MLB Opioid Issues Run Deeper Than Skaggs

Jul 12, 2019; Anaheim, CA, USA; The Los Angeles Angels stand on the field for a moment of silence for late pitcher Tyler Skaggs prior to the game against the Seattle Mariners at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Did MLB Just Get Caught With Its Hand In The Opioid Jar?

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In the immediate aftermath of Tyler Skaggs’ death, Major League Baseball sounded all the right notes. We saw the legitimate grief of his shattered teammates, tributes from peers near and far, and the glorious combined Angels no-hitter that likely felt equally cathartic and raw for every one of their players. It’s been a nightmare for them, and those with any humanity hope his loved ones find peace as fast as it may reasonably come. 

So let’s put that aside for a bit.

In the months since his passing, a number of…odd things have happened, or have been revealed, that suggest a much deeper problem for MLB than the loss of Tyler Skaggs. It’s not hard to envision opioids becoming the next ugly chapter in baseball’s long quest to illegally medicate itself. 

First, of course, there was Skaggs’ death on July 1st. I live in the part of L.A. that Skaggs grew up in. It’s a beach town with a young population, and so I know a fair number of current or former drug enthusiasts. I told them about what happened, and to a person – literally, everyone I asked – their assumption was that Skaggs’ death would be not just drug-related, but specifically caused by tainted opioids. That they predicted drug involvement was perhaps not surprising, since 27-year-olds don’t often just die, but it speaks to the general ubiquity of painkillers that no one doubted for a moment that he could obtain them, or would abuse them. 

The real oddities began the day after Skaggs died, when it was announced that the autopsy would not be released until October 2nd. At first, that read to me that perhaps the Skaggs family did not want the team to face further distraction on top of their grief, which would be entirely understandable, and admirable. But it also sounded like they knew what it was going to say, and allowing the team to scatter to the offseason winds before the facts came out would be an effective way for everyone to limit the story’s news cycle.

The seeming harmony between the family and team was shattered on August 30th, however, when the autopsy report was unexpectedly released. The revelation of the squalid truth, clearly at the direction of the Skaggs, read more as an act of anger – even vengeance – against the Angels than as any sort of reluctant duty to inform the public. The specific, terse mention of “an Angels employee” being involved sounded for all the world like a family dying to scream a name.

And that’s when everyone else in baseball started acting weird.

It started with manager Brad Ausmus’ press conference. Think for a moment about how you’d respond if someone asked you a basic, factual question – your birthday, say. You wouldn’t offer any qualifiers, right? You know the answer; you’d just give the date. Now read the words used by Ausmus when asked the basic, factual question of whether he knew there to be an opioid problem within his clubhouse: 

“Quite frankly, I had to Google what fentanyl was. I don’t really know much about it. You read about opioids being an issue both culturally and of course post-surgically for athletes. But I can’t say I’ve ever seen it or noticed it being a problem. Not that I’m qualified to recognize the signs, but I would say no, I haven’t really seen it.”

Do you know what people do when they’re trying to evade a question? They talk a lot, and they avoid giving an answer for as long as possible. If Ausmus knew there was no drug use – or at least honestly wasn’t aware of any – his answer would’ve been one word: “No.” Instead, he said 63 words, 58 before saying “no,” and even that was phrased so awkwardly as to read that he couldn’t definitively say what his own brain thinks is a fact. There were also contradictions, such as saying both that he had no idea what fentanyl was, but that he knew that it’s a cultural problem that affects his industry specifically.

It’s very hard to believe that the manager of a professional sports team would be “not qualified to recognize the signs” of opioid use, or wouldn’t have resources who could clue him in. Baseball organizations comprise many dozens of people sequestered together seven months each year, who know each other intimately. The players are rich men whose faces are constantly on television, making it unwise for them to spend their free time around anyone outside their bubble. They’re also extremely valuable assets to organizations that spend millions on performance reviews of every kind – game video, physicals, statistical analysis, even relationships with friends and family members, league-mandated drug tests – more on those later – and more.

When you consider all of these things, there is simply no other reasonable conclusion to reach than this: The Angels knew what he was doing, other Angels are doing it too, and the name “Angels” can be replaced in this sentence by that of every other major league team and be just as true.

It’s no secret that baseball players have long adjusted their bloodstreams to alleviate the stresses of the season. Part of this is defensible; playing professional sports is a physical and mental grind. A few beers, or a pill, might help a shoulder that just threw 100 pitches feel better – especially if it’s after a loss on the road, say, when you’re alone in a random hotel room with no family around to distract you. These men may be young and rich, but their job is painful, and no amount of money will give you peace of mind if you’ve got a 5.00 ERA.

Unfortunately, that kind of reasonable pain relief is not what killed Tyler Skaggs. The fact that he was apparently able to abuse opioids for years makes it clear that the machinery of both the team and the league served not to prevent these abuses, but to shelter them; to not find them, purposefully. 

This is not new. We know now that players took amphetamines in the 1960s and 1970s, cocaine in the 1970s and 1980s, and steroids from the 1980s until drug testing was instituted in 2004. We also know that in real time, each of these abuses was well-known within MLB’s cloistered world. During the amphetamine era, clubhouses had separate pots of coffee for those looking for a chemical boost. The cocaine years include tales of players leaving the stadium during games to score drugs, even playing with vials of coke in their pockets. The obvious physical changes brought on by steroids were visible to anyone with a pair of eyes. 

But none of these eras was brought to an end by some altruistic whistleblower. Sure, Jim Bouton was still playing in 1970 when he wrote “Ball Four,” which first exposed MLB’s use of amphetamines. But he knew of it for years; he waited until his career was on the skids to say anything (and, more to the point, profit from it). The cocaine era came to light only when a Pittsburgh grand jury happened to investigate the right drug dealer. It took a reporter spotting a bottle of Androstendione in Mark McGwire’s locker to jumpstart the discussion of steroids, and significant public pressure from Congress before the first, weak drug testing program was instituted years later. That’s 60 years of evidence showing that the behavior pattern never changes: 1) Players will use anything that gives them an edge. 2) This usage, and knowledge of it, becomes commonplace within the industry. 3) Change comes only after external pressure is applied. 

Let’s apply this to the Skaggs case. He abused opioids for years (step 1), and at least five other Angels and two staff members either knew about it, also used, or both (step 2). Now Skaggs is dead, but are we hearing from the front office, who wasted years and millions of dollars on him? From his teammates, who lost a friend, vital clubhouse personality, and useful starting pitcher? No and no. The only voice we’re hearing is that of Eric Kay, the disgraced PR director and drug procurer, and we’re only hearing from him months later, and under substantial pressure from the DEA (step 3). Brad Ausmus spoke only when questioned, giving only contradictions and inanities before being excised by the organization. It all matches the pattern, and there is no reason to think that this is anything less than the tip of the opioid iceberg. The DEA is going to get answers, and there are probably many names of nervous people in the silent archives of Tyler Skaggs’ cellphone.

This will go high up the chain, too, as it has before. It’s simply naive to think that those in the game’s upper echelons are unaware of the problem, and the proof, again, is in their behavior. The relationship between MLB and the player’s union has long been contentious. Earlier this year, players threatened to “burn the whole system down” if MLB doesn’t make concessions in the next round of collective bargaining. Yet, days after Skaggs’ autopsy was released, these 50-year enemies released statements welcoming discussion of opioid screening. In the 15 years since drug testing was first introduced, this was apparently never a pressing concern; but one pitcher’s drug use goes public, and it’s suddenly a high priority? It begs the question – why were opioids not already banned? Fentanyl was no less lethal in 2004 than it is now. Prescribed usage for injuries could easily be monitored. So why is it only being discussed now? 

The answer is obvious: usage is somewhere between common and rampant, and until now, they could ignore it. But this time, it’s not just that some home run records are being broken; a man is dead, and a much darker culture’s being exposed. Federal crimes have been committed, and no amount of PR spin is going to protect those whose text messages and Venmo histories piece together a picture similar to what we now know the Angels were involved in. This has been going on for years, and this winter will be full of revelations of inaction and/or complicity across all of major league baseball. Change is coming.

It’s just too bad that Tyler Skaggs’ arm was more important to them than his life was.

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