Editor’s Note: Jeff Pearlman is the author of “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL“. He is also the host of the “Two Writers Slinging Yang” podcast. Follow him @jeffpearlman. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room Monday morning, the cause of death awaiting an autopsy report.
And I am reminded of my feelings from 17 years ago.
Back in February 2002, I was covering the San Diego Padres’ spring training for Sports Illustrated when word hit that Mike Darr, a slugging 25-year-old outfielder, had been killed the night before in a car crash.
I remember walking through the clubhouse, through an army of speechless young men unable to express their grief. I remember the dumbfounded silence. I remember Darr’s locker stall, his uniform shirt waiting to be pulled over his head, his cleats waiting to be slid onto his feet. I remember entering the office of Bruce Bochy, the team manager, and asking questions that could not possibly be answered.
I remember the tears running down the manager’s cheeks. The disbelief. The solemnness. How could this have happened? Did this really happen? I remember feeling like a fraud. What right did I have to be here? How could I intrude on their mourning? Who the hell was I?
Sports deaths are like no other deaths. You exist in this precious bubble of young, celebrated vitality. You exist – quite literally – to run as fast as you can, to throw as hard as you can, to slide into the dirt and dive across the grass and make leaping catches between second and third. You are muscular and strapping and handsome and famous and well-compensated.
You are plastered across stadium posters and banners waving in the wind. You are traveling by chartered jet, staying in five-star hotels, stopping to affix your signature to rectangular pieces of cardboard.
Every day, you are surrounded by men just like you. They, too, are youthful and strong and fierce. They, too, are living the dream of dreams. They, too, have seemingly limitless futures.
And then – it’s over.
The cruelness isn’t merely in the death, but the suddenness of it all. I have met many people in my 2 ½ decades as a journalist, and in my experience few professions are less prepared for mortality than that of the professional athlete.
You are trained to live in the moment and look toward the next day. You are goal-oriented and task-driven. On the morning after Mike Darr’s passing, he was supposed to be in the Padres’ clubhouse, getting dressed as he always got dressed, taking batting practice as he always took batting practice, shagging fly balls as he always shagged fly balls.
As you’re reading this, Tyler Skaggs was likely scheduled to be at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas – maybe loosening his arm, maybe playing cards with the other pitchers. That he literally no longer walks the Earth is a near-impossible concept for his former teammates to digest. It makes no sense.
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In the coming days, the Los Angeles Angels will, well, try to make sense of the tragedy. You will hear the stories of a recently married man from nearby Santa Monica who fought through his struggles to have a long major-league career. You will have moments of silence and standing ovations. You’ll have his stall inside the Angels clubhouse, left untouched for the remainder of the season.
People will move on, because they have no choice.
But, 17 years after the death of Mike Darr, the heartache of another young man’s passing ripples through baseball.
It leaves a mark.