Saturday, October 29, 2011

Coach-Killers & "Mall Cops"?

According to Thortein Veblen in 1899 — (The Theory of the Leisure Class) — the glorification of sports and gaming in general is a powerful leisure-class value that shapes and influences all social strata and encourages institutional conservatism. Veblen further notes that sports terminology often parallels that found in the military and in warfare. "To crush one's foe," for example, is a phrase used in both warfare and sports. Sports is used to indoctrinate young people into leisure-class values and is used to maintain the prevailing ideology of rough, cutthroat competition as being acceptable. Veblen taught at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and the University of Missouri — all football powers in his day. If this is (fair & balanced) jock-raking, so be it.

[x CJR]
The Scandal Beat
By Daniel Libit

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In December, Ohio State University suspended five of its football players for violating the rules governing intercollegiate athletics by exchanging their Buckeye memorabilia for various forms of payment, including the handiwork of a local Columbus tattoo parlor. Over the next few months, the digging of media outlets near and far pried open a capacious vault of misdeeds: the “gear scheme,” as it came to be called, involved not just a few players during a single season, but dozens of players over the better part of a decade; in that time, a number of scholarship athletes had also received sweetheart deals at a local auto outlet; and head coach Jim Tressel had hidden incriminating evidence of these transgressions from his superiors for more than eight months.

Punishment ensued. Ohio State, a perennial power in college football for more than half a century, forfeited its entire 2010 Sugar Bowl championship season; Tressel, regarded by many as a paragon of coaching integrity, was forced to resign; and Terrelle Pryor, the team’s star quarterback who was at the center of the scandal, abruptly left school to try his luck in the National Football League.

In many ways, the chaos in Columbus is just the latest in a seemingly endless series of scandals in big-time college sports. Over the last three decades, investigative sports reporters have excavated dozens of episodes of rule-breaking in football and men’s basketball programs, from Southern Methodist University’s “Ponygate” affair in the 1980s to the pay-for-play shenanigans at the University of Washington in the 1990s to agent tampering at the University of Southern California in the aughts. As this issue went to press, Yahoo Sports blew the lid off the latest installment, at the University of Miami, which, based on initial reports, may eclipse all other scandals in terms of scale and audacity. Off-field trouble, once a side project of the beat, has become the defining story of college athletics. Anyone who doubts it need only scan the header of’s homepage, which on many days reads like the abstract of a criminal indictment.

The cumulative reportage of a relatively small group of sports journalists on what might be called the Scandal Beat constitutes a compelling case for the unenforceability of the NCAA’s bylaws. In the process of building that case, these reporters have delivered an impressive perp walk of bogeymen: scurrilous agents, meddling boosters, selfish teenage athletes, badly behaved coaches. In many ways it has been a wildly successful display of watchdog journalism, and it helped establish the idea that sports is something that can and should be subjected to the same journalistic scrutiny as other institutions in our society—and that the sports desk could be more than just the “Toy Department,” as it had been derisively tagged by newsroom colleagues.

But the success of this work also belies a deeper problem with the coverage of college sports. The Scandal Beat exists as a kind of closed loop: a report of rules violations, an investigation, sanctions, dismissals, vows to do better, and then on to the next case of corruption where the cycle is repeated. The reporting, intentionally or not, promotes the idea that the corruption that plagues the NCAA is the problem, rather than merely a symptom of a system that is fundamentally broken. The Scandal Beat, with its drama and spectacular falls from grace, is much less adept at managing the next step: a robust discussion, prominently and persistently conducted, of why these scandals keep happening and what can be done to prevent them.

Despite its familiar feel, the OSU implosion seemed to represent a significant milepost in the national conversation about big-time college sports—if not a moment of truth, then at least a moment for truth. The fact that the conflagration had claimed a member of college football royalty, combined with the contemporaneous cascade of other scandals—including those that currently smolder at Auburn, Oregon, Boise State, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—appears to have opened the door to the possibility of finally starting that deeper discussion. In August, a summit of university leaders, convened by NCAA President Mark Emmert, agreed to raise educational standards for incoming freshmen and streamline the association’s bloated rule book. Summit participants vowed to address in the coming months the issue of athletes’ financial needs, but Emmert reiterated his opposition to paying students. Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, which challenges the non-compensation of college athletes, is slated to go to trial in early 2013.

