What Tyler Skaggs Left Behind

A year after he died, the Angels pitcher's widow and mother open up on his death and how they're coming to terms with what happened and why.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorWarning: The following article discusses sensitive details regarding the death of Tyler Skaggs in 2019, found to have been caused by an overdose of opioids and alcohol.September 1, 2020

A small teddy bear, tan-colored and smiling, sits on the couch. It's wearing a gray Minnesota Vikings hooded sweatshirt, two holes up top for its round ears to pop out. Tyler Skaggs loved the Vikings.

Debbie Skaggs, Tyler's mother, and Carli Skaggs, Tyler's wife, sit on a beige couch in Carli's parents' home, staring at the bear. It's adorable. Big brown nose. Little dotted eyes. Cuddly. Carli squeezes the bear's right paw, and it plays a voicemail from Tyler, from when the left-handed pitcher was on the road with the Los Angeles Angels in 2015:

"Hey, I'm just calling to talk to you. I miss you, babe. I love you, baby. I miss you. Call me if you can. Hope you're not asleep. Miss you. Bye."

Carli lets a tear fall. The sound of Tyler's sweet, upbeat voice is too much. "He said 'I miss you' three times," she manages, through a mask, on this late July afternoon in Santa Monica, California.

She doesn't press the paw often, because it's difficult to listen to. Difficult to consider the illusion that he is still here. That July 1, 2019, didn't happen. That Tyler wasn't found dead in the Hilton Dallas/Southlake Town Square hotel just before the Angels were set to play the Texas Rangers.

An autopsy report later revealed that he had died of a drug overdose, having fentanyl, oxycodone and alcohol in his system at the time. The death was determined to be accidental, as the official cause of his death was intoxication from the substances, along with "terminal aspiration of gastric contents," which means that he choked on his own vomit.

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He was 27.

"Numb," Carli says, remembering how she was stricken by the moment. "I felt like I had died."

No. Reliving that day is too much.

She turns her memory instead to how whenever she and Tyler ate at restaurants, especially their favorite, Benihana, he'd reach over the table for her hand. They'd hold hands until the food came. She thinks of how kind, how funny he was—how he'd start dancing, bopping to an invisible jam, wherever they were.

This happens often, the needing to rescue herself from reliving the worst. Every time she takes a walk, turning each corner, she imagines him there. Then she's betrayed by the inevitable emptiness, the cool air lapping at her ankles as she walks home alone.

She can't allow herself to keep thinking. To go there. That dark place.

So she loses herself in Tyler's voice, in the teddy bear. It reminds her of the dad Tyler wanted badly to be. He loved kids and wanted to have his own soon, so they could see him play, so they could hang out in the Angels clubhouse with him.

Carli smiles, caressing Tyler's gold wedding ring, which she wears on a gold chain around her neck. She thinks of her 2½-year-old niece, who often spends the night. Her niece loves the bear. "My teddy bear!" she screams, twirling, hugging the bear tightly, pressing the paw over and over and over every morning.

Hey, I'm just calling to talk to you. I miss you, babe.

"Uncle!" the niece screams. “Uncle! Uncle! Uncle!"


Every morning, Debbie talks to Tyler. Good morning, she says quietly, walking downstairs, taking a deep breath, facing another day. I'm going to take the dogs for a walk now. Little things to let him know she's thinking about him.

She often walks to the giant mural of Tyler, right across the street from Santa Monica High School, which he attended, and where she coaches softball. Painted by local artist Jonas Never, who has also done murals in memory of Anthony Bourdain and Kobe Bryant, the large portrait of Tyler is sprawled across a black backdrop. He's tossing a baseball in his left hand, smiling brightly, eyes focused. He's wearing his Angels uniform, his red Angels cap. "SKAGGS 45," is engraved in a circle next to his body, which is outlined in a soothing blue, meant to instill a sense of peace.

Photo courtesy of Jonas Never

Never played baseball for Santa Monica High, too, and knew Debbie and Tyler, though he was ahead of Tyler at school. He even wore the same number Tyler did in high school: No. 11. "I really wanted to do something that in 10, 15 years, when kids going to the school, who may not have heard of this story before, would be able to search up his name," Never says. "We want to keep his memory alive."

