|Tuesday, October 15
Updated: October 18, 7:42 PM ET
Demystifying the ghost of Donnie Moore
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
It is such a sickly romanticized notion that even baseball people, who above all others should know better, are still largely incapable of shaking it. But if we're going to knock down some myths with these new-era Anaheim Angels, let's start with the biggest ones.
One pitch did not kill Donnie Moore. One pitch did not set the Angels off on 15 years of futility. There is an enormously compelling storyline in Anaheim that absolutely and beyond question incorporates those facets -- but it is a storyline, not a one-liner.
Anaheim isn't Hollywood. It's close by on a map, is all.
You can expect, in the time leading up to Game 1 of the all-California World Series between the upstart Angels and the graybeard San Francisco Giants, to be reminded almost constantly of Moore's pitch to Dave Henderson in Game 5 of the '86 ALCS. The Angels, leading 5-4, needed one out to claim the first pennant in their existence.
Moore threw a split-fingered fastball; Henderson sent it on a line over the left-center field wall. And the rest is history -- tortured, hopelessly misreported and utterly mangled history.
The seven-second version of events is as follows: The Angels lost; Moore never recovered; Moore killed himself; the Angels needed a decade and a half to salve their own psychic wounds.
It's a great summary, unless you count the part about the facts. Here's one: Dave Henderson's home run didn't win the game for Boston that day, nor the series for the Red Sox. Henderson's ninth-inning, two-run homer, though shocking, was in fact not the end of the line for the Angels. They battled back and tied that game 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth, and didn't finally lose until the 11th frame.
Here's another: Moore didn't come on the scene that day until a 5-2 lead already had shrunk to 5-4. That's because the Angels' starter, Mike Witt, had given up a two-out, two-run homer to Don Baylor. The reliever whom manager Gene Mauch then chose to replace Witt, left-hander Gary Lucas, promptly hit Rich Gedman with a pitch, which brought Henderson to the plate in the first place.
Here's another: It was Game 5 of the LCS, not Game 7. The Angels did lose that day, but it wasn't until they flew to Boston and feebly dropped two final chances, 10-4 and 8-1, that their World Series bid actually ended.
A devastating moment? No doubt about it. Anyone who recalls the image of Mauch standing on the top dugout step, Reggie Jackson by his side, preparing to enjoy that elusive day in the sun before the Angels fans, understands that Henderson's home run was a tremendously damaging blow.
But death by home run? It is a notion so ludicrous that it's an absolute wonder it has lasted this long. Perhaps only the Angels' inability to reach the Series until now has given the theory such an extended shelf-life -- and if this Anaheim team is the one to finally set aside the Moore story, then all honor and glory to it for achieving what looks from here to be impossible.
Moore was in baseball a few more years after the fall of 1986, including some brutal time spent with the Angels, enduring the wrath of still-angry fans. He was treated horribly. But he did not die because he was treated horribly, nor because he threw a pitch that somebody hit for a home run in the playoffs.
He died because he was a deeply troubled person who suffered from depression, who by several accounts was battling substance-abuse, and who, as his widow Tonya's disturbing interview with book author Mike Sowell would later reveal, was involved in a terribly complicated and sometimes abusive ongoing relationship with her. Moore, in fact, had attempted to murder Tonya minutes before shooting himself to death on July 18, 1989.
These points are raised not to disparage Moore, may he rest peacefully and may his family also find peace, but to underscore how woefully inadequate the one-blunder theory is. If all it took to render a person suicidal in sports was a hideous moment on the public stage, after all, then Bill Buckner -- to put it just as coarse as it needs to be put -- would loom as some bizarre exception, rather than the rule he actually represents.
Remember Buckner? He was the guy upon whom the Red Sox's subsequent failure in the '86 World Series was hung. Even MLB.com, the official Web site of the sport, refers to Buckner as one of the sport's all-time "goats" for letting Mookie Wilson's dribbling grounder go under his glove in Game 6 of the '86 Series. Never mind that the play might never have occurred had not reliever Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch immediately beforehand, allowing the tying run home. Never mind that the Red Sox weren't done, not until they subsequently gave up Game 7 as well.
No hometown group ever derided a player more than the Boston fans have derided Buckner -- but he's still around, a man who would not allow an often brilliant 22-year career to be ruined in his own memory by a single play. Scott Norwood, the Buffalo Bills kicker, is still around after missing a last-second field goal in Super Bowl XXV. Chris Webber called a timeout that didn't exist in an NCAA Final Four moment from history, yet has gone on to become one of the most valued players in the NBA.
Sports is supremely relative. Anyone with the time and inclination could draw up an astonishing list of athletes who suffered horrible defeats or personal in-game mistakes without their exacting any sort of ultimate toll. The fact that Donnie Moore's tale makes for easy telling does not render it true, and it never will.
In the wake of Moore's death in 1989, I contacted a dozen psychologists and other specialists, attempting to verify or dispel the idea that he could have allowed Dave Henderson's home run to kill him. In every instance, their opinions came back the same: The pitch unquestionably would have wounded Moore. It also, just as unquestionably, would not of itself have driven him to take his life.
While acknowledging the real pain and confusion that Moore's survivors have suffered, it's no stretch imagining that the Angels, as a franchise, suffered as well. When longtime employee Tim Meade, now a team vice president, says he believes the pitch "haunts everybody in this organization," there's no reason to discount the sincerity of his words.
But the Angels didn't come up short from 1987 to 2001 because they were haunted; they came up short because they spent money unwisely, often traded catastrophically and generally operated with the inconsistency that plagues also-rans in baseball. They are in the World Series this year because they've finally built a genuinely great base of talent and hired a manager who knows what to do with it, not because they visited the exorcist between innings.
And if they close out the Giants and win it all, they will not have conquered the ghost of Donnie Moore, a thing far too complicated to ever be reconciled by a box score. Don't sacrifice Moore to the altar of baseball. It may be the right time, but it's just utterly the wrong place.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com