The Los Angeles Angels Are Truly The Franchise Touched by Tragedy

The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs were labeled for decades as clubs haunted by misfortune. But it was mostly for on-the-field stuff.

Their frustration, futility, meltdowns, and near-misses possessed elements of tragedy, just as a staged drama does. But the actor who plays Hamlet doesn’t really die in the final act. It’s make-believe.

The Los Angeles Angels have experienced the real deal and plenty of it.

Pitcher Tyler Skaggs, found dead in his hotel early Monday morning at age 27, is the latest on a too-long list of Angels players who died too young.

Luis Valbuena, released by the Angels in August, died in December along with an another former MLB player, Jose Castillo, in a car crash in Venezuela. Valbuena was 33. Castillo was 37.

Police said the car crash was caused by bandits, who then robbed the players.

In April 2009, Nick Adenhart was a passenger in a Ford Eclipse that hit by a drunken driver in a minivan. The driver of the Eclipse, Courtney Stewart, and passenger Henry Pearson died at the scene. Adenhart and another passenger were taken to a hospital, where Adenhart died. He was 22. The other passenger, Jon Wilhite, survived despite suffering an internal decapitation. His head became detached from his spine. He was able to recover.

A few hours before the accident, Adenhart had been the starting pitcher for the Angels, a game in which he pitched brilliantly, leaving with a  3-0 lead after six innings. The bullpen had been unable to hold on.

It started in the 1960s

The Angels began as an American League expansion team in 1961 and four years later death claimed a player. On a road trip to Detroit, rookie reliever Dick Wantz complained of severe headaches. He was hospitalized in Detroit for a week and came back to Southern California.

Doctors took a while to diagnose that he had a brain tumor. He underwent surgery, never regained consciousness and died the next day. He was 25.

In 1970  Minnie Rojas, who had retired after the previous season, was paralyzed in an auto accident. His family was returning from a fishing trip in the Florida keys then their station wagon was broadsided. Two of his daughters were killed. His wife and son survived.

Rojas set the Angels’  season save record with 27 in 1967. He developed arm problems late in 1968. He tried to work through them in the minors was had been forced to give up the game after the 1969 season.

The Angels held a special exhibition game at Anaheim Stadium in March 1971 with Tokyo Orions (who played in the Cactus League that year) to honor Rojas and raise money for him.

Rojas regained some use of his upper body. He died in 2002 at age 68.

Death in the spring

Tragedy struck again right before spring training in 1972 when utility infielder Chico Ruiz, who had been traded to the Royals after the 1971 season, died in a car accident in San Diego. He was 31.

Ruiz made a long-running gag out of how seldom he was used – so much so that Joe Garagiola did a piece on him for the pregame show on the NBC “Game of the Week.”  Ruiz wore cleats made from alligator skin, saying he wanted to look good on the bench, and he was known to take a seat cushion to the dugout. One time when he was filling in for injured players with the Cincinnati Reds and playing regularly, Ruiz  jokingly demanded his manager, “Bench me or trade me.”

The Angels traded Ruiz after a tumultuous season in which he and Alex Johnson, who feuded with just about everyone, regularly engaged shouting matches in the clubhouse. The team cut ties with both players and with manager Lefty Phillips in the offseason.

Two years later rookie LHP Bruce Heinbechner died in a head-on collision with another car.  He was 23. Police said Heinbechner’s car crossed the median on Highway 111 and struck an oncoming car. He was within a half mile of the Gene Autry Hotel, the team’s spring training headquarters.

He had won more than 20 games the two previous seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake City and was considered a strong candidate to make team coming out of camp, probably in the bullpen.

The driver of the other car, a 20-year-old woman, survived and sued Heinbechner’s estate for $6 million, alleging the pitcher was drunk and driving at more 100 miles an hour.

‘Miracle Mike’

SS Mike Miley, the Angels’ top draft choice in 1974,  died in a one-car crash near the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, Lousiana in January 1977 at age 23.

He played in 84 games in the majors, hitting .176.

Known as “Miracle Mike” in college, Miley was the starting quarterback for the 1973 LSU team, leading the Tigers to a 9-3 record an appearance in the Orange Bowl.

A trip to Gary

OF Lyman Bostock was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was gunned down by a jealous husband in 1978. He was 27.

The Angels were in Chicago to play the White Sox. and Bostock was visiting relatives in Gary, Indiana.

He went for a ride with his uncle. He was seated next to Barbara Smith, a friend of the family, who was going through an ugly separation. Her husband, Leonard Smith, pulled up beside them at a stoplight, believed Smith and Bostock were together and shot Bostock.  There is no reason to think there was anything going on between Bostock and Barbara Smith.

Leonard Smith was found guilty by reason of insanity, served a short time in a mental institution.

The case led to a change in Indiana law, creating a fourth verdict – guilty but mentally ill.

Bostock was one of the Angels’ first big free-agent signings. He started the 1978 season, going 2-for-39. He proposed giving owner  Gene Autry the money back because he wasn’t earning it.

Bostock turned his season around and was .296 at the time of his death. He became the first active MLB player to be a victim of a homicide.

Domestic dispute

In 1989 Donnie Moore shot his wife, Tonya, three times and then turned the gun on himself. He was 35.

Moore played 13 seasons in MLB, his best years coming with the Angels. In 1985 Moore broke Minnie Rojas’ club record for saves in a season, compiling 31.  He had another a good season in 1986, but in the postseason, with the Angels needing just one strike to go to the World Series, he gave up a homer to Dave Henderson and Boston Red Sox came back to win the game and the ALCS.

He was hampered by injuries the next two seasons and released in September 1988. Moore signed with the Royals, who put him in Triple-A Omaha. The Omaha Royals released him in June.

He was having trouble with his marriage. The couple separated. On July 18th Tonya Moore drove to the couple’s home in Anaheim Hills. Donnie and Tonya began to argue, and he got physical with her. Then Donnie Moore took out a gun and shot her before committing suicide.  The couple’s three children were at home at the time.

Tonya Moore survived the three wounds to the torso.

There has been persistent speculation that Donnie Moore took his life because he never got over the  1986 ALCS.  But Tonya Moore insisted that was not the reason he was distraught. His life was unraveling in other ways, ways that really mattered.

I have a t-shirt that says “Baseball is Life.”

But of course it is not.

And tragedies remind us that it really is only a game.

Leave a Reply