Cars, buses whiz by. It's eerie, as Debbie walks to the mural, stares at Tyler there. It's still incomprehensible that he is on this wall and not in her arms. "It's been hell," Debbie says. "The whole year feels like a blur." Getting up every day is an accomplishment. So is making dinner. Calling people. Working. Talking. Breathing.

She believes in a higher spirit and sometimes can feel Tyler in butterflies. There are many swimming through the air near the house, their beautiful, blue wings fluttering by her. "I'm usually talking to him through them," Debbie says.

She can't sleep most nights. Two memories haunt her—her "two worst nightmares," she says: finding out Tyler had died and having to identify his body at the medical examiner's office. Her son, lying there, eyes shut. Cold. Lifeless. She cannot shake that image out of her mind.

She comes to the mural because she needs to see a different image: his smiling face. His curious, bright eyes. She needs to say something. Be closer to him, somehow. I'm hanging in there, Ty. We're all hanging in there. Love you. Always.

She hungers for answers, to find out what happened. There's an ongoing investigation. Earlier this month, former Angels communications director Eric Kay was charged by federal authorities in Texas with distributing fentanyl to Tyler. Kay has admitted to that, according to an Outside the Lines report last year, and the charges say he has provided evidence that the two had a "history of narcotic transactions." He also allegedly provided drugs to unspecified "others" on different occasions. And according to his lawyer, Kay is suffering from addiction and mental health issues of his own.

Federal prosecutors determined that Tyler would not have died if not for the fentanyl that Kay allegedly provided.

But that doesn't tell her the whole story. Why? How? For how long? How often? Why? None of it makes sense. It probably never will.

Those who loved Tyler want to tell people who he was. How he is so much more than what happened. "I want to make sure he gets remembered for who he was and what he did and how he treated people," says Andrew Heaney, an Angels starter who was teammates with Tyler from 2015 to 2019. "He was my best friend."

At Tyler's funeral, dozens of people gave speeches that used those words: best friend. That's how it felt to be around him. He made people feel special. Wanted.

And, now, devastated.


Everything in Debbie's house reminds her of her son. She has three of his jerseys in the living room. His glove. A black urn that once carried his ashes is front and center. It's in the shape of a flame, because Tyler used to play with so much energy and enthusiasm, he'd always say he would bring the spark to every workout, every inning.

There are also many photos of Tyler. Childhood ones, too. Little Tyler pitching, his mouth curled into a scowl. A fly couldn't break his focus.

Photos courtesy of Debbie Skaggs

She needs the pictures here. Wants to keep him close.

She doesn't have the strength to go through his clothes yet, or his sneaker collection, which features 300-plus pairs. Those await in his childhood room. When Tyler was a kid, Debbie would get him new shoes every birthday or Christmas, and he'd take them out of the box, hold them up to his nose and scream: "I love the smell of new shoes!!!"

In her room at her parents' house, where she's lived for the past year, Carli has a black urn of her own on a dresser across from her bed. She and Debbie split Tyler's ashes before scattering them. There are other memories all around. She even kept a sugar cookie, wrapped in plastic, with Tyler's face in the middle of the vanilla icing. Miraculously it hasn't disintegrated.

She opens her wedding album. She is wearing a gorgeous long-sleeved, Chantilly-lace white dress. Tyler is wearing a navy blue suit and maroon bow tie. He's looking at her earnestly, lovingly. He cried as she walked down the aisle. There's a photo of their wedding "cake," which was not a cake but a four-tier masterpiece of glazed and chocolate donuts from DK's Donuts and Bakery, on 16th and Santa Monica. Tyler loved glazed donuts.

"Where's my favorite picture?" Debbie asks. "The one with all the lights." Carli finds it and touches the photo of her and Tyler under a canopy of lights, glowing. She wishes she could jump into the page, the ink. She hasn't looked through these in a while. It feels good, remembering joy.

She remembers how everyone danced until midnight.

