyler Skaggs’ Death, M.L.B. Turns a Cautious Eye to Its Drug Policy

M.L.B. and the players’ association plan to re-evaluate their drug policy in the wake of the autopsy report last week on Tyler Skaggs, the Los Angeles Angels pitcher who had fentanyl, oxycodone and alcohol in his system when he was found dead in a Texas hotel room on July 1.

“There are a lot of factors that come into play in terms of preventing a tragedy from happening, but one tragedy is one too many,” said Dan Halem, M.L.B.’s deputy commissioner. “So we’re going to continue to speak to the union to think of everything possible to try to be in a place where we have no tragedies.”

While M.L.B. does test for opioids — which are classified as drugs of abuse, rather than performance enhancers — in its minor league program, it does not test major leaguers unless it has “reasonable cause.” Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ association, said that Skaggs’ death had sharpened the union’s focus on the issue, but he stopped short of specifically calling for a change in testing procedures.

“For several reasons, including the tragic loss of a member of our fraternity and other developments happening in the country as a whole, it is appropriate and important to re-examine all of our drug protocols relating to education, treatment and prevention,” Clark said through a spokesman.

Drug overdoses killed more than 70,000 Americans in 2017, a record, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 48,000 of those deaths involved opioids. Drug overdoses have caused more deaths than H.I.V., car crashes or gun violence at their peaks, and the data show that the increase in deaths corresponds strongly with the use of fentanyls, synthetic opioids that are 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin and can be fatal in low doses.

Skaggs was found to have fentanyl and oxycodone — a prescription painkiller — in his system, and a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.122 when he died. But beyond the report from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office, much remains unknown about the circumstances of Skaggs’ death at age 27, including how often he had used the substances and where he acquired them. His family issued a statement pledging to learn how Skaggs came to possess the drugs and added, “We were shocked to learn that it may involve an employee of the Los Angeles Angels.”

The Angels have pledged “full support” to the Southlake Police Department in Texas, which is investigating the death; M.L.B. is doing its own probe. But Halem said the league had no reason to suspect a widespread problem with opioids among players. In the last five years, he said, the league had conducted 78,000 drug tests on minor league players, which yielded about 10 or 12 positives for opioids.

“We honestly don’t get a lot of reports from clubs’ medical staffs that they believe opioids are as significant an issue among our population as it is in some other populations in the United States,” Halem said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re naïve to think that the opioid crisis will have no impact on our player population.”

Jake Odorizzi, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, said teams closely regulate pain medication they give to players.

“If you want an anti-inflammatory that’s stronger than ibuprofen, you ask the trainer and the trainer takes it out of a locked box, at least here,” Odorizzi said before a game in Boston this week. “In Minnesota, there’s a locked cabinet, and they write it down in a book and keep track of who goes with what. It’s not like a free-for-all.

Even so, Odorizzi said he welcomed deeper examination of the policies around such drugs.

“I think that’s probably good to have an audit of a procedure of that type of thing, because it’s a real-life problem,” he said. “Painkillers are addicting.”

Players for years have had access to a network of addiction therapists in every city — hired by the league and the union — who can meet with them at any time for treatment. League and union officials also emphasized that players are educated on the dangers of opioids during spring training meetings and rookie development programs.

As for regular testing, though, the union has long taken the stance that testing for drugs of abuse would cross a threshold into players’ private lives. The union took the same stance against testing for performance-enhancing drugs until 2003, but since then has continually strengthened that program and penalty structure, including the addition of blood testing for human growth hormone in 2013.

But the Skaggs revelation has at least provoked discussions, and players understand that if the national problem worsens — and if there are more high-profile cases within their ranks — they could face pressure to act.

“This could be like the steroid era where Congress came in and said: ‘Look, this is not good. This is going on in your game and this is illegal by our laws,’” Texas Rangers pitcher Shawn Kelley said. “Because it is already an issue in the country. If, in our sport, it seems like people think this is not one isolated incident and there could be more of that going on, I feel like they’re just going to make legislation and just spoon-feed us.”

James Wagner contributed reporting.

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