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OC Register: Whicker: Angels trying to follow LMU’s example in finding belief during bereavement

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The games aren’t supposed to be as important when a teammate is lost.

That is what they all say, whether you’ve lost Tyler Skaggs, Thurman Munson, Hank Gathers, Darryl Kile, Pelle Lindbergh or Jose Fernandez.

It would take a sports psychologist like Dr. Ken Ravizza to explain how this really works, and last year Ravizza had a heart attack and passed away, and who do you see about that?

In the three weeks since July 1, the Angels have played well. One might have anticipated an emotional relapse after Friday night, their first home game without Skaggs, when Taylor Cole and Felix Pena threw a no-hitter against Seattle and the players decorated the mound with  Skaggs 45 shirts.

That was also the night of perhaps the bravest pitch ever thrown from that mound, when Debbie Skaggs loosened up her softball arm and honored her son with a strike. One can only imagine how she did that, but then Mike Trout has exceeded his own standards in these weeks, and the Angels also won Saturday and Sunday and they’re a live wire in the wild-card race.

You rarely get a chance to play above death.

Jeff Fryer runs a basketball academy in Newport Beach. In the spring of 1990 he was part of Loyola Marymount’s futuristic crew that was preparing to win the West Coast Conference tournament when Gathers, a raging power forward who referred to himself as “the strongest man alive,” collapsed and died at Gersten Pavilion. Fryer was not the only Lion who cried, and said he didn’t care if he played anymore.

The next week, LMU played in the NCAA sub-regional in Long Beach. It beat New Mexico State. It ripped Michigan, the defending national champs, by the incongruous score of 149-115.

Fryer hit 11 of 15 three-pointers and scored 41. Bo Kimble, Gathers’ buddy from Philly who shot free-throws lefthanded in Hank’s honor, scored 37. The Lions had become America’s sweethearts, crusaders so driven that not even the teams they beat could complain.

They went to Oakland for the regionals and survived an Alabama slowdown, 62-60. Then UNLV kept them out of the Final Four with a 131-101 reality check.

Along the way Fryer was quoted as saying the Lions had become “an emotional hurricane.”

“I wish I hadn’t said that,” Fryer said on Sunday. “Somebody else said that and I picked it up and then it got into the media. Honestly it was just a matter of us focusing better. We knew we had lost a great player so we all tried to do a little bit more. I can’t explain it. As a team we just took it up a notch.”

The Angels talk about Skaggs the way the Lions talked about Gathers. Hank was the power source in that locker room, an agitator to coaches and players alike, so comfortable around the media that he used to warn sportscasters he was after their jobs. He called the beachy Fryer “Spicoli” and critiqued his ultra-casual wear.

Gathers’ death was not quite as stunning as Skaggs’. In December he had collapsed on the court and was taking heart medication. But it was still devastating, as was the timing. With Gathers, the Lions legitimately felt their bewildering style could capture the whole tournament.

They were at least 25 years ahead of their time. Michigan players were dumbstruck when Fryer pulled up from the faraway line in the midst of a 3-on-2. The Lions averaged 123 points, and Fryer put up 11 3-pointers per game.

“Coach (Paul) Westhead told us not to win for Hank,” Fryer said. “He said just play hard for him and for ourselves. I know I thought about Hank and tried to be tougher, mentally and physically, like he was. It was harder to deal with when it was all over, a few weeks later. I still think about him.”

The Yankees and Cardinals didn’t start winning after Munson and Kile were taken. Lindbergh, the Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltender, died in an auto accident in November, 1985. The Flyers won their next game by scoring three goals in the third period. Replacement goalie Bob Froese went 31-10-3. But the Flyers, Eastern Conference champs in ‘85, lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Only a psychologist could explain why you play better when the outcome no longer surrounds everything. Maybe it’s more urgent because that fellow on third base, the one waiting for your sacrifice fly, is someone different now. He has shared your hell.

In the end, it’s simple. The games had to be important, existentially, because they always were to Skaggs.

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