Column: Joe Maddon’s Angels arrival overshadowed by ongoing Tyler Skaggs drug probe
On a makeshift stage set directly on top of the mound where Tyler Skaggs threw the final pitches of his life, the Angels tried to move on.
Under a blinding midday sun Thursday, they joyfully announced longtime former coach Joe Maddon as their new manager.
“I’m really excited to start a new era in Angels baseball,” owner Arte Moreno said.
Standing in front of the visitors’ dugout with the news conference completed and shadows approaching, Moreno turned somber.
“Somewhere hopefully, there will be a conclusion where they can rest more peacefully, everybody,’’ he said. “It’s a tough deal.”
And so on a day in which they hoped for a home run, the Angels remained stuck in a rundown.
The party to celebrate the hiring of Maddon, 65, a former Angels lifer who led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years, could mark the first steps in their journey back toward greatness.
This could also just be a brief side trip on the franchise’s road to havoc.
The day began on the field with an appropriate homecoming bash for a powerful link to their 2002 World Series championship, a former Angels coach so connected to the Halo family that everyone from Rod Carew to Albert Pujols showed up to greet him.
“How cool is this?” Maddon said when he took the microphone, and, indeed, the throwback atmosphere was way cool.
Yet the day ended in the darkened dugout corner with tough questions on a burgeoning scandal that raises the specter of both drug abuse and drug enabling occurring from the clubhouse to the front office.
The first query was for Billy Eppler, the Angels’ general manager, when I asked if he discussed the Angels’ off-the-field issues with Maddon during the job interview.
“What off-the-field issues?” Eppler said grimly.
What off-the-field issues? Hello?
Federal agents have interviewed one team employee and at least six former and current Angel players as part of their investigation into Skaggs’ death. ESPN reported that the team employee, media relations director Eric Kay, told federal agents that he supplied Skaggs with opioids and that he abused drugs with the pitcher for years.
New manager Joe Maddon signed a three-year contract to transform the Angels into winners. Meanwhile, general manager Billy Eppler is on a one-year deal.
Kay also told agents that two Angels employees — former communications vice president Tim Mead and traveling secretary Tom Taylor — knew of Skaggs’ drug problem before his death.
Mead and Taylor denied Kay’s claims, and the Angels initially issued a statement saying, “We have never heard that any employee was providing illegal narcotics to any player, or that any player was seeking illegal narcotics.”
If it is verified that anyone in the organization beyond Kay knew about Skaggs’ drug use, the Angels could be subject to severe penalties from Major League Baseball. There is also the expectation that the Skaggs family could file a wrongful death lawsuit.
So, yeah, those issues.
Give Moreno credit for stepping into that dugout corner and both acknowledging and at least attempting to answer.
I asked, how concerned are you that the team might have a drug problem?
“We have been on it since day one, all our distributions are logged, signed in, signed out,” Moreno said. “Can’t tell you everything we’ve been through with the grand jury going on and the DEA, but the DEA and grand jury have been communicating with MLB.”
A team spokesperson later said the Angels were unaware of any grand jury investigation, and that Moreno meant to say, “DEA investigation,” but his claim that the Angels had no knowledge of a systemic drug problem was clear.
“We’ve tried to see if there’s anything in the system,” he said. “We haven’t seen that.”
He was then asked about the allegations that Kay informed Mead and Taylor of Skaggs’ problems, as well as claiming knowledge that five other Angels had drug issues.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Moreno said. “The investigation is still going on, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to comment on that.”
New manager Joe Maddon turned around the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs, and he vows to do the same with the team with which he spent 31 years — the Angels.
He did, however, comment on the question of whether this issue could have a lasting and damaging effect on the organization.
“I think there’s a little bit more noise out there in how it’s being written and speculated than there actually is,” he said. “I’m not telling you that we’re dodging anything, but from day one, we’ve been in full communication with everybody. As soon as we had any idea of something, we were talking to people at MLB, the proper authorities, just to make sure…”
That last statement contradicts both Kay’s assertions that the team knew of Skaggs’ drug use before his death, and an ESPN “Outside the Lines” report that commissioner Rob Manfred’s office never received prior notification.
If it is proven that any Angels official knew of Skaggs’ problem and didn’t inform MLB, the organization could face franchise-altering penalties that could lead to massive personnel changes and severely damage its hard-earned wholesome reputation with sponsors and fans. That is the biggest unanswered question here. Amid all the Skaggs heartbreak, that is the other shoe.
This is seemingly having a personal impact on Moreno, a volatile personality who spoke about the issues not with anger, but sadness.
This is the same Moreno, remember, who paid nearly $80 million in 2015 to rid the organization of Josh Hamilton after the slugger suffered a relapse of drug and alcohol addiction. Since Moreno purchased the team from Disney in 2003, he has been adamant about running an operation as clean as Disneyland itself, and it appears the recent events could be wearing on him.
When I asked about this, he deflected the attention.
“We really feel bad about the Skaggs family, his young wife, the players, all the relationships,” Moreno said. “We drafted Tyler in 2009. We look at it as the family and the wife more than the business part of it.”
Despite all the surrounding circumstances, the Angels have not forgotten their young fallen pitcher. A giant photo of Skaggs still graces the Angel Stadium right-center field wall. His name and number 45 still adorn columns inside the stadium entrance.
Even in the hopeful light of the arriving Maddon, a Skaggs shadow remains.
Even on a day when they embraced their new future, the Angels were holding their breaths.
At his introductory news conference, new Angels manager Joe Maddon said he plans to marry new-age analytics with old-school fundamentals to return team to glory.
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