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.

Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you

Today (July 7) is Satchel Paige‘s birthday. It’s a day to honor a man who I wish I had known more about in my youth.

I’ve written before, going all the way back to the first thing I ever put in this space, about the Springfield Redbirds, who were once the triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. When they began playing in my hometown of  Springfield, Illinois in 1978, I was not quite ten years old.

Over the course of the next four seasons, a very high-quality baseball game could regularly be found in the summertime, about 20 minutes away from my house. I didn’t fully appreciate this quite yet, but over time it has come to mean a great deal. Baseball matters to me in a way that no other sport ever has, or ever will. I can only conclude that the Redbirds played a role in this process.

In 1980, the third year that the Redbirds were in town, and the year they won the championship of the American Association, they hired Satchel Paige in the figurehead role of Vice President. By that time he was a Hall of Famer, the highest honor that the majors could bestow on him.

But Paige was also a living legend, having pitched–by his own recordkeeping–for 250 teams, in 2,500 ball games. He claimed to have won 2,000 games, and pitched anywhere from 20 to 100 no-hitters. The barnstorming nature of teams in the pre-integration era didn’t provide accurate records, so the actual numbers probably depended on what mood he was in on any given day. But no one doubts that he was a dominant pitcher, and perhaps the greatest one who ever threw to a hitter from a pitcher’s mound.

I remember going to a game once in 1980 and asking him if he would sign a program for me. He obliged this request, and I kept it with my things at home. It was a special thing to me, but I must admit that, as the years went by and that program somehow vanished. And so it goes.

Satchel Paige made his first big-league appearance at the age of 42, well beyond the age of most productive players. And his final appearance came in 1965, just a few years before I was born. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of 59. It’s a record that will probably never be broken.

Satchel Paige died in Kansas City in 1982. His Springfield job was the last stop in a professional baseball career that spanned across seven decades. He’s known as perhaps the greatest player, in the most important position, in the best sport that I’ve ever known. I’m happy to have crossed paths, no matter how briefly, with such an important figure in the game’s history. I wish I had held on to that program, though.

A Redbird who made good

I got very lucky as a kid growing up in Springfield, Illinois. There were a few reasons for this, but one that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that a smallish city of 100,000 souls somehow had a triple-A baseball team. It was a quirk of fate, really, but I didn’t know anything about that back then. I appreciate it now, though.

The team was called the New Orleans Pelicans in 1977, and was owned by a man named A. Ray Smith. Smith had his team playing in the New Orleans Superdome, which I have to imagine had an infinite seating capacity for a minor-league team. But he wanted more, and for some reason he thought he could find it in a town nestled in between Chicago and St. Louis. And so, just before I turned ten years old, the Pelicans migrated north and became the Springfield Redbirds.

The first season that the Redbirds were in town, one of the team’s pitchers was named Aurelio Lopez. I didn’t know his back story then, but he was the MVP of the Mexican baseball league the previous year, while the Pelicans were playing in New Orleans. His services were then purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to Springfield for a couple of months and then called him up to the majors.

Anything having to do with Mexico seemed strange and exotic back in the 1970s, and Lopez fit that bill. But before too long, he was gone, among the first of a raft of big leaguers I was able to see back then. For them, Springfield was just a stepping stone for bigger and better things.  It’s been that for me, as well.

After the 1978 season ended, Lopez was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He stayed with the Tigers for many seasons in the 1980s, where he was dubbed “Senor Smoke” by Tigers fans. He missed out on the Cardinals’ World Series teams of the 1980s, but he won a championship with Detroit in 1984. And to this day, I’m sure some people still remember “Senor Smoke” with great affection. It’s a great nickname, after all.

After Lopez retired from the game in 1987, following a couple of seasons with the Houston Astros, he returned to his hometown of Tecamachalco, Mexico. He was elected the mayor of the town, which is located in east-central Mexico. He was likely the most well-known figure in the town, and life had to be pretty good for him, at least  until it literally came crashing to a halt. On the day after his 44th birthday, he was killed when the car he was driving overturned. As I have said many time in this space, life is indeed short.

Yesterday was the day after my own 44th birthday. I thought about Aurelio Lopez, and how he must have seen and done things in his life that I can only imagine. Perhaps the only way that my life exceeds his is in longevity. But in the end, that’s really the most important metric, isn’t it?

The curse of Terry Kennedy

It’s an off day in the World Series, and no matter what happens on the field, this will be the last weekend of baseball for 2011. And the NBA isn’t going to be taking up any of the slack after baseball goes away, either. Not that it ever really could.