The sports commentariat has begun to question, more frequently and volubly, the very foundation of amateurism and higher education that the stakeholders in big-time college sports cling to. And even some of the stakeholders themselves are easing their grip: Mike Slive, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, which is widely considered to be the dominant football conference in the country, has advocated providing additional financial support for athletes, and in July confessed that the scandal headlines had cost major college sports the “benefit of the doubt.”

This moment may come to nothing. Given the NCAA’s history of fecklessness and the powerful financial interests aligned with the status quo, meaningful reform will be difficult. But it raises an interesting question for the future of sports coverage: Is the Scandal Beat, with its singular focus on busting rule-breakers, paving the way to reform or helping to block the way?

Sharecropper Economy

Even at its most righteous, college athletics—and I’m referring here to the so-called revenue sports, football and men’s basketball—is a multibillion-dollar enterprise based on an exploitive business model. Universities get gobs of money that helps float their entire athletic departments, and coaches and administrators are paid handsome salaries, all from the talent and effort of an essentially unpaid labor force of young athletes.

The NCAA’s 346 biggest athletic departments, which are classified as Division I, took in combined revenue of $8.7 billion last year. Ohio State’s budget alone topped $100 million; and Jim Tressel, prior to his resignation, was earning an annual salary of roughly $3.5 million. (It’s worth noting that Tressel was only the sixth-highest-paid college football coach in 2010; Alabama’s Nick Saban topped the list at $6 million.)

Meanwhile, the “compensation” for OSU’s football players, like all collegiate athletes, tops out at tuition, room, and board—but only for those on scholarship. This fact—that the kids get at least a shot at a free college degree—is what defenders of the system lean on when the matter of exploitation comes up. But even allowing for improved average graduation rates (which the NCAA trumpeted last year despite decidedly mixed results, especially at the more prominent sports schools), the idea that meaningful education is behind all of those diplomas is at least debatable, when one considers the number of “general studies” degrees and the evidence—turned up by the Scandal Beat—that classwork is not always handled by the athletes alone.

In any event, these “student-athletes” are prevented from earning any additional money that might be construed as related to their role as an athlete. Schools can sell the players’ jerseys and other memorabilia at stadium gift shops, they can put the players on billboards, feature them in television ads, and trot them out to impress the boosters, all without a dime going into the athletes’ pockets. In March, HBO’s “Real Sports” did the math and found that under the revenue-sharing model used by the NFL and National Basketball Association, where players get 57 percent of league revenues, members of the University of Texas’s 2009 football team were each worth $630,000 while those of last year’s national champion Duke University men’s basketball team were worth $1.2 million each. A USA Today story that same month calculated the median annual cost of an athlete’s grant-in-aid package: $27,923, a relative pittance.

It is a disjuncture of the market value that begs to be disobeyed, a fact that isn’t lost on the Scandal Beat reporters. “I once heard athletes described as sharecroppers, and I always thought that was pretty accurate,” says Charles Robinson, the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo Sports who has had a hand in breaking some of the biggest corruption scandals in recent years, including the latest out of Miami.

Robinson and his colleagues have captured the surface consequences of this perverse economy (the rampant cheating), but their work also has atomized a story fundamentally about economics into an endless cat-and-mouse game of rules violations.

Rise of the Scandal Beat

Reporters first began to seriously grapple with the chicanery in college sports in the 1940s, when a point-shaving scandal that began with City College of New York spread to six other universities. “Big-time college basketball, the commercialized, Madison Square Garden variety, got another brutal kick in the teeth,” read a Time magazine story from 1951, “the worst yet, in a game already punchy from its own scandals.”

In the 1960s, Jack Scott, a former Stanford sprinter who became athletic director at Oberlin College, set out to save college sports by crusading against its over-commercialization and over-authoritarian coaching culture. “Scott really gave voice to a lot of the ills underlying a lot of this stuff and he did it in a very smart and organized way,” says Sandy Padwe, who served two stints as Sports Illustrated’s senior editor in charge of investigations from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. “Slowly, but surely, people began to realize that the only way to get at the root of this problem was do it investigatively.”

