This is for Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, John McNamara, Tom Neidenfuer, Don Denkinger, Johnny Pesky and Gene Mauch. It’s for the ’64 Phillies, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’87 Blue Jays and every Cub since World War II. In particular, it’s for Donnie Moore, who shot his wife, then committed suicide this week.
You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.
Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.
We’ve had our share of sad stories in sports recently. But none approaches Donnie Moore’s. Numerous other athletes who’re in trouble — taking heat, answering tough questions, hearing catcalls — got themselves in hot water by doing what they knew was wrong. All Moore did was pitch despite a sore arm, throw a nice nasty knee-high forkball and watch it sail over the left field fence.
Nobody will ever be able to prove that the haunting memory of giving up Dave Henderson’s home run in the 1986 American League playoffs led Moore to commit suicide. Maybe, someday, we’ll learn about some other possible cause. But, right now, what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this “goat” business isn’t funny anymore.
Moore was a good little pitcher, a battler, a student of the game, a tough guy with a sensitive inside who was one of Mauch’s favorite players. That tells a lot, because Mauch respects Joe DiMaggio and about two other people.
For two seasons, late in his 12-year career, Moore became a star. He came within one foul tick of pitching the California Angels into their only World Series. But Henderson, off-balance, barely tipped the two-strike pitch. With the next swing, Henderson made history. He kept the Red Sox alive so that they could go to the World Series in the Angels’ place — and endure miseries.
“Ever since he gave up the home run . . . he was never himself again,” said Dave Pinter, Moore’s agent for 12 years. “He blamed himself for the Angels not going to the World Series. He constantly talked about the Henderson home run . . . I tried to get him to go to a psychiatrist, but he said, ‘I don’t need it. I’ll get over it.’ . . . That home run killed him.”
“You destroyed a man’s life over one pitch,” exploded the Angels’ Brian Downing. “The guy was just not the same after that . . . He was never treated fairly. He wasn’t given credit for all the good things he did . . . Nobody was sympathetic. I never, ever saw him be credited for getting us to the playoffs, because all you ever heard about, all you ever read about was one pitch.”
Moore’s wife Tonya, who is in critical condition but is expected to live, has said that, after The Pitch, Moore would often come home after games at Anaheim Stadium, where he was booed, and burst into tears.
One of the powerful appeals of sports is its artificially created fairness. Every precaution is taken to ensure a level playing field. In a sense, sports is purely democratic. Almost nothing about you, except the way you play the game, is inspected or judged.
That’s why sports are, in a sense, an escape. All the moral ambiguities of daily life are suspended. Somebody wins and is happy. Somebody loses, but gets to play again the next day or season.
Duane Thomas once said, “If the Super Bowl is the ‘ultimate game,’ why do they play it again next year?” The answer is: “So somebody else can win it. And so whoever loses this year doesn’t feel too bad.”
Some people get over losing their “ultimate game.” Perhaps no manager ever made a bigger blunder than Tommy Lasorda when he had Neidenfuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers just one out from reaching the World Series. Clark hit a three-run homer and St. Louis went to the Series — which they lost because of — no, we’re not going to blame Denkinger today.
Lasorda wept in the clubhouse, went to players to apologize, then went on with his life.
At the moment he manages the reigning world champions. Maybe Lasorda coped so well because he’d already gone to three Series and won one.
The flaw in our attitude — perhaps it is even an American predisposition with Puritan roots — is to equate defeat with sin. The unspoken assumption is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.
Sports, especially pro sports, is not a morality play, much as it suits our national appetite to act as it it were. Even some athletes, perhaps including Moore, seem to crush themselves under a burden of self-imposed guilt in areas of life where no cause for guilt exists.
If you work hard enough, sacrifice enough, then you will win. That’s what many coaches teach. Or should we say preach. It might be more honest, and healthier, to say that if you work very hard you will become excellent and, because of that excellence, you may do great deeds and win great prizes. Unless, of course, you don’t. Because, sometimes, the other player is better or luckier. In which case you simply have to be satisfied with your excellence and the dignity of your effort.
Those of us who are merely fans and critics have a responsibility too. The right to a raspberry comes with the price of a ticket and the right to an opinion goes with the First Amendment.
Still, before we boo or use words like “choke” and “goat,” perhaps we should think sometimes of Donnie Moore.