Dying alone in a hotel room, far, far from home, is but one of the layers of sadness in the case of Tyler Skaggs, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels who died before a game in Texas in 2019. He was 27.
It’s one of those stories where the name is kind of familiar and then you hear a couple of details and you remember seeing a segment on SportsCenter. Then it fades away.
This week, it came back in all its sadness.
Skaggs spent his last hours in a hotel room in Southlake, Texas, near Arlington, where the Rangers play. He choked to death on his own vomit. He had oxycodone, fentanyl and alcohol in his system.
Although first ruled an accident, it was later determined that Skaggs might have survived if not for the fentanyl — a lethally potent, synthetic opioid which is responsible for tens of thousands of overdose deaths every year.
Thursday, in a courtroom in Fort Worth, Eric Kay was convicted of supplying the drugs that led to Skaggs’ death. At the time, Kay worked for the Angels as the team’s communications director. He is facing 20 years to life in prison.
Earlier in the week, four players who were with the Angels when Kay was supplying drugs testified for the prosecution. They described an atmosphere of pill-swapping bonhomie.
ESPN’s T.J. Quinn was among the reporters who covered the trial and tweeted quotes from the testimony. The star witness was pitcher Matt Harvey, who described himself as a “partier” when he played for New York Mets and Angels.
Harvey admitted he used cocaine. When asked if he lied about it when he played for the Mets, he said, “No one really asked.”
Harvey said Skaggs would crush and snort oxycodone off a toilet dispenser in the Angels’ clubhouse bathroom.
Harvey and another player, C.J. Cron, said they had used Kay as an oxycodone supplier. Harvey also said he had given Percocet pills, which contain oxycodone and acetaminophen, to Skaggs.
When asked if he wished he had told Skaggs to be careful, Harvey said, “Obviously, looking back, I wish I had. … Guys are constantly doing what they can to stay on the field. At the time I thought I was being a good teammate.”
Months after Skaggs’ death, MLB and the players’ union amended their Drug Prevention and Treatment Program to include opioids, fentanyl, cocaine and synthetic THC. Players who test positive are now directed to a treatment board; they are not disciplined unless they do not cooperate.
Sports are a reflection of society, often magnified.
As USA Today reported as part of its coverage of Thursday’s verdict, “There were more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 75,000 of those were attributed to opioids, a 34% jump from 2020. Fentanyl was an increasing factor in those deaths, according to the CDC.”
The news of Skaggs’ death will fade again, although not as much as the stories of the hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths that have happened since. One hopes that, given what MLB and the MLBPA did by adjusting their drug policy, it can have some impact, at least in baseball.
There is a strong suggestion that the Angels’ organization knew what was going on in the clubhouse. A lawsuit, brought by Skaggs’ wife and family, will assess judgement on that particular question.
Big-league athletes make a lot of money, have a relatively brief window to get as much as they can and will keep this window open using whatever tools might be handy.
From another angle, big-league athletes are “assets” in the eyes of their employers, who supply the doctors and trainers (and, while on the subject, the communications directors). Sometimes, it is not clear whose interests are being served.
In October, Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner suggested on Twitter that “many other teams” give out benzodiazepines (injections to treat anxiety, muscle spasms and anxiety) and Ambien (a sleep aid).
Former enforcer Tom Sestito, who came up with the Blue Jackets before bouncing from Philadelphia to Vancouver to Pittsburgh, followed up with this tweet:
“Good for Robin Lehner standing up for the greater good, I can only speak for myself, the amount of vitamin T (Toradol) and Ambien I was given is insane. As the NHL is getting a lot younger these kids should know what they are walking into.”
Toradol is a prescription, non-steroidal painkiller.
Lehner had a meeting with the league to discuss his accusations. Subsequently, he decided to “help in a more private manner.”
And then the story faded. So it goes.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: MLB: Explosive trial ends with the conviction of LA Angels official