But it was in the 1980s that college sports ballooned into the sprawling, hype-besotted business we know today—and, not coincidentally, when the Scandal Beat really took root. A 1984 Supreme Court decision ruled that the NCAA’s television plan—which limited the number of televised football games and the opportunities for schools to negotiate their own terms—violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, paving the way for the explosion of modern college football broadcasting. In 1982, CBS began exclusively broadcasting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, at a price of $16 million a season (it grew to $55 million by 1988). Last year, the NCAA grossed $680 million from fees on television and marketing rights.

As the money in the newly corporatized college sports world soared, and the NCAA’s rule book grew fatter and more nitpicky, so too did the incentives to break the rules. A post-Watergate zeal in the nation’s newsrooms and the failure of the NCAA’s enforcement arm to keep pace further crystallized the mission of the Scandal Beat. “College sports was fertile ground,” says Armen Keteyian, a former investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated who is now the chief investigative correspondent for CBS News. “It was like a hundred-to-one in terms of scandals to the number of NCAA investigators. They were naïve, and they didn’t have the depth of knowledge to do these kinds of investigations.”

Journalism did, however, and a handful of investigative pioneers on the sports desk built the template for the Scandal Beat, establishing the methods (hanging around parking lots to find out what cars athletes drove, for instance), the patois (“in violation of NCAA rules”), and the general disposition of the scrutiny. The work, done with great ingenuity and often at great risk—reporters faced death threats while their employers endured lawsuits and subscription cancellations— won its journalistic stripes. Within the decade, two mid-sized newspapers would win Pulitzers for their investigations of athletic departments: The Arizona Daily Star in 1981 and the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Leader in 1986.

Still, one of the salient points of Jack Scott’s “radical athleticism” movement begun a generation earlier, that the rule-breaking that plagued college sports is intrinsically tied to the commercialization of the enterprise, tended over time to get lost in the cataclysm of corruption that toppled heroes and humbled great universities. “We operated under, ‘Here are the rules and if people are breaking those rules we’re going to report on that,’” says Elliott Almond, an investigative sports reporter for the Los Angeles Times back then who now covers Stanford for the San Jose Mercury News. “We were never entirely reflective.”

The Coach Killer

George Dohrmann’s career provides an instructive illustration of the Scandal Beat’s allure as well as its limitations. Dohrmann, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, started in 1996 as a part-timer answering phones on the Los Angeles Times’s sports investigative desk. Among his first story assignments was to co-author a series that explored the matrix of conflicted interests that suffuse elite amateur basketball in talent-rich Southern California.

While doing those stories, Dohrmann got a tip that Baron Davis, a highly-rated point guard who had recently committed to play at UCLA, was driving around in a suspicious car. Dohrmann went to Davis’s high school to poke around, where he spotted Davis pulling out of a parking lot in a black 1991 Chevy Blazer. As Dohrmann soon reported, the Blazer originally belonged UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who sold it to Davis’s sister two days after Davis signed his letter of intent with the school. Despite what seemed a clear violation of NCAA rules, the Pac-10 Conference (now the Pac-12), of which UCLA is a member, failed to find any wrongdoing on the part of the coach or the school, ultimately accepting their contorted explanation of how the transaction was aboveboard.

“That shaped everything that I have come to understand about how the NCAA works,” says Dohrmann. “We found something that anybody with healthy common sense would say was a quid pro quo and the school managed to explain it away.”

Nevertheless, a month later, Harrick was fired. The official explanation was that he had falsified expense reports to obscure the fact he had taken recruits out for dinner, but it is hard to believe that Dohrmann’s revelations had nothing to do with the decision.

Not long after, Dohrmann left the Times to cover the University of Minnesota for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “You walk in and you assume that the school is cheating,” he says, describing his mindset at the time. In 1999, Dohrmann, then just twenty-six, found the dirt in the Golden Gophers’ athletic department, reporting a series of stories that detailed an academic fraud operation in the men’s basketball program. The revelations won Dohrmann a Pulitzer, and a job at Sports Illustrated, while the school was hit with serious sanctions and its coach, Clem Haskins, received a seven-year ban.