She's back in the moment. Tyler is breaking it down, bobbing every which way. He chose the wedding playlist, as playlist-making was one of his favorite hobbies. After longtime Angels teammate Jered Weaver departed for the Padres in 2017, Tyler became the unofficial clubhouse DJ. Country isn't allowed there, but Tyler brought Garth Brooks anyway. And hip-hop, especially his all-time favorite: "Stir Fry" by Migos.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Skaggs

When the beat drops, Tyler sways side to side, does this funky dance that his friends and family can't describe without cracking up. It starts with a swagger walk, with him reciting every word. He looks ridiculous. But he's so into it. So comfortable in his own skin. And soon everybody is swaying with him.


He wasn't afraid to go up to anyone and say hi. He was obsessed with In-N-Out, and he'd always get the same thing: double-double with no tomatoes and no onion, and fries light well with ketchup on the side. "That was the last meal we ate together," Carli says.

He embraced everyone. Tyler Heineman, a catcher for the San Francisco Giants, used to marvel at how Tyler would pick up his FaceTime call at any hour of the day or night. 11 a.m. 3 a.m. 2 p.m. It didn't matter. It became an inside joke, something they'd say to each other: "Never big-league a FaceTime!" "He just made you feel so welcome," Heineman says.

He was fun. Loud. A people-pleaser. A good singer (he sang Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" at the top of his lungs once, and now Heaney has that as his warm-up song).

"With his outer shell, you just see he's a star baseball player," says Cody Safron, a close friend from high school. "But he was also a really soft and giving person."

He always said hello to Angels Stadium workers. He often gave water bottles to homeless people along the Pacific Coast Highway when he'd work out at Pepperdine University in the offseason.

"He gave the best hugs," says Sarah Howard, his yoga instructor. "He made you feel cared for."

He always made this goofy smile right before he told a joke. He'd make everyone laugh with one of his Tyler-isms: It is what it is!

He loved the Lakers and Kobe Bryant. "When Kobe passed," says Justin Aguilera, a close friend from high school, "I thought, 'Maybe he and Ty will finally get to play one-on-one with each other.'"

He was a relentless worker. "He was always fired up, always intense," says Rangers outfielder Scott Heineman, a close friend since Little League and the brother of Tyler Heineman. "He just loved being there. You could see it in his eyes."

Tyler would show up to offseason training sessions with the Heineman brothers and several of his other buddies at 8 a.m. and inspire them to give it their all by saying: "We're going to bring the spark! We're going to bring the motherf--king spark today, boys!"

"His energy was contagious," says Jack Flaherty, a close friend who pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals and who was also part of those workouts. "We were lucky to know him."

Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And then they go there. That dark place, unable to compartmentalize anymore. Some do mental gymnastics, time-traveling back through every interaction, every hangout. They try not to. But it happens.

Why did this happen?

What was he doing with drugs? Why would an employee of the team be providing them, if that's what happened? How did no one else know?

It is torture, looking for signs. For some explanation. For an answer.

"I've known him for over 20 years," Scott Heineman says. "I could have never guessed it in a million years. He never gave the impression that he was using. You didn't see it."

Heineman mentions Tyler's Tommy John surgery, back in 2014, and the grueling rehab that took 19 months. He wonders if Tyler was prescribed something then. He is purely speculating. Processing. He has no idea if there is any connection. Heineman has had surgeries himself in the past, and he knows how powerful those kinds of painkillers can be.

"Sometimes with surgery like that, they give you hardcore drugs for pain," he says. "I'm not too sure exactly what transpired after that. You didn't see it. You didn't know. I don't know if anyone knew."

If drug use was a long-term problem for Tyler, why didn't anyone see it? Or did they? Why didn't anyone do anything?

"He said he felt the best he had in years," says Howard, his yoga instructor, who worked closely with him, even doing virtual sessions with him while he was on the road. "We'd do early sessions in the morning or late at night, and I never saw signs of someone who was deeply depressed or angry or in excruciating pain. It's just shocking that none of us would have picked up on any sign.

"And I guess if we were all completely wrong with how he was feeling, he must have been really good at hiding that stuff. But again, I didn't see any changes in his personality, his mood."

