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The 100 Greatest Angels: #34 Donnie Moore

#34 - Donnie Moore, RH Closer

Career Stats

Donnie Moore came to the Angels late in 1985, (late in his career) and immediately achieved dominance as a bullpen stud. He had 31 saves and a 1.92 ERA in 65 appearances that season, but he was also 8-8, never infallible. In 1986 he pitched 72+ innings and had 21 saves with a fabulous 2.97 ERA, going 4-5. He was 32 years old, but he had taken the team to one game off a division a title the year before and was there to close out winning the West in September of 1986.

There are a million recountings of the sad tale of being one strike away from the world series only to see a Donnie Moore pitch sail over the centerfield fence. It was unfortunate, but only feels hexed in hindsight. The game bounced a few ways and could have gone ours more times than not, but it didn't. It was, however, a team loss. As Black Hawk Waterloo (aka The Chronicler) from the Chronicles of the Lads blog expertly recounts:
Doug DeCinces is not often labeled the goat of that game; most reserve that honor for Donnie Moore, Gary Lucas, or Gene Mauch. But what many people forget is that the Angels tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, sending DeCinces to the plate with the bases loaded and less than two out. Reggie Jackson and Gene Mauch had, apparently, said something to Doug about taking it nice and easy and just getting the ball to the outfield to bring in the series-winning run. He took it nice and easy, all right - he hit a shallow fly ball to right-center, where the strong-armed Dwight Evans made the catch. Bobby Grich was out on a comebacker, and the inning was over. I don't think it's fair to label DeCinces (or Grich) a goat for that, but it does demonstrate that that horrible loss was a team loss, not just the fault of Mauch or Moore or whoever.

It was Donnie Moore's rapid decline as a reliever that made him the locus for residual frustration over the 1986 ALCS defeat. One of the ugliest things I have ever seen was Donnie Moore walking off the mound after blowing a lead in a 1988 home game. The crowd booed angrily, and Moore sulked, slunked and practically melted into the dugout, pitiful beyond redemption. And as we were all to find out in the Summer of 1989, he took his work home with him. - or at least that is how legend has it. Seems upon careful analysis, Donnie's life had fallen apart from a variety of problems, most of which revolved around being too injured to pitch (and therefore earn a living). One pitch in October of 1986 did not kill him, as narratively perfect as it sounds.

Donnie Moore was a vital asset to the Angels in two of their finest seasons and is sadly symbolic of the darker side of the team's lore. He ranks 4th all-time with 61 saves as an Angel, just behind Dave LaRoche's 65 saves and ahead of Francisco Rodriguez' 59 Angel saves. In our Top 40 balloting of 8 Angel faithful, Donnie appeared on 7 ballots usually near or at #40, but was ranked #10 all-time by cupie and 29th by yeswecan, two fans who can lay claim to having seen Donnie at his worst as well as at his best.

Rob McMillin of the 6-4-2 Southern California Baseball Blog analyzes some Donnie Moore theories...

"Behind every major failure in the sport stands a Chicago Cub."
Ron Berler, The Ex-Cub Factor: Theory Will Decide World Series Winner

Ron Berler's 1981 piece that described a theory that's sprouted legs and wheels, namely, the idea that, for any two teams meeting in the World Series, the one with the most ex-Cubs will lose. Was something like that at work with Donnie Moore and the Angels in 1986? It's certainly possible, though it didn't look that way when he came to the Halos in 1985 as a free agent compensation pick. The year before, he had only allowed three home runs with the Braves in a season that saw him finish with a 2.94 ERA and a 4-5 record over 64.1 innings, a substantial improvement over his career numbers that Moore attributed to the tutelage of Braves pitching coach Bob Gibson, who taught him a split-fingered fastball.

Any doubts about his abilities or having an unrepeatable career year in 1984 were immediately erased in 1985. Having signed a $3 million contract with the Angels in the offseason, he proceeded to drop a full run off his ERA while pitching 40 more innings than the year before at the age of 31. Moore's resilience and sustained excellence drew superlatives from manager Gene Mauch, who called his performances "just amazing", adding quality performances to the durability that characterized his earlier work with both the Cubs and the Braves, where he had led both clubs' relief corps in innings pitched.

Moore had some great games in the regular season, including a May 31, 1985 outing at Detroit in which he struck out five over 2.2 innings, collecting a save and preserving a win for middle reliever Pat Clements. His most infamous moment, however, was the "one strike away" split-fingered pitch to Dave Henderson in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS. That pitch went over the wall and made Henderson an overnight hero in New England, and a goat of Donnie Moore. Moore said later that "I was surprised" when Mauch pulled starter Mike Witt. "I thought it was Mike's game to win or lose. I thought I wasn't going to pitch again until the World Series."

Moore had also been pitching with a sore shoulder, an ailment that had troubled him all season on and off, and now had catastrophic results for him and the club. "If my arm is right," Moore said, "the ball falls right off the table. He doesn't touch it. I threw the pitch and will take the blame, but it's history. If you can't take the bitter with the sweet, you're in the wrong game. However, I don't believe the pitch cost us the game. We still could have won it." His one mistake overshadowed the fact that the Angels had opportunities to win the game in the ninth after tying the score but the offense failed when Doug DeCinces and Bobby Grich both failed to get critical hits with the tying and go-ahead runs on base.

Though Moore did pitch well in Game 7 -- allowing no earned runs in the meaningless eighth of a crushing 8-1 blowout -- it wasn't nearly enough. The Angels didn't recover that year, and in 1987, neither Moore nor the Angels were the same. The team had started a long slow decline that wouldn't recover until the Tim Salmon era opened some flickers of life in the early 90's. Moore became increasingly injured and despondant, continuing to pitch with his sore shoulder, and adding to his misery, a nerve injury. Leaving the team after a terrible 1988 season in which he spent weeks at a time on the DL, he ironically became an immediate no-risk free agent as part of the collusion lawsuit, along with Dodger legend Kirk Gibson, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, Joe Niekro, Butch Wnegar, Tom Brookens, and Juan Beniquez.

He never signed a major league contract. Instead, he bounced around the minors, refusing to quit baseball despite the heckling he received at the hands of Angels fans. Having been cut from Kansas City's Omaha minor league affiliate in 1989, he separated with his wife of 16 years, Tonya, who had told neighbors that Moore beat her. Returning to his home, he discussed his plans, possibly signing with Houston, near his native Lubbock, Texas, and possibly playing winter league ball in Puerto Rico. An argument erupted about selling their house; he drew a gun, shot his wife three times, and finally shot himself in the head. "He felt he was the next Ralph Branca," Tonya, who recovered from her wounds, said later, "the guy who's always been remembered for giving up the home run to Bobby Thomson to lose the '51 pennant."