Ohio State’s Jim Tressel would be Dohrmann’s third scalp, though he had more than a little help in taking it.

In March of this year, three months after the press conference announcing the player suspensions at OSU, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel broke the story that Tressel had known for months about the gear swapping by members of his team. This touched off a feeding frenzy by other outlets, notably the Columbus Dispatch, ESPN, and the OSU student newspaper, The Lantern.

By April, Dohrmann had become convinced that no other reporter was pushing the tattoo parlor angle far enough, so he flew to Columbus and began asking questions. On May 27, a Friday, Dohrmann phoned Ohio State with the allegations his reporting had turned up: that, going back to 2002, significantly more players than had been reported had traded memorabilia for tattoos, including nine who were currently on the team. On Sunday, the university responded to Dohrmann with a statement from athletic director Gene Smith that distanced the school from Tressel. The next day, Tressel resigned.

Dohrmann’s scoop earned him plaudits from the sports journalism community at large, but there were detractors. Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs and Fox Sports’s Jason Whitlock, both outspoken critics of the NCAA generally—Craggs has prophesied its ultimate demise—and of the Scandal Beat specifically, publicly attacked the SI exposé. Whitlock, fomenting on Twitter, called it a “typical slave-catcher investigation,” and mocked what he perceived to be Dohrmann’s and Sports Illustrated’s efforts to take credit for Tressel’s firing. Craggs, in a blog post, said Dohrmann represented a “passel of excellent journalists” who had “turned themselves once again into mall cops for the NCAA.”

Dohrmann doesn’t see it quite that way. “If he means we go get things the NCAA’s enforcement staff doesn’t, he is correct,” Dohrmann says. “If he feels that we are doing the NCAA’s job, this would be like saying The New York Times is the Justice Department’s mall cop.”

Still, Dohrmann has his own misgivings about the Scandal Beat. “Of course the NCAA can change and it does change slightly, and stories that show wrongdoing force small changes,” he says. “Now, every compliance arm in the country is dealing with tattoos. When I wrote about academic fraud in Minnesota, I am sure every school in the country tightened up its academic counseling department. Small changes occur because of the scandal. Are there macro changes, like paying athletes, because enough of these scandals get broken? It is possible. I just have no faith.”

Beyond the Scandal Beat

The paradox that Dohrmann describes—he both defends the work and acknowledges its limitations in getting at the underlying problems—came up time and again in my conversations with Scandal Beat writers.

Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist whose 1989 book, The Hundred Yard Lie, argued that big-time college football should remove its threadbare veil of amateurism, puts a finer point on the discrepancy, calling the rules violations the “crumbs of the problem.” He says: “The big muffin is right in front of us every day. We know it and accept it, so that’s where all the craziness starts. We accept the Big Lie, so we are dazzled and amazed by the little lies. I have found that completely self-defeating and really it hasn’t changed.”

In this way, the Scandal Beat sets its own trap. It produces important stories that fit into a celebrated tradition of muckraking and watchdog reporting. They are the kinds of stories that win prizes and generate traffic. Most of the reporters who do them have been reared in an industry whose professional code demands “objectivity,” a sort of bloodless presentation of the facts that, at its worst, can reduce an obvious injustice to a he said, she said cop-out. The result is straightforward coverage of the NCAA and its rules—and the inevitable violations of those rules—rather than coverage that challenges the validity of the rules themselves, and the system that upholds them.

There are journalistic efforts to come at the ills of college athletics from the less sensational but potentially more fruitful direction of economic justice. For about five years, the Indianapolis Star’s investigative reporter Mark Alesia covered the NCAA, which is based in Indianapolis, as a quasi-beat, tailoring his focus to the underlying economic issues, as opposed to matters of enforcement. In 2006, he wrote a series of stories that scrutinized the astounding fact that less than 1 percent of the NCAA’s athletes produce more than 90 percent of its revenue.

