Five years after Tyler Skaggs’ death, his loved ones’ grief remains raw

LOS ANGELES — Without even noticing, Debbie Skaggs, the mother of the late Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, slips into the present tense. For three short sentences, her voice elevates, her face lights up.

“He doesn’t big league anyone,” she said. “He’s funny too, he’s a funny guy. And he’s a total music guy.”

For a moment, it’s almost forgotten. But Debbie’s reality is never gone for long: Tyler’s death from a fentanyl overdose, now five years ago. The revelation of his drug abuse. The high-profile trial of a former Angels communications employee. The still-pending $100 million lawsuit against his former team. The fact that she must speak about her son in the past tense.

Skaggs was using oxycodone, and regularly relied on then-Angels communications director Eric Kay, an addict himself, to supply him. Soon after arriving in Texas on July 1, 2019 for a road series, Skaggs swallowed a pill from Kay that contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. He overdosed, choking on his own vomit, and was discovered by hotel employees and team officials the next morning.

Kay was convicted of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death, and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. He is in federal prison, serving a 22-year sentence.

Five years later, much of the world has moved on. There are small reminders of Skaggs in the Angels’ orbit — a remembrance on the apartment complex next to the stadium, a brief highlight in the Calling All Angels pre-game montage. But, largely, people’s lives have resumed.

For those who loved Skaggs the most, however — his mother; his father, Darrell Skaggs; his wife, Carli Skaggs; and his best friend, Andrew Heaney — moving forward has been a challenge. Much of their lives are still defined by the grief that has been with them for the last five years.

Near the entrance to Debbie’s Los Angeles home is a shrine to her late son. Photos and paintings of him line the walls. In another room is a framed jersey with Skaggs’ number that Nationals starter Patrick Corbin wore as a tribute.

Debbie and Carli, who chose to be interviewed together in Debbie’s home, are close. They’re comfortable finishing each other’s thoughts and asking one another for confirmation when discussing their memories of Tyler. They still regularly get lunch and go for walks.

“I think about Tyler all the time,” Carli said. “I think about the family that we’d have. How many kids we’d have. Just what our life would be like right now. All the time, I think about it.”

Carli Skaggs started dating Tyler in 2013. Just weeks before his death, they were discussing children and their future. (Courtesy of the Skaggs family)

Heaney was Skaggs’ rotation mate and closest friend, despite polar opposite personalities.

Heaney is an introvert, not one to easily form close friendships; Skaggs was gregarious and outgoing, someone everyone felt they knew. He picked his teammates’ walk-up songs, volunteered for charity events and organized dress-up days.

“He made me come out of my shell. In situations (that), had he not been there, I probably wouldn’t have,” Heaney said. “He made me a better person because he allowed me to shine a little bit more, when otherwise I wouldn’t have.”

Skaggs was the guy that Heaney would vent to. “I can’t f—ing get anybody out right now,” Heaney would say when he struggled. Sometimes Skaggs would make Heaney laugh. Sometimes he’d have advice. Sometimes he’d tell him to “suck it the f— up.” But Skaggs always delivered for his friend.

They’d talked about what it would be like to reach fatherhood at the same time. They discussed winning a World Series together. They plotted to sign with a new team together in free agency someday.

Heaney has since become a father to twin girls, just two days after the fourth anniversary of Skaggs’ passing. He signed with a new team in free agency, and, last year, Heaney played a significant role in the first-ever Rangers World Series championship. All the things he’d talked about with Skaggs, the times he’d planned to share with his friend. Instead, he felt guilty: He got to have what Skaggs never will.

“I’m not great at dealing with emotions,” Heaney said. “It’s just hard. For a while there, it was difficult. I didn’t know what to say, I don’t know how to deal with this.”

Heaney has a hard time accepting that Skaggs was abusing pills. He says he never saw that side of him.

He was the prosecution’s first witness in Kay’s trial. Five other MLB players testified about buying drugs from Kay. Matt Harvey testified about providing Skaggs with drugs. Other players testified about Skaggs’ actions the evening of his death.

Heaney’s purpose as a witness was different. He was there to let the jury know who Tyler was as a person, teammate and friend.

For Carli, this trial — delayed several times for more than a year — was an interminable wait. It was a necessary step in the healing process for both her and Debbie. Heaney viewed it differently.

“It didn’t change anything for me,” Heaney said. “I understand there’s a process where people need to be held accountable for whatever they may or may not have done. I just felt like that’s not up to me. I guess I’m impartial in that sense. I wasn’t there for any sort of result.”

Heaney admits he didn’t really care about playing baseball for a while following Skaggs’ death. He had a hard time being present with his teammates. The guy that got Heaney out of his shell was no longer there.

“The void of being in the same organization on the same team,” Heaney said, “and just not having the guy that was my locker neighbor, and my spring training catch partner and the guy that I’d go watch his bullpens, and he’d watch mine, I’d talk with him — I didn’t have that.”

“When you have that one person that you feel like you can be a little more vulnerable with, or closer to, and then they’re gone, you kind of just clam up.”

When Heaney signed with the Rangers and moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he did it fully realizing that it meant a return to the site of trauma. That frightened him. His home was close to the Southlake Plaza where the pair would eat, and not far from the hotel where Skaggs’ life ended.

For a while, Heaney did everything he could to avoid going there, or even seeing it. Eventually, as time has passed, he’s loosened that self-imposed restriction.

“That’s not a good way to think — that some location or stupid f—ing hotel determines where I have good or bad memories of him,” Heaney said. “My memories are up here. Not where I am physically.

“… I don’t know if this is a weird way to say it. But if that’s the place where he passed, maybe that’s the place where I can get closest to him.”

Andrew Heaney, now with the Rangers, struggled with guilt as he reached milestones he and Skaggs had discussed together. (Bailey Orr / Texas Rangers via Getty Images)

Tyler held Carli in his arms, looked her in the eye, and told her that he wanted to have a baby. Just weeks before his death, it felt like their lives were just beginning.

The couple had recently bought a home in Southern California, and discussed adding a child’s room with the architect.

Today, Carli lives alone in a Los Angeles apartment. She rents out the home they purchased together. Following Tyler’s death, she moved in with her parents for two years. She doesn’t keep many photos or reminders of Tyler at her home — seeing his face everywhere would be painful. She took off her wedding ring.

“It’s a reminder of what I no longer have,” Carli said. “It’s not my reality anymore. It’s really hard for me.”

The couple met in 2012, and started dating in 2013. Not long before, Tyler had approached his family and told them he had a Percocet addiction. They tried to help him wean off the drug, but he quit cold turkey.

Carli said she was unaware of her husband’s drug abuse. That part of his life didn’t seem to infiltrate the one they shared. She remembers an engaged husband, constantly texting to tell her that he loved her. She said they had a “healthy” obsession with each other.

Because of that, when he stopped responding to her text messages in the early morning hours of July 1, 2019, she was worried. But the possibility of a drug overdose didn’t enter her mind.

“I was as confused as anybody else was. I was shocked. I wanted answers. I wanted to know what was going on,” Carli said. And has she gotten those answers? “Some answers, not all.”

Before the start of every season, the Dodgers and Angels play three exhibition games at their home ballparks. This spring, a friend left Carli seats to the matchup at Dodger Stadium. It was the first time since 2019 that she’d been back at a ballpark to see the Angels play.

For years, baseball was a massive part of her life. She moved with Tyler each spring to Arizona. She went to the games, and broke down his starts with him. But now, just being back in that environment was anxiety-inducing. She’d avoided it for years.

“I feared all the feelings that I would feel going to the game,” Carli said. “I didn’t want it to set me back. It felt good being there, because the field is where Ty loved to be.

“I thought that he would be happy that I was there, and that made me happy. But it also made me envision Tyler on the mound, and that made me miss him even more. I’m proud of myself for conquering that fear.”

Still, for Carli, there remains no getting over Tyler. She still wants to be a mom, but has a hard time imagining that life with anyone else. “If that’s meant for me, it’ll happen,” said. Her career is centered around this experience; she volunteers as an advocate for victims of crimes  (she prefers to not publicly share where, in order to preserve her privacy). But a daily “emptiness,” as she describes it, persists.

“Everything reminds me of him,” Carli said. “I talk to him. Sometimes I talk out loud. Sometimes I talk to myself.”

Debbie Skaggs used to talk or text with her son every day. She still talks to him, even if he can’t respond. (Courtesy of the Skaggs family)

At least once a day, Debbie will sit down on the couch nearest to the front door of her Los Angeles home. It looks directly toward the shrine she created for her son.

There are paintings of him from when he was young, and one of her with Tyler. There’s a framed jersey with accompanying photos. His flame-shaped urn rests on a table with his glove on top of it. The bubble gum that remained in his locker sits next to it.

She comes there daily to talk to Tyler. Mostly, it’s to tell him that she misses him.

“I have a lot of memories of Tyler. I love looking at him. This is my little meditation area. I’m just proud of him, the person that he was,” Debbie said. “‘You were a great kid, Tyler. And I’m so proud of you.’”

Debbie often receives messages from people who knew Tyler, or knew of him. People who check in to talk. Sometimes she will respond; sometimes, it’s too hard.

Recently, at the grocery store, she ran into an old acquaintance who asked how Tyler was doing. Their kids had played youth sports together, and the woman was completely unaware that he’d been gone for years.

The publicity surrounding the case has been “kind of a double-edged sword,” Debbie said. It’s given the Skaggs family a voice. And it’s made experiences like the one in the grocery store less common. But it’s also placed their son in the center of a major national news story, with all the accompanying scrutiny.

“We’re lucky that we do have this platform, and there are many families that don’t,” Debbie said.  “(But) it’s always hard when somebody who doesn’t know Tyler says something, when they have no idea about the type of person that Tyler was.”

Debbie’s ex-husband, Darrell Skaggs, was recently hospitalized. He’s dealt with health issues for a long time, but they’ve worsened since his son’s death. Debbie and Carli keep up with him, text him, and try to give him some hope.

