The federal trial of former Angels communications director Eric Kay is raising serious questions about alleged drug use by MLB players, with former all-star pitcher Matt Harvey accused of providing pills to a Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher who died with controlled substances in his system. For MLB and the MLBPA, the trial and accompanying wrongful death litigation—especially if Harvey and other players are forced to testify under oath—risk exposing the game in ways normally shielded by their internal system of governance.
Kay’s trial began last Tuesday in Fort Worth, Texas, where he has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges stemming from the 2019 death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs. Kay allegedly distributed fentanyl to Skaggs and conspired to possess, with intent to distribute, fentanyl and oxycodone, opioid painkillers that the federal Controlled Substances Act classifies as Schedule II drugs. A physician’s prescription is required to lawfully distribute them. If convicted, Kay could face 20 years to life.
After Skaggs died from choking on his own vomit, the medical examiner’s office concluded he had alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone in his system. The causal role played by drugs, and from whom Skaggs acquired them, are among key points of contention.
Prosecutors claim that: (1) Kay routinely supplied drugs to Skaggs and a handful of other players; (2) Kay supplied the drugs that Skaggs used shortly before dying; and (3) but for taking fentanyl, Skaggs wouldn’t have died. In a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Skaggs’ family against the team, Kay is described as a “drug addict” whom players depended on for drugs.
Among their potential witnesses, prosecutors named Harvey and six other former Angels players: Cam Bedrosian, C.J. Cron, Andrew Heaney, Mike Morin, Blake Parker and Garret Richards. The defense also lists seven players, with Bedrosian, Cron and Parker joining Justin Bour, Trevor Cahill, Noé Ramirez and Andrelton Simmons. Heaney testified last Wednesday and confirmed that Angels players used opioid painkillers. He also discussed smoking marijuana with Skaggs.
Attorneys for Kay paint a more complicated and uncertain narrative. They emphasize that the cause of death was asphyxiation, not an overdose. Given the multiple substances, including grain alcohol, found in Skaggs’ body, they say it’s unclear what role drugs played. Kay’s attorneys also dispute that Kay supplied the drugs found in Skaggs’ body or that any relevant drug deal occurred in Texas, where the court has jurisdiction.
Redirecting blame and muddling causation are crucial ingredients in this strategy. In his opening statement, Kay attorney Reagan Wynn told jurors that Harvey had supplied drugs to Skaggs, and Skaggs used them on the night he died. Skaggs, Wynn contends, told Kay that Harvey shared blue and pink pills containing another painkiller, Percocet. The medical examiner didn’t find Percocet in Skaggs’ body, but police reportedly found it in Skaggs’ hotel room. The more that jurors believe that Skaggs obtained drugs from multiple people, the more doubt they might feel as to who deserves blame.
The trial is expected to last another week or so. If Harvey, 32, testifies, he would have an opportunity to rebut Wynn’s depiction. The free-agent pitcher would be under oath, meaning he could face perjury charges by knowingly lying. His testimony could put the league and its players under additional unwanted scrutiny.
Like other pro leagues and players’ associations, MLB and MLBPA rely on an independent program administrator to drug test. Through their joint drug prevention and treatment program, MLB and MLBPA bargain numerous rules concerning how and when testing occurs, which drugs are prohibited (opioids are banned) and allowable threshold levels for a drug. This arrangement is controlled by the league and union as a workplace policy.
Baseball has a long history with the legal system revealing unflattering details about players using drugs. In 1985, Reds outfielder Dave Parker testified in a federal drug case that he had arranged for cocaine deals for players on the Pirates, Astros and Dodgers. In the early 2000s, a federal government investigation exposed the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative for supplying anabolic steroids to players. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens later faced federal perjury trials, and Congress held high-profile hearings. Baseball has also used the legal process to extract evidence that drug testing fails to uncover. Nine years ago, the league sued Biogenesis and its founder, Tony Bosch, in a successful attempt to obtain player records.
The death of Skaggs has already sparked change. In 2019, the MLB-MLBPA policy was amended to include opioids under the umbrella of regular and random testing. Previously, opioids were only tested when there was “reasonable cause” or when a player was already in the treatment program.
Whether the Kay trial and related litigation spur additional reforms—especially if MLB players are depicted as drug suppliers or distributors, rather than users, and especially if Kay is seen as part of a larger MLB problem rather than a unique bad apple—remains to be seen.