Donnie had a gun


Donnie Moore interests me for several reasons. He’s known for just one thing, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but there are other things that I wanted to highlight before I get into this, a card from his final season in the major leagues.

Donnie Moore was a Cub from the late 1970s, when I first forged my allegiance to the team. He broke in with the Cubs in 1975, my first season as a fan, and remained with the organization until he was traded to the Cardinals at the end of the 1979 season. I’m certain that I saw him pitch on the TV, when Jack Brickhouse would call the games on WGN-Channel 9. This all by itself would qualify Donnie Moore as a significant player, at least as far as my baseball history is concerned.

But it gets even better than that. After Moore was traded to the Cardinals, he was sent to their triple-A affiliate in Springfield, Illinois in 1980 and 1981. I lived in Springfield at the time, and went to the ballpark to watch games on a regular basis. Many of the players on that team went on to bigger things, either with the Cardinals organization or others. The Redbirds won the American Association’s championship that year, which was still pretty cool, even though I wasn’t really a Cardinals fan.

Moore was traded to the Braves, and then to the Angels, where he had his breakout season in 1985. He was an All-Star, saved 31 games for the Angels, and finished near the top in the American League’s Cy Young and MVP voting for that year. My interest in baseball wasn’t quite what it once had been by 1985, but I remember thinking that Donnie Moore had made good. And I was glad for him, too.

But everybody fixates on the game that changed his life in the 1986 playoffs. There were no rounds of the playoffs back then, it was just one best-of-seven series and then on to the World Series. In 1986, Donnie Moore came into a game in the top of the ninth inning, and the Angels holding a lead over the Boston Red Sox. Moore had to retire one batter to send the Angels into the World Series for the first time in their history. And on a 2-2 count, Moore threw a pitch that changed–and perhaps even ended–his life. Boston’s Dave Henderson hit the pitch out of the park and, even though the game still went on from there before Boston won in the 11th inning, the Angels had suffered the type of devastating setback that teams generally don’t recover from.

Moore was booed by Angels fans every time he took the field after that. He was injured, and that certainly contributed to his career decline, but he forever was identified as the reason why the Angels lost the pennant that year. Never mind that Doug DeCines blew a golden opportunity to win the game in the ninth inning of that same game. Never mind that the team still had two games they could have won after the series went back to Boston. It somehow became all Donnie Moore’s fault.

By the time Moore came back for the 1988 season–his last in the majors–it clearly sucked to be him. You can see it in his eyes, as he delivers a pitch on the front of this card. The shade from the bill of his cap doesn’t hide a fierce look in his eye, and there’s no mistaking the snarl on his face, either. His body was in pain, his ego was smashed to bits, and he probably wished he could just bring back 1985 again. But of course that wasn’t going to happen.

Moore was signed by Kansas City for the 1989 season, and he played for their triple-A affiliate in Omaha that year. But following his release–after appearing in just seven games–his life fell apart and he took his own life on July 18, 1989. Four years earlier he had been on top of the baseball world, and his fall from those heights was as dramatic as could be.

It’s important to note that Moore shot his wife three times before he put the gun to his own head, and ended his own life while in the presence of his young son. I’m not condoning these actions, and I’m glad that his wife survived her wounds, so that the list of fatalities was just Moore himself. Would that we have been so lucky with the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut earlier in the week.

A person who feels desperate, and then gets his hands on a gun, can do a whole lot of damage, without regard to what the consequences of their actions might be. So rather than feeling sorry for Donnie Moore, or Adam Lanza, or any of a long–and ever lengthening–list of people who ended their own lives after first shooting at other people–let’s realize that guns are a problem. There may not be any easy solutions to this problem, but we need to start looking for them, at least.

I don’t get it

It was all there for Doug DeCinces. On a Sunday afternoon back in October of 1986, he stood on the verge of becoming a hero. The Angels, his team, were ahead 3 games to 1 in the American League playoffs (there was only one round back then). They were playing in front of their fans, who had never seen their team win a pennant before. Their manager, Gene Mauch, had been managing in the majors for a quarter-century without making it to the World Series before. And DeCinces had the ability to change all that.

