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A DRUG DEALER, A DEATH — WHY WATCH A TROUBLED BASEBALL SEASON?
Waiting for any positive news from a lockout that looks hopeless, fans were fed a tragic opioid trial — and MLB should consider shutting down the season until the sport fixes its many problems
Impossible, you say. There is no godly way, even in a twisted world, that something so evil could happen. The communications director of a Major League Baseball team — in a massive media market, down the street from Disneyland, in a clubhouse called home by two superheroes (Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani), inside a ballpark where millions of eyeballs come and go each year — actually killed a young pitcher by dealing him fentanyl?
It happened, the devil’s work in the land of Angels.
In baseball, sport of scandals and lockouts, any bad pill is possible.
And rather than wait weeks, if not months, for the owners and players to resolve their nausea-inducing labor warfare, we should view the death of Tyler Skaggs and 20-year-minimum prison sentence of Eric Kay as the final blow for a catastrophic sport: MLB should just go away in 2022 and not return until it’s worthy of our time, money, respect and humanity.
Why not shut down the season before it starts, before it makes us physically ill — assuming enough people still care enough to be affected?
This isn’t about the plodding pace of play, the brain-numbing lack of action, the 3 1/2-hour games. This isn’t about installing a 20-second pitch clock and eliminating defensive shifts. This isn’t about franchises that tank seasons. This isn’t about engaging anyone under age 60, about losing more millennials and Gen Zers to King Football and NBA Twitter and video games. This isn’t even about an ongoing work stoppage that endangers chunks of the regular season, which an ineffectual commissioner, Rob Manfred, admits would be “a disastrous outcome for this industry.’’
This is about a drug dealer, employed by the Los Angels Angels for 24 years as a liaison between players and media, enabling the habit and death of a promising team asset and distributing opioids to other players who needed them. How could the team owner, Arte Moreno, not know that Skaggs and Kay were crushing and snorting pills in clubhouses from 2017 to the 2019 night when Skaggs choked to death on his vomit — in Room 469 of the Hilton Dallas/Southlake Town Square in Texas? How could general manager Billy Eppler and manager Brad Ausmus not know? How could Trout and other teammates not know?
Or, in keeping with the code of professional sports, did everyone know and simply turn their heads and zip their lips? Isn’t complicit silence the baseball modus operandi, going back to the Steroids Era and the cocaine and greenies scandals? What’s frightening is that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 times more potent than heroin. Far from a recreational drug, it’s a death sentence. And the Angels, at a time when surveillance and social media don’t make for kept secrets, allowed Kay’s open drug market to exist alongside the lunch spreads and card games.
It’s unconscionable — and highly doubtful — that no one in the C-suite knew. Moreno didn’t become a multi-billionaire by keeping a clueless distance from his businesses, nor did Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who continues to claim he knew nothing about video coach Brad Aldrich’s alleged sexual assault of player Kyle Beach in 2010. Owners tend to play dumb, figuring ignorance is a better course than full disclosure to the fans and media — until they are burned by their oblivious blind spots, or someone drops dead from counterfeit street drugs.
“This case is a sober reminder: Fentanyl kills,’’ U.S. Attorney Chad E. Meacham said in a statement after a jury convicted Kay. “Anyone who deals fentanyl — whether on the streets or out of a world-famous baseball stadium — puts his or her buyers at risk. No one is immune from this deadly drug.’’
Taking the convenient and irresponsible way out, the Angels reacted by framing their clubhouse as an extension of America’s opioid crisis. That’s a copout. While some players need prescription drugs to get through a 162-game season, pills shouldn’t be available like bubble gum and sunflower seeds. Skaggs was an addict. Matt Harvey, once the toast of New York, was a cocaine user when he arrived in Anaheim. C.J. Cron bought pills from Kay. Cam Bedrosian, Mike Morin and Blake Parker used opioids. We’re to believe the Angels were drug outliers? Let’s not be naive.
It’s a baseball problem. It’s a sports problem. But Moreno offered no remorse in an empty-calorie public statement: "On behalf of the entire Angels Organization, we are saddened by the devastating heartache that surrounds this tragedy, especially for the Skaggs family. Our compassion goes out to all families and individuals that have been impacted. The players' testimony was incredibly difficult for our organization to hear, and it is a reminder that too often drug use and addiction are hidden away. From the moment we learned of Tyler's death, our focus has been to fully understand the circumstances that led to this tragedy.’’
At a time when poetic, assuring words should be on the tips of tongues — pitchers and catchers are reporting to camps in Arizona and Florida — America is served another MLB drug cocktail. Did we really want to hear a defense attorney, Michael Molfetta, blame Skaggs for not taking control of his life when the man setting up his media interviews was slipping him poison? “When does a grown man who's living a life of complete luxury and privilege — he doesn't even carry his own luggage — when does he take responsibility for his own actions?’’ he told the jury. ‘’Tyler Skaggs didn't deserve this; no one does. But he was responsible for it.’’
No, in truth, the Angels were responsible. When a starting pitcher of Skaggs’ talents is headed for an eventual nine-figure payday, a reputable organization should protect its investment — from himself. They should care deeply about him as a human being. That Moreno and his lieutenants didn’t know, or claim they didn’t know, is nearly as punitive as Kay’s distribution of the drugs.
But why oh why would we expect more from the lords of baseball? They can’t do anything right. They’ve been on a beeline for a labor disaster, one that could submerge the sport into the American wasteland, for several years. Yet, with the regular season only six weeks away, the two sides met Thursday for only 15 minutes. They’ve had six negotiating sessions and might need six more just to make minimal progress. The fans, assuming any remain, need a morsel of positive news.
Instead, they’re served another scandal. “It is obviously a bad day for the Angels, who have given a black eye to our National Pastime,” said attorney Rusty Hardin, who represented the Skaggs family. “The trial showed Eric Kay’s drug trafficking was known to numerous people in the Angels organization, and it resulted in the tragic and unnecessary death of one of their most popular players. We have no doubt that the Angels knew what Eric Kay was doing, and the team is morally and legally responsible for his conduct. In the upcoming civil cases, we are looking forward to holding the team accountable.”
“There are no winners in this,’’ defense attorney Reagan Wynn said. “It’s just a tragedy all around.’’
If nothing else, a lockout means no one can deal drugs inside a major-league clubhouse. That will have to be our solace on Day 79. Isn’t it time to stop counting the days altogether?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.