In 2008, Alesia moved to a news-side investigative beat and his work on the NCAA largely ended. These days, only USA Today follows the money of college sports as a matter of practice, annually updating a database of head coach salaries and athletic department budgets. The newspaper’s reporters mine the data for stories that probe the commerce of college sports. Other outlets have only occasionally delved into the economic-justice angle. Two years ago, espn’s investigative program "Outside the Lines" and jointly produced a month-long series, “Mixed Messages,” which dissected examples of the NCAA’s economic one-sidedness, including the contentions of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit. In July, returned to the subject with a five-day series on athlete compensation called “Pay to Play.” And last March, during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, PBS’s "Frontline" took a whack at the question of paying players. In one poignantly ticklish moment, correspondent Lowell Bergman challenged NCAA President Mark Emmert to reveal his salary on air, which Emmert huffily declined.

Tim Franklin, the former editor of both the Orlando Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun who recently stepped down as head of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, talks of the need to broaden the sports beat, to bring other perspectives to the coverage. “It is critical for news organizations to have higher education reporters and metro desks looking at this,” Franklin says. “Reporters on financial desks should be reporting on the financial statements of athletic departments. There are thousands of stories in the data in those reports that aren’t being done.”

To the extent this more elemental coverage is being done, it is largely drowned out by the endless stream of titillating details pouring from the Scandal Beat. After thirty years of a Groundhog-Day-like chronicling of transgressions and punishments, a once sober journalistic enterprise has in many ways become a source of entertainment, parceling the failings of intercollegiate athletics into the simple, binary terms sports fans can appreciate: winners and losers, sinners and saints. And as Dohrmann says, “Fans actually give a shit about who is and isn’t breaking the rules.”

Just as the pioneers who built the Scandal Beat in the 1980s sought to bring the values of public-service journalism to the sports department, the beat’s current practitioners face the challenge of how to respond to the difficult truths that their work has helped to lay bare. Because what has become clear is that the most important story in college sports is no longer a sports story at all. Ω

[Daniel Libit is a freelance journalist who formerly reported for Politico. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.]

Copyright © 2011 Columbia Journalism Review

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The Final Out Blues

This blogger lived in Lubbock, TX when a young African American pitcher integrated previously all-white Monterey High School in Lubbock. With Donnie Moore on the mound, the Monterey baseball team was a powerhouse. Moore was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1973. He played for the Chicago Cubs (1975, 1977–79), St. Louis Cardinals (1980), Milwaukee Brewers (1981), Atlanta Braves (1982–84) and California Angels (1985–88). In a 13-season career, Moore posted a 43–40 record with 89 saves, 416 strikeouts, and a 3.67 ERA in 655 innings. He was selected as an American League All-Star in 1985. Moore was released by the Angels in 1988. He signed with the Kansas City Royals for the 1989 season, but played only in the minor leagues before being released in June of that year, ending his 14-year career in baseball. On July 18, 1989, during an argument with his wife Tonya, Donnie Moore shot her three times, the incident occurring in view of their three children at their Anaheim Hills home. Tonya Moore and daughter Demetria, then 17 years of age, fled from the house and Demetria drove her mother to the hospital. Both survived the shooting. Back inside the house, still in the presence of one of his sons, Donnie Moore put the gun to his head and committed suicide. In the 1985 ALCS, the Angels were were one out away from moving on the World Series. The Angels held a 5-4 lead over the Red Sox and Moore was brought out of the bull pen to close out the game with the last out. Boston's Dave Henderson took a 2-2 pitch deep to left field and the Angels ultimately lost the entire series to the Red Sox and the Angels would not advance to another World Series until 2002 when the Angels defeated the San Francisco Giants for the World Series Championship. If this is a (fair & balanced) account of final-out heartbreak, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
The Myth Of The Home Run That Drove An Angels Pitcher To Suicide
By Kevin Baker

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There are stories we like to tell ourselves about sports. One of them is that the games we play can be so engrossing, our losses so exquisitely painful, that we can never really recover from them.

This is mostly a fan's way of looking at things, of course. Players can't afford such thoughts. Their business is to shake it off, forget about even the worst losses, and move on to the next game. Yet as fans, we continue to believe that we can impose our agonies upon them, that we can so hound them with their mistakes and failures that they can never escape them. Former Dodgers' