I was perusing the blog circuit today as usual when I read something over at Surviving Grady that stopped me in my tracks.
Dave Henderson gave a lesson in faith with one of the most memorable "I remember where I was when it happened" homeruns in post-season history. That particular subplot had a bad ending, with Donnie Moore, the pitcher who gave up the shot, later committing suicide.
Having heard the story, but never having taken time to really find out the particulars, I turned to Professor Google to seek some kind of better understanding--if such a thing is possible.
The first, and most conventional response to my search came from Wikipedia, which explicitly linked the suicide to the Hendu home run.
Moore, who had long battled depression, was dealt a severe mental blow from this event, and sports fans and the sports media never forgot it.
Moore's fate is compared with Bill Buckner's later experience (and I wonder, has there ever been a more accursed and anguished baseball season than 1986?).
And I will admit that on first reading about this, I felt, and felt immediately, the temptation to sink into hyper-romantic musings about the devastation one pitch can cause.
I know I will never fully comprehend the type of pressure a closer feels, brought in during a huge one-run playoff game with the task of saving his teammates. I will probably never comprehend the humiliation and devastation that pitcher feels when he fails.
But I've seen it--I've seen the normally stoic Tim Wakefield sob like a child in the clubhouse, being hugged and cajoled by the normally macho Trot Nixon. I've seen the footage of Byung-Hyun Kim curling into himself on the mound during the 2001 World Series, looking like he wanted to simply disappear. I've heard the intensely prideful, conceited Pedro Martinez say in public "I wanted to bury myself on that mound." Last season, we all saw the usually unflappable Keith Foulke implode, venting what outward angst escaped him toward whatever targets--fans, media--happened to be handiest.
The frustration of these intense, talented, passionate men cannot be underestimated. Baseball players by their very nature are not normal. They have exceedingly unusual gifts, and lead exceedingly unusual lives.
It's just a game; it's just a job--but it's a game and a job fraught with metaphor, and that metaphor is often as damning as it is exaltatory. Players are consumed whole by the metaphor, become their own metaphors, and in the worst cases, their names--like Bill Buckner--become shorthand for a particular brand of failure.
And so my first reaction, reading about Donnie Moore, is indeed to perpetuate his metaphor--to freeze him in that role on the mound twenty years ago, to interpret his historical life as a two-dimensional representative, to understand him for the character he played in the morality play of baseball and nothing else.
But I also recognize, given time, that Moore is notable for the fact that he did, in fact, commit suicide. He also, as a matter of fact, shot and critically wounded his wife in an attempt to take her with him.
And like any nature / nurture argument, the simplest explanation only goes so far--and the exception proves the rule. None of the pitchers referenced above, regrettable as some of their frustrated behavior may have been at times, ever acted this way, just as not every angsty teenaged outcast becomes a Columbine killer, just as not every neglected child becomes Jeffrey Dahmer.
Donnie Moore, and that fateful pitch in the fall 1986, make for some of the most amazingly oversimplified explanations of complicated human interaction you're likely to find in the sports world. Resist those explanations. You can do better.
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.
His agent claimed that the homer did him in, that Moore couldn't handle his Ralph Branca burden. But those who study suicide know it can't be packaged inside such a simple box. Moore had been released by the Angels and the Royals' farm team in Omaha. The injuries and bills had piled up. His wife had planned to leave him. Tonya said Moore was loving when alcohol wasn't driving him to physically abuse her, and also said Moore too often kept his troubles bottled up inside...no home run could kill a man perfect for the role of closer, the loneliest job of all.
The positions of husband, father and provider — that's where Donnie Moore didn't know how to play hurt.
They are right, of course. Such a dramatic oversimplification of Moore's situation by baseball fans is, of course, inaccurate at best.
Where I disagree with especially Kreidler, however, is the exasperated tone, the wonderment that the legend of Donnie Moore has "lasted so long."
Moore's legend, the legend of any ballplayer or team, that "simple box" of metaphor--that's what we, as baseball fans, fundamentally do. We turn to baseball because it oversimplifies, because it is a microcosmic world that has causes and effects, winners and losers and numbered pitches and codes that make sense. We turn to baseball because it shuts out and ignores the complexities, the shades of grey, because it shelters us from the unknowable and incomprehensible. We turn to baseball because it is a world with a clean, cut and dried system, a world where Donnie Moore died a martyr--where Donnie Moore symbolizes violent self-sacrifice, buried on the mound, the scapegoat for his team and the team's fans and their dreams.
I can acknowledge that the escapist desire to distill the complex life of one former pitcher down into the neat system of baseball morality is wrong--but I can't say I'm surprised to see it happen anyway. I don't see how anyone who has watched baseball fans for long can be, really. In the end, if Donnie Moore really is a metaphor for anything, it's for the fundamental desire at the heart of the baseball lover--to forget, and forget well. Especially when it comes to the sad and inexplicable things.