He never remarried, and lives with his sister. As Debbie said, “Ty was his life.”

“It’s definitely a battle for him,” she said. “He misses Tyler a lot.”

At Kay’s sentencing, a statement was read on Darrell’s behalf detailing his depression and the impact this has had on his life. He was unable to talk for this article because of his hospitalization.

Every once in a while, Debbie will turn on the baseball game, and she’ll see the Angels dugout. She used to wait for the camera to pan to the dugout to get a quick look at Tyler watching the game. Debbie loved watching baseball. But really, she loved watching her son play it.

She hasn’t been back to any ballgame since the night the Angels honored Tyler in 2019 — the night that Heaney convinced her to throw the ceremonial first pitch from the rubber. She delivered a strike, and the Angels, fittingly, went on to throw a combined no-hitter. Her interest in the sport now mostly revolves around following her son’s teammates and friends.

Debbie retired from teaching two years ago, but she returned this semester to fill in at Santa Monica High School. She has so many memories of Tyler there, both as a student and the guy who came back to impart wisdom to the softball team she coached.

Debbie and her son used to talk on the phone, or text, every single day. Debbie still talks with her son, even if he can no longer respond.

“(People) ask, ‘How do you get through it as a mom?’” Debbie said. “And I say, ‘Honestly, I’m still not over it. Every day is a battle.’”

Debbie and Carli also continue to deal with legal battles and litigation. Debbie’s frustration now is focused on the Angels. She remains upset, to this day, that no one from the team called her until after his passing was made public.

It was then-GM Billy Eppler who called Carli. When the phone rang, Carli stopped driving in the middle of the road. After receiving the news, she entered her parents’ home in a state of shock. She called Debbie, forced to deliver the unimaginable news herself. Debbie crumpled to the floor.

Debbie believes that the franchise was derelict in its duty. Following Kay’s conviction, the family’s attorney released a statement saying “The trial showed Eric Kay’s drug trafficking was known to numerous people in the Angels organization.”

Debbie, Carli and Tyler’s father, Darrell, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2021, alleging that the Angels either knew, or should have known that Kay was providing drugs to Skaggs.

The family’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, told The Athletic that the Angels have stalled the case. “We’re still arguing discovery matters, and the Angels are resisting it at every stance,” Hardin said. “We’ve got very little from them. The Angels are doing everything they can to keep us from getting the relevant information we need.” He said that a settlement has not been discussed by either side.

Angels outside counsel Todd Theodora responded in a written statement, stating “Fortunately, a retired judge is closely supervising the entire pre-trial discovery process and ensuring that it unfolds with integrity. Angels Baseball has honored all requirements and has faithfully followed and will continue to follow all of her directives.”

The civil trial against the Angels was initially scheduled for October 2023, but has been delayed until April 2025.

“The Angels should have known,” Debbie said.

As much as Debbie and Carli remain angry with the Angels, their views on Kay have shifted over time. At Kay’s sentencing, the prosecution asked for the judge to go above the 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. In the family’s view, Kay killed Tyler. Now, however, their feelings about him  seem to have softened.

“It didn’t make a difference how many years he got, it’s not going to bring Tyler back,” Debbie said. “No one wins in this situation.”

“His family also loses their loved one,” Carli added. “His kids don’t (have their father).”

Tyler Skaggs’ mother Debbie was a softball coach at Santa Monica High, where Tyler would eventually play multiple sports. The Angels selected him in the 2009 MLB draft. (Courtesy of the Skaggs family)

Everyone that cared about Skaggs has seen their lives change since he died.

There’s a framed photo that hangs above Mike Trout’s locker. It showcases different images of Tyler, and others of Trout wearing his friend’s No. 45 jersey. Tyler and Carli’s wedding invitation is wedged in between the frame and the photo.

Every year, on the anniversary of his death, Carli, Debbie and Tyler’s friends will go to the beach in Santa Monica, near the pier, where they once spread his ashes. It’s a place that he loved. They walk past the mural located near his high school. It shows Skaggs smiling, flipping a baseball in the air with a blue hue emanating from his image.

The family has established a foundation in his name to provide financial support, through grants and scholarships to worthy students.

There are ways in which his memory is living on, both through images and tangible actions. Small things that give some light to an otherwise unimaginable tragedy.

“For every person that I watched him do charity events and make them smile,” Heaney said. “For every person that I saw him sign autographs for. For every teammate that I saw him make laugh. For every teammate that I saw him make dance. For every teammate that I saw him make in scream in joy for what he did on the mound or laugh for what he did in the clubhouse, I want them to remember that.”

Grief takes many forms, and evolves over the years. For Carli, it hurts to look at photos. For Debbie, it hurts not to. Heaney can go a few days without thinking about Skaggs. Then it will all wash over him in periodic dreams that end jarringly when he awakens to reality.

Five years is a long time. But grief doesn’t have an end date.

“I want to feel peace and happiness,” Carli said, with a small chuckle to recognize how easy that is to want, and how hard it is to achieve.

“I want to carry his legacy,” Debbie said. “I want people to remember how he lived, not how he died.”

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photo: Jeff Chevrier / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)