Dustin Garneau could not stop smiling. That is what he always did when Tyler Skaggs was around, and why should this night be different?
In their first home game since Skaggs passed away last week, the Angels honored their fallen teammate by wearing jerseys with his name and number. That was different. They threw a combined no-hitter. That was different too.
But rather than shed a tear, the journeyman catcher shared a laugh after the game. Garneau would be happy to talk about the no-hitter, but first he wanted to share a story about Skaggs.
When Garneau played for Cal State Fullerton a decade ago, the coaches asked him to show around a precocious high school pitcher from Santa Monica. The Titans were on the verge of advancing to their seventh College World Series in 11 years, and they were recruiting Skaggs, hard.
Skaggs was honest, at least with Garneau. The recruiting visit was just for fun, Garneau recalled. Skaggs envisioned himself as a high pick in the upcoming draft — so high that his signing bonus would make him an instant millionaire. He described the Titans’ chance of signing him in four words.
“If anything falls apart,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs got his $1 million from the Angels as the 40th pick of the 2009 draft. Garneau was the 571st pick in that draft, and he played for three major league teams and 10 minor league teams before finally getting the chance to catch Skaggs with the Angels this season.
After all that time, Skaggs could not wait to relive that recruiting trip with Garneau.
“It was like a long-lost brother,” Garneau said.
That Garneau was the Angels’ catcher on the night a team paid tribute to Skaggs was special. That he caught a no-hitter was borderline unbelievable.
“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Garneau said.
But that was not the most amazing chapter of his story. Not even close.
In 2009, after Skaggs had all but dismissed Cal State Fullerton, Garneau and the Titans set their sights on yet another trip to the College World Series. On a Friday afternoon in April, Garneau caught all 15 innings of a five-hour game at Cal State Northridge. He and four teammates drove back to Orange County, exhausted.
They awoke to learn that one of their friends and former teammates was fighting for his life. Jon Wilhite, who played for the Titans from 2005 to 2008, had been in a car when it was crushed by a drunk driver in Fullerton, three miles from the Titans’ campus.
The other three people in the car had died, and Garneau knew them too. He had just met Nick Adenhart, the Angels’ pitcher, that week. He knew Courtney Stewart well, as friends and Fullerton students. And he knew Henry Pearson really well.
“He,” Garneau said, “was actually going to be my agent.”
The Titans played again at Northridge the following day, and the seniors and coaches rushed back to see Wilhite in the hospital. He was in a coma. He had suffered what is called internal decapitation, which meant doctors had to put his skull back atop his spine.
Once his survival was no longer in doubt, Wilhite had to learn how to walk and talk, and to eat again. He had to regain the ability to turn his neck to face someone, instead of needing to turn his whole body.
So, for all the grieving the Angels endure in the painful days following the loss of Skaggs, Garneau can lend an ear, or a shoulder, to his teammates. He has indeed been there before.
“You don’t understand it,” Garneau said, “but you know how to deal with it more.”
He leaned against a clubhouse wall. He thought about what he had said. It did not sound right.
“You know how to cope with it,” he said, “but you still don’t really know how to deal with it in the long run.”
One day at a time, as they say. On this day, the one that ended with a no-hitter, a resounding victory and the players removing their Skaggs jerseys and leaving them atop the mound, the Angels dealt with it just fine.
The Angels threw 103 pitches on Friday. Felix Pena threw 81. Taylor Cole threw 22.
Debbie Skaggs, Tyler’s mom, threw the first pitch. It was a strike – from the mound her son called home.
And Wilhite is doing well these days. He hangs out with the Angels at spring training. He got married last summer.