In the top of the ninth inning, with the Angels one strike away from the pennant, Donnie Moore served up a three-run homer to Dave Henderson. It was a stunning turn of events, but as the home team, the Angels had one more chance. And they took advantage of it by pushing the tying run across the plate and loading the bases with one out. DeCinces, a veteran player and long-time Angel, came to the plate with the hopes and dreams of every Angels fan on his shoulders. There were so many ways to get the winning run in: a wild pitch, a basehit, a deep flyball, a grounder that didn’t turn into a double play, to name just a few. So as DeCinces settled in, the odds were dramatically in his favor.

But for reasons that only Doug DeCinces can explain, he swung at the first pitch. I wrote a piece during the AL playoffs this year, wondering why Ian Kinsler didn’t work the count at least a little bit in a crucial at-bat against the Detroit Tigers. Even though the Rangers still won their playoff series, taking a pitch still seems like a good idea in a situation like that.

Yes, I’m not a player. Anyone who played the game and wants to defend DeCinces will say that, and I accept that on some level. It must have been a really fat pitch that DeCinces saw, to take a swing and give up any possibility that he might see an even fatter pitch later in the at-bat. But he did make contact with the ball, at least.

He hit a flyball to the outfield, but it wasn’t deep enough to score Rob Wilfong–the potential pennant-winning run–from third base. Had Wilfong challenged the well-regarded arm of Dwight Evans in right field, he would have almost certainly lost, and with so much on the line it was wise for Wilfong to hold at third base. But a two-out at bat isn’t as much of an advantage for the offense, and Bobby Grich also failed to get Wilfong across the plate. The game went to extra innings and…most people either already know the rest or can at least figure out what the final result was.

Doug DeCinces came back to the Angels for the 1987 season, but was released in late September. The St. Louis Cardinals picked up the long-time American Leaguer for the final few games of the season, and released him in October. So the baseball card shown above makes as little sense to me as his decision to swing at the first pitch in game five did.

The 1988 Topps baseball cards were apparently already in the planning stages when DeCinces was cut by the Angels and signed by the Cardinals. That explains the “Now with Cardinals” blurb on the left side of the card. It would have been funny if an exclamation point had followed it, like it was a detergent carton: “Now with Cardinals!” But at least here was an acknowledgement that he wasn’t with the Angels anymore.

But the Cardinals released DeCinces in October of 1987. The decision to print a card for him, identifying him as being a Cardinal, makes no sense if he had already been released. This must have been a cause for discussion at the Topps company, but the decision was apparently made to act like DeCinces would re-sign with the Cardinals in the offseason. When this didn’t happen, well, any Doug DeCinces collectors out there may have been happy at the unforeseen bonus card, but no one else could make any sense of this.

A non-sensical card for a player who made an unexplained decision at a critical moment in his career is exactly the kind of thing I like to write about here. Come back again and I’ll try to have something else worth a few minutes of your time.

Re-learning the lesson of 1986

As exciting and incredible as this year’s World Series was, there was a lesson to be taken from it by anyone who was paying attention. In a nutshell, it’s that the game isn’t over until the final out is made.

In football, you can take a knee to run out the clock. In basketball, you can dribble around in the backcourt until the horn sounds. I don’t know enough about hockey to give an example of how to kill time, but I’m sure it exists. But in baseball, that final out–that final strike, even–needs to be recorded before the celebration can begin. And until that happens, the other team still has a glimmer of hope, no matter what the scoreboard says.

In this year’s World Series, the Rangers needed just one strike to win the championship on two separate occasions, and both times they came away empty. If they come back next season and complete the championship, it won’t sting quite so much. But if this was their one moment, and they begin to fall off from championship-level play in 2012 and beyond, it will be the moment that will forever live in infamy, for the Rangers and their fans.

Similar instances happened not once, but twice in the 1986 post-season, and both times involved the Boston Red Sox. The first came in the ALCS, when the California Angels (as they were known back then) were ahead of the Red Sox 3 games to 1, and were playing at home with a chance to win the pennant in front of their home fans. Baseball was still a year or two away from the ninth-inning only closer, and the results of this game may have had some role in bringing it about.

The Angels had a 5-2 lead going into the top of the ninth inning. The math for the Angels was pretty simple: get three outs, before the opponents score three runs (or more).  The starter for the Angels, Mike Witt, was sent out to the mound to finish the job.  He had thrown 106 pitches already, but a three-run lead must have seemed fairly safe to Angels’ manager Gene Mauch. This would have been Mauch’s first trip to the World Series as a manager, and the franchise’s first trip, as well. It must have on everyone’s mind in the ballpark that day.

