LON sports editor Justin Hubbard discusses a few healing moments in sports
Sports offer us an escape.
We can turn on or attend a sporting event and, for that brief time, we can let our minds forget the cares of this world. But sometimes, sports get infused with an unfortunate dose of reality.
We recently saw an example of that with the sudden death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs.
Skaggs was found dead in a Dallas-area hotel July 1. He and the Angels were in town for a series against the Texas Rangers.
His death stung. It’s always awful seeing such a young athlete’s life cut short, as was the case with the 27-year-old Skaggs, not to mention the grief his family, friends and teammates are suffering.
In the darkness of Skaggs’ death, though, there is light.
The Angels returned to their home field in Anaheim last weekend following the all-star break. In their first game back in L.A. since Skaggs’ passing, they defeated the Seattle Mariners, 13-0.
Afterward, the Angels’ players all placed their jerseys around the pitcher’s mound in honor of Skaggs.
The victory and postgame moment themselves would have been enough to classify this as a healing moment. But a deeper look into the game reveals some chill-inducing information.
For starters, Skaggs’ mother tossed the ceremonial first pitch. When the Angels’ actual pitchers took the mound, they threw a combined no-hitter. It was the 11th no-hitter in franchise history; Skaggs wore No. 11 in high school. It was also the first no-hitter thrown in the state of California since July 13, 1991, which was the day Skaggs was born.
Angels outfielder Mike Trout hit a home run that traveled 454 feet. Skaggs’ jersey number was 45.
In the first inning, the Angels scored seven runs. They finished with 13. Skaggs’ birthday was 7/13.
Those details amazed me. I woke up around 2 a.m. last Saturday after that game was finished. I had an alert from CBS Sports regarding the no-hitter, but peek at Twitter informed me of all the other things mentioned above.
I couldn’t believe all of that was true, but it was.
It reminded me of a few other instances in my lifetime where, when reality had creeped into sports via tragedy, those sports provided moments of healing.
The most significant moment I can remember came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. That obviously did not involve any notable athletes, but baseball gave us a way of moving on soon after those attacks.
President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch before game three of the 2001 World Series on Oct. 30, which pitted the host New York Yankees against eventual champions Arizona Diamondbacks.
Bush walked to the Yankee Stadium mound to loud cheers, reared back and threw a strike. It was a small moment, but it was a display of Bush’s – and, by proxy – America’s strength in the face of tragedy. No matter your political views, I think we can all agree that was a moment our nation needed.
The Skaggs tribute also reminded me of another unfortunate death of a young star pitcher, Jose Fernandez.
Fernandez was already among baseball’s elite pitchers when he died at 24 years old in a boating accident Sept. 25, 2016. Fernandez, Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Jesus Macias all died after their speeding boat crashed. It was determined that alcohol and drugs likely played a role in the accident.
The loss of Fernandez sent shockwaves throughout the country. His team, the Miami Marlins, canceled their game against the Atlanta Braves that day.
One day later, the Marlins returned to action at home against the New York Mets and pitcher Bartolo Colon. Miami outfielder Dee Gordon led off the game and, three pitches into the at-bat, he crushed a home run.
As he rounded the bases, Gordon visibly teared up. The moment was a release of emotion for him and the entire Marlins team. The way it played out was kind of eerie, too: Fernandez had joked with Gordon sometime earlier that season about his lack of home runs that year, and Gordon responded by saying he was saving his homers for a big moment. I’d say that was true.
Finally, another sport that was affected by a major tragedy in my life is NASCAR. We all know about Dale Earnhardt and his passing in the 2001 Daytona 500. It was the biggest loss any motorsport has ever seen, given his talent and star power.
One week after his death, Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver Steve Park won at Rockingham Speedway in Earnhardt’s home state of North Carolina.
The next month, Earnhardt’s car itself returned to Victory Lane. Richard Childress, owner of the No. 3 car, called up Kevin Harvick to fill in for the rest of the season (and, ultimately, several more years). Earnhardt’s car was painted white and given the No. 29.
Harvick drove the car to victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, edging out Jeff Gordon by .0006 seconds in the process. The finish was reminiscent of Earnhardt’s own side-by-side win against Bobby Labonte at AMS the year before. It was Earnhardt’s second-to-last win.
But the healing moment came a few months later back at Daytona.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran well throughout the Pepsi 400, which was held July 7, 2001. Junior ultimately won the race and celebrated in the infield grass along with then-DEI teammate Michael Waltrip. There aren’t enough words to describe that post-race scene.
The Intimidator’s son had carried the weight of the world on his shoulders for months. Finally, he got to lay it down at the site of his fathers’ death.
These moments didn’t erase the grief. Nothing could.
They did, however, help those affected move on with their lives, the memory of those lost firmly tucked into their hearts.
I don’t know your beliefs, dear reader, but I’m a lifelong believer in the good Lord. I think he gives these types of moments to all of us – sports-related or not, grand scale or not – to help remind us that everything will be OK, regardless of how it feels in the moment.
Sometimes, there is beauty in tragedy.