Why did this happen?

"I just wish I saw a sign," Safron says. "I just wish there was an opportunity to help save him." He pauses. "It feels like an organ has been ripped out of me."


It's difficult, grappling with knowing someone so fully, so completely, and not knowing this one part. His family, his friends, are still in shock.

"It's unbelievable," Debbie says. "You don't think that something like this could happen." She pauses. "We knew Tyler. At the end of the day, people are going to speculate that they think Tyler was a drug addict. I do not think Tyler was a drug addict."

"It's an ongoing investigation," she continues. "At the end of the day, we don't know what happened. We don't really know what happened."

And not knowing? "It's hell," Debbie says. "There's no closure in not knowing. No closure to not know how your son died. OK, yeah, it says in the autopsy it was accidental death, but at the end of the day, that doesn't tell you very much."

"You can't even begin to heal," Carli says.

Carli has wondered if she missed something. "I try not to go down that rabbit hole. I just know my truth," she says. "I just try to think about our love and our time together, what a beautiful person Ty was."

When Debbie sees negative articles about Tyler, articles that call him horrible names and presume to know more about what happened than she does, it only compounds the grief. "It's like an open wound," she says.

"I still have my convictions. I just don't think Ty had a drug issue," Debbie says. "He didn't show any signs of it." She talked to him multiple times a day and says she knew where he was at all times. If he was on painkillers, she says, "he wouldn't be able to wake up the next morning and do what he does" as a high-performing person and athlete.

Maintaining a high level of functioning is, of course, possible for someone who is an addict, but that's not what she saw when she looked at Tyler. It's not what anyone around him who spoke to B/R saw.

The truth is that none of them may ever know the full extent of his usage.

What we know is how deeply Debbie loves her son. How painful this is for her to talk about, to process out loud. Publicly. To live life every day hungering for a person that can't come back.

Her husband and stepson are, of course, deeply important to her, but Tyler was everything. Wherever he was, she was. She planned her entire life around his. To so many others, he was a major leaguer. But to her, he was her skin, her eyes, her blood.

"A part of you leaves," she says. "It's the new normal. You're never going to be the same."

Debbie Skaggs prepares to throw a ceremonial first pitch shortly after her son's death.

She is trying to accept her new normal. Trying to channel her grief into positivity, thinking about the good memories: how he'd call multiple times a day just to say hi, to see how she was doing. For a brief moment, she has respite from the hunger. The not knowing.


Carli talks to Tyler, especially when she's alone, driving down the freeway. What are you doing? she'll ask him. How are you doing? The silence is jarring, so she keeps talking. Has to fill the space. Has to distract herself from getting stuck in the memory of her and Tyler in the car, how they would always hold hands—one driving, the other holding.

Their hands would slide into each other's palms easily, their fingers always locked just so, on the first try. That's how Carli and Tyler's love was, though: easy, like neither had to try to be someone else to be accepted by the other. They were both enough. Always enough.

Sometimes when Carli is driving nowadays, her hand instinctively reaches for the passenger seat. She rests it there, palm up, waiting.

I hope that you're with me. I hope that you're guiding me through this, Ty.

"I just keep asking him, 'When am I going to be happy again?'" she says, between tears. "What does the future hold for me?"

I love you. I love you so, so much. You will always be the love of my life.


Debbie and Carli often take walks to the beach, about a mile from Debbie's house in Santa Monica. It's a place that brings them closer to Tyler.

Before his teeth grew in, before his limbs sprouted to 6'4", he loved the sand, the sun. Especially the water. The tranquility of it. He taught himself to swim. The water was where he felt comfortable. His favorite spot was Station No. 26. He'd look out at the waves and feel peace. His friends think he was drawn to the water, as a Cancer, one of the three astrological water signs.

He and Debbie would bring their gloves and play catch on the sand, tossing the ball back and forth, back and forth, smiling, giggling. She taught him work ethic, training him, shuttling him to all of his games. She never missed a game. She'd be in the stands, pacing back and forth, eyeballing his pitches. She was fiery, passionate, a grinder, and he'd become all of those things, too.