But Witt gave up a hit to Bill Buckner, struck out Jim Rice, and then, on the 119th pitch he threw, surrendered a two-run homer to Don Baylor. Mauch left Witt in to retire the second out, and then went to his bullpen for the final out. Instead of going to his closer, Donnie Moore, Mauch turned to Gary Lucas. Lucas came in to close out the Red Sox and win the pennant, but his first pitch hit the Angels’ batter, Rich Gedman. Mauch then brought in Donnie Moore, who inherited a mess that was not of his own making. He came in to face Dave Henderson, who was 0-for-the entire series to that point.

Moore got ahead in the count 1-2, before Henderson took ball two, and then fouled off the next two pitches.  On the fourth two-strike pitch that he saw from Moore, Henderson hit a home run that gave the Red Sox a one-run lead. The Angels still had a chance, and they plated a run in their half of the ninth inning to tie the score. With the bases loaded and one out, and the pennant-winning run just 90 feet away, both Doug DeCinces and Bobby Grich failed to get the run home. If they had, chances are that nobody would remember Donnie Moore’s name. But that’s not how it played out.

Moore also pitched the tenth and 11th innings for the Angels, and in the 11th he gave up a sacrifice fly to–who else?–Dave Henderson to score what turned out to be the winning run. There were still two games left to play, but they were to be played in Fenway Park. The Red Sox beat the shell-shocked Angels in both games, and the Angels’ first pennant had slipped away from them.

In the World Series, however, the shoe was on the other foot. With Boston one strike away from winning the title in Game 6, and Ray Knight in an 0-2 hole against Calvin Schiraldi, Knight singled to keep the Mets’ rally going. The Mets would win the game in the next at-bat, when Mookie Wilson came up and….you probably know the rest.

Donnie Moore’s life spun out of control after 1986, as he was mercilessly booed by Angels fans every time he came in to pitch. He wound up taking his own life in 1989, less than three years after giving up the Henderson home run. Calvin Schiraldi was in the same circumstance as Moore was, but he didn’t meet with the same fate. He pitched another six  seasons, and is now a baseball coach in Austin, Texas.

Time will tell as to how Neftali Feliz (who needed just one more strike in the ninth inning of Game 6) and Scott Feldman (who needed one last strike in the 10th inning of Game 6) are treated by the Rangers fans. Hopefully they will continue on with their pitching careers, and contribute to the Rangers’ success in the post season in years to come. And they, as well as everybody else who was paying attention last fall, will appreciate anew the need to get that final strike to end the game.

The death of a ballplayer

Bob Forsch died today at the age of 61. It was shocking news, as it was just a week ago that he was at Game seven of the World Series, throwing out the first pitch and helping to inspire the Cardinals in the way that Stan Musial did earlier in the Series.

Two weeks ago, I wrote this piece about Bob Forsch, and how his identification as a Cardinal survived his trade to Houston in the 1988 season. He played one full season with the Astros, and part of a second season after the trade happened, but the Cardinals can lay claim to him as one of their own players. So the euphoria of their latest championship is tempered by this sudden reminder of his–and our–immortality.

A few of the players from the era of when I was a kid have passed on by now.

  • Lyman Bostock was killed in 1978, and it was probably the first murder I had ever heard about.
  • Thurman Munson’s death in a 1979 plane crash was a shock, since he was the reigning MVP of the American League and, well, MVPs weren’t supposed to just die, were they?
  • Donnie Moore killed himself in 1989, after taking a downward spiral after serving up the home run to Dave Henderson in the 1986 playoffs. Sad, but understandable, in a way.
  • Ken Caminiti died in 2004, but he was a poster child for the steroid era, and I found it hard to sympathize with him as a result.
  • Kirby Puckett died in 2006, after suffering a stroke the day before.
  • Mark Fidyrich died in some bizarre accident a couple of years ago, in 2009.

There are probably some others I’m forgetting now, but learning of a ballplayer’s death is more of a shock than a rock star, or an actor, or probably any other variation of a celebrity. But ballplayers are just as mortal as the rest of us.

The cause of Forsch’s death isn’t yet publicly known. It would be hard to learn it was natural causes, because that hasn’t yet happened to a player that I identified with. I know it’s happened to other players before, but none that I remember as a player when I was young. He’s just the first of many, if it was in fact natural causes, although 61 seems like it’s too young for a ballplayer to pass away. But it’s another reminder that tomorrow is promised to no one, ballplayers included.