Donnie Moore blew a playoff game 25 years ago, then shot himself a few years after that—an act fans and sportswriters alike deeply misunderstand.
There are stories we like to tell ourselves about sports. One of them is that the games we play can be so engrossing, our losses so exquisitely painful, that we can never really recover from them.
This is mostly a fan's way of looking at things, of course. Players can't afford such thoughts. Their business is to shake it off, forget about even the worst losses, and move on to the next game. Yet as fans, we continue to believe that we can impose our agonies upon them, that we can so hound them with their mistakes and failures that they can never escape them. Former Dodgers' pitcher Ralph Branca, for instance, has spent the last 60 years of his life having to replay the epic home run the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit off him, in the last game of the 1951 pennant race, perhaps the most famous single game ever played.
Being reminded over and over again of the worst mistakes we ever made in public, for the rest of our lives—surely, this must be every player's waking nightmare. In sports, where things happen so quickly and suddenly, we are obsessed by how everything can turn in one, irretrievable moment—and we project that obsession onto the players, the constant objects of our veneration and our scorn, just as we project everything else.
This month is the 25th anniversary of one of the most infamous errors in all of major-league history: Bill Buckner's allowing Mookie Wilson's ground ball to trickle between his legs, for the error that sealed the Red Sox's fate in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, and saddled that team with yet another in a long line of traumatic defeats.
The error is overrated; it did not, by itself, cost the Red Sox either the game or the Series. But Buckner, like Branca before him, has endured with rare good grace ever since, even playing himself on a hilarious episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he misses another baseball, but catches a baby thrown from a burning building.
Pushed to the background by these ceremonies of forgiveness has been a much darker story, from that same October of 1986. It is the story of Donnie Moore, a pitcher for the California Angels who, unable to overcome his own moment of failure, was supposedly driven to take his own life. Yet the chances are good that everything you think you know about his story is wrong.
Moore was a 32-year-old, itinerant relief pitcher from Lubbock, Texas, who was on his fifth major-league team. Tall, black, and mustachioed, the son of a maid and a truck driver, he had made the most out of a modest fastball and a snappy splitter. In 1985, he had put together his finest major-league season, saving 31 games, compiling an ERA of 1.92, and making the All-Star game.
Rewarded with a three-year, $3-million contract by Gene Autry, the Angels' free-spending owner, he immediately spent about a third of that money on a big house up in the Peralta Hills section of Anaheim, and moved in his wife, Tonya, who had been with him since Lubbock, and their three children. They looked and acted like the ideal family. Donnie Moore, it seemed, had finally arrived.
Yet things started to go wrong for Moore almost from the start of the 1986 season. He missed a month of play early on with what was diagnosed as a muscle strain in his rib cage, but was eventually found to be a bone spur near his spinal cord. Throwing awkwardly on his return, he soon found that his elbow and shoulder were aching, too. Before long he was taking a nerve-blocking agent for the rib cage, anesthesia and cortisone for his shoulder, and other medications for the migraines that had begun to plague him.
Donnie Moore was a mess, but he wasn't one to complain, at least not in public. The Angels could not find a reliever to close games without him, and Moore simply did what so many fans demand that athletes do, which was to play through the pain. Despite his injuries, he returned to save another 21 games, and the Angels became one of those teams that simply clicked. An intriguing mix of veteran stars such as Reggie Jackson, Don Sutton, Bobby Grich, Bob Boone, Rick Burleson, John Candelaria, and Doug DeCinces; and rising young players such as Wally Joyner, Kirk McCaskill, and Mike Witt, California ended up breezing to the American League's West Division title.
The Angels were still underdogs in the league championship series against the Red Sox. Besides Buckner, a former batting champion, Boston boasted future Hall-of-Famers Wade Boggs and Jim Rice, American League most valuable player and Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, and other all-stars such as Dwight Evans, Bruce Hurst, Don Baylor, and Rich Gedman. All of Boston was so certain it was at last their year that, on the eve of the playoffs, the Boston Globe ran a special literary supplement featuring John Updike, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen King, David Halberstam, George Will, and others mulling over why all good literati were Red Sox fans.
Then the games began, and things began to happen to the Red Sox, as they usually do. Mike Witt outpitched Clemens in the series opener in Fenway, and the Angels won going away, 8-1. Back in Anaheim, Clemens surrendered a 3-0 lead in the ninth when Jim Rice turned the wrong way on a flyball, and rookie reliever Calvin Schiraldi hit Angels catcher Brian Downing with a pitch to force in the tying run.
California won the game in 11 innings, and took a three-games-to-one lead in the series. The Sox ace would be unable to pitch again until the seventh game, while the Angels had their best pitcher, Witt, going in the fifth game of the series, at home in Anaheim. Surely California would wrap up the first pennant in its 26-year history—and the first for manager Gene Mauch, "the Little General," who through many heartbreaks of his own had set a record for wins by a major-league manager without ever making it to the World Series.
That afternoon, everything continued to go the Angels' way. Boston centerfielder Dave "Hendu" Henderson almost made a brilliant, leaping catch of a ball hit by Bobby Grich against the centerfield wall...only to see the ball tip out of his glove when it hit the wall, and fall over for a two-run homer.
Witt looked dominant again in the lazy, Southern California sunlight, carrying a 5-2 lead into the ninth. He surrendered a lead-off single to Buckner, of all people, but then froze Rice with a wicked curveball for strike three. Two outs to go. The 64,223 fans filling the Big A were now leaning over the railing, pounding on anything they could find, making an incredible racket. In the Angels' dugout, Reggie Jackson carefully pocketed his sunglasses and went over to congratulate Gene Mauch.