I usually give deference to the big league players who passed through the Cardinals’ organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, my hometown of Springfield, Illinois was the home of the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate in those years. It wasn’t major league ball, but it was literally the next best thing. By the time a player gets to that level, they’re either on the verge of making it in the big leagues, or if they don’t, they’re still pretty damn good.

Terry Kennedy was a catcher who spent only a couple years in AAA. His dad was a big leaguer before him, and was also the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs at the time.  I remember seeing a picture of the two Kennedys talking together before a game in the local paper, but I had no idea what a General Manager did back in those days. Now I know that his job is to assemble World Series-winning teams. Isn’t that right, Theo?

Terry Kennedy played for the Springfield Redbirds in 1978 and 1979. At the end of those two seasons, he went to the major league club  and backed up Ted Simmons, who was entrenched back then as the Cardinals everyday catcher. Kennedy was in the majors for good next season, even if he was there to give Simmons a day off more than anything else.

So what exactly is the “curse” of Terry Kennedy? I suppose that, until I looked at the back of one of his cards, I had blocked out what Terry Kennedy did over the course of his career. The Cardinals traded him to the Padres, where he was their everyday catcher for the 1984 team that snatched the pennant way from the Cubs. The Cubs had replaced Bob Kennedy as GM after the Tribune company bought the team, and so sticking it to the team that fired your dad must have felt pretty good, I would imagine.

Kennedy only hit .222 for the series, with no extra-base hits, so it’s hard to hold the Cubs’ collapse against him personally. Besides, hating on Steve Garvey is where the real action’s at for Cubs fans, anyway.

After a couple more seasons with the Padres, Kennedy went to Baltimore for a couple of seasons, before being traded to the Giants in early 1989. The Cubs made the playoffs that year, after winning their second division title. But once again, they ran into a team with Terry Kennedy behind the dish. Kennedy was a non-factor offensively, hitting a lowly .188 for the series. But again, he and his teammates successfully kept the Cubs out of the World Series.

Kennedy retired after the 1991 season, and began managing in the minors. He managed the AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres this season, and he’ll probably get a shot to manage at the big league level in the next few years. As when he was a player, he probably won’t be at the AAA level for long. And I’d like to see the Cubs beat his team, when he does get that chance. It appears that he’s due a couple of beatings.

Jody! Jody! Jody!

At the dawn of the 1980s, I was an eleven-year old kid living with my parents in Springfield, Illinois. And at the end of the 1980s, I was a 21-year old who wanted to live as far from my parents as possible. You might say I passed through the crucible of youth that decade, going from 7th grader to college senior in the bat of an eye. And my oldest is getting ready to do the same in this decade. Life goes on.

I didn’t have access to major league games in 1980, but the Triple-A Springfield Redbirds were close enough. These were guys on the verge of making it to the majors, and some of them even had long careers: Tom Herr, Ken Oberkfell, Leon Durham, and a few others whose names you may or may not know. I even got to see Mark Fidrych pitch as he was trying to get back to the majors in 1980. It was an exciting time for a young kid.

At the tail end of the 1979 season, the Cardinals organization traded for a young catcher named Jody Davis, who I saw play in a game at the end of the 1980 season. The Cardinals apparently gave up on him, but by 1981 he had surfaced with the Cubs on their major league roster, replacing Barry Foote as the everyday catcher. His popularity grew with Cubs fans, especially when Harry Caray became the Cubs announcer and took to serenading him on the air (to the tune of the Davy Crockett theme)

Joe-Dee, Jody Davis! King of the home run ball!

Davis was one of the Cubs’ main stars on the 1984 team that won the first division title in franchise history. I remember that season for many reasons, but mostly because my dad and my younger brother took a bus to  a game at Wrigley Field where Jody Davis hit a home run. I sure was jealous at the time, but I hope they both remember the game as fondly as I remember the ones I’ve been to.

Jody Davis was the Cubs’ everyday catcher through most of the 1980s, but the shelf life of a catcher is usually shorter than for other position players, because of all the abuse they take behind the plate. By the end of the 1988 season, Davis was traded away to the Atlanta Braves. It was hard to see such a well-loved player go, but that’s how it is in pro sports.