Tyler used to play football, too. Debbie helped with the team, always stood on the sidelines. Once, during seventh grade, Tyler hurt his foot during a game and came out. "I'm not OK," he told her.

"Ty," she said, "just do some jumping jacks. You're OK. You're fine!" He jumped a few times. He seemed better. But, sure enough, Tyler went back out there, and eventually they found out he did have a small fracture. Minor in the grand scheme of things, but he wouldn't let it go in the years to come, often joking with family and friends: "My mom made me play on a fractured foot!"

Around the same time, Debbie accidentally fell in the house. Tyler busted out laughing, an innocent opportunity for revenge: "You're fiiiiiiiiiiiine!" It became an inside joke, called the Debbie Mantra. She and Tyler would look at each other, smile, and say "You're fiiiiiiiiiiiine!" to each other.

Debbie's face crumples as she thinks of this. She starts to cry, then lets out a laugh. Carli does, too, remembering the funny way he'd say "You're fiiiiiiiiiiiine" in his bubbly, bouncy voice. The women relax, let down their guard for a moment. Laughing, that feels new. Something they haven't been able to do in months.

They don't laugh to keep from crying; they are constantly doing both. Laugh then cry. Cry then laugh. Sometimes laugh-cry, both at once, a deep ache bellowing out. For them, laughing isn't letting go. Laughing is letting in. Letting in the image of Tyler they want to hold close—the one they hope others will see.

You're fiiiiiiiiiine.

But they aren't fine, and they don't know if they'll ever be.


It was July 1, the anniversary of his passing, and the sun was setting. About 30 friends and family walked from Debbie's house to the beach. She held her son's ashes. Some held hands.

The sun was bright. Radiant. The beach felt warm and peaceful. People stood close to one another, marveling at the size of the gathering—at how so many people, from different walks of life, had all loved the same person.

They've all been grieving over the past year. They still are. Looking at the waves, they thought about how Tyler encouraged them. Made them want to dance, made them want to love.

They laughed, thinking how Tyler would have spent the shutdown. Probably finding an empty field to toss around a football with someone. "He would have been acting like he was Randy Moss or something," Flaherty says, laughing.

The water glimmered, cool and blue. His family sprinkled his ashes into the waves, watched them float away. Some cried, some felt joy. Carli felt grateful that she experienced the kind of love people yearn for: love without fear. Love that showed respect. Love that noticed every detail, every mood. Love without asterisks. "That can never be taken from me," she says. "I'll never have to wonder what that feels like. It's the best love that exists. The best."

She is trying to distract herself these days. Distracting herself from going back there. Riding horses, taking art classes. 

Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

She and Debbie have started a foundation in Tyler's name. "I try not to let the fear and anxiety control me," Carli says. But she doesn't really know how to move forward.

It is still hard to sleep, so she asks Tyler to come visit her in her dreams at night. Under her covers, her head nestled on a pillow, she closes her eyes. She remembers that voice. You're fiiiiiiiiiine.


Coaching softball had been a distraction for Debbie before the COVID-19 pandemic. She used to leave at 5:30 in the morning and wouldn't get back until 3 p.m. But now, she doesn't have that escape anymore. She is with the urn, with the shoes, with the photos, all day long.

Recently she saw a little kid, maybe 10 years old, walking with his mom to In-N-Out. Something in her broke. How many times had she walked to that same In-N-Out with Tyler for a double-double after one of his youth games?

A part of her is angry. Not as angry as she was a few months ago, but still really angry.

"That's one of many emotions, anger," Debbie says, looking at the floor, toying with the mask in her hand that she briefly has pulled off. "I'm angry that I'll never have a grandchild."

Never get to watch it grow up. Listen to its first word, first laugh. Take it to In-N-Out. Play catch.

She's angry that she has to wait for answers. Wait for some form of closure. Try to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Skaggs

"Part of it is forgiving Ty, too." She pauses, looking up, her voice trailing off.

For?

"For making stupid decisions."

She stops. A part of her shifts, opens. Articulates something that's been hard to come to terms with.

"At the end of the day, no one has a gun to Ty's head."

        

Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

        

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