But there’s a postscript to this story. During the 1989 season, my brother–who was itching to get out of the house for a weekend, I’m sure–came to visit me on campus, and we ended up at Wrigley Field (where else were we going to go?). We were outside the ballpark on Addison near Sheffield, when a cab pulled up and out came Jody Davis. The two of us nearly flipped out, and our first instinct was to get a picture with him.

My brother went up and stood next to him, while I did the honors with the camera. He was off in a flash (no pun intended) to go inside the clubhouse, but we felt like whatever happened at the game itself, it had already been a success because of the Jody Davis sighting.

Like Jim Morrison in the 1970s, Jody Davis’ baseball career in the 1990s didn’t last for very long. He’s now managing in the Cubs’ minor league system, and he’s a nostalgic figure for all Cubs fans from that decade. And if the 1989 me could travel back in time to tell the 1980 Jody Davis how it would all turn out, I have to believe that he’d be pretty pleased.

A short story to start things off

I wrote a story about something I picked up at a garage sale last week.  So how does one get their thoughts out to the world nowadays? By putting it on a blog, right? So I started a blog to put this (and future musings) out there for whoever might care to read it. And putting it out there somewhere just has to be better than letting it die in my brain or on my desktop. 

My hometown of Springfield, Illinois has a rich baseball history that most people don’t know, or care, too much about. In fact, three members of the baseball Hall of Fame were born there (and in case you’re curious, they are pitcher Robin Roberts, executive Ed Barrow, and umpire Al Barlick). That may not sound like much, but consider that 21 states haven’t produced so many Hall of Famers as a town of 125,000, and it does seem like something.

Maybe that history is what caused the St. Louis Cardinals to move their triple A farm team from New Orleans to Springfield in the late 1970s. The team, which was named the Springfield Redbirds, even had the great Satchel Paige in their front office. I certainly wish I knew more about who he was back then, and that I had the foresight to hold onto the program that he signed for me at one of their games.

But the real draw for the team was probably that Springfield, located only a hundred miles from St. Louis, is right the middle of Cardinals country. And that was my problem growing up. Somehow, in the middle of all that, I had to get by as—get ready for it—a Cubs fan.

The Cubs had the cooler ballpark, so far as I could tell. WGN and Jack Brickhouse  brought Wrigley Field into my family’s home every afternoon. Jack Buck and the radio couldn’t compete with that. Besides, the Cardinals had astroturf on their field, and this big batting donut-shaped ballpark with arch designs all around the top. After attending one game at Busch Stadium with my dad, I knew that I couldn’t follow such a team. But this other team, the one with afternoon games in the funky ballpark and a grandfatherly TV announcer, was just what I had in mind. And so an agonizing relationship began, and it continues to this day.

But back to the Redbirds for a moment. One of their promotional giveaways in the late 1970s was batting helmet night. Kids at the game received a Springfield Redbirds batting helmet, which was actually a Cardinals batting helmet with a Redbirds logo covering up the Cardinals insignia. My desire to get a free helmet–albeit a red and thus Cardinals-related one–trumped my personal misgivings about the Cardinals and their farm team.

I can still remember seeing a picture, which was obviously taken the next day, in which my brother, sister, the neighbor across the street, and I are all proudly wearing our bright red batting helmets. We played a lot of backyard whiffle ball in those days, and we wanted to look the part of a real ballplayer. The red helmets allowed us to do just that.

But time went by, and as it did the whiffle ball games stopped taking place. The dirt spots that marked the bases eventually returned to the grassy state that my father preferred.  I don’t know what became of those helmets, either, but I imagine my mom tossed them out one day. Maybe she looked at them wistfully when she did, and maybe she didn’t. But for my part, I never really gave it any thought at all. That is, until I went to a garage sale this afternoon.

There wasn’t much to be had at the sale, and I was about to walk away when I spotted a batting helmet, just like the one I had when I was a kid. But this one was blue, and had a Cubs logo on it! My inner 10 year-old thought Man! If only I had one of these back in the day, instead of that freebie Cardinals/Redbirds one that I got at the ballpark, I would have been the happiest kid there was. So for the grand sum of one dollar, I bought a whole bunch of memories, and I thought about how much my life has changed since those carefree days in the late 70s.

After I made off with my find, I had to adjust the inner lining (called the “Adjustrap”) to its biggest possible setting. After all, these things weren’t really made for men my age. Once I put it on my head, though, I wore it around the office for the entire afternoon. The feeling I got from it is something I can’t fully put into words. If only every dollar I spent could bring me so much happiness, and every garage sale could transport me back to a time and place I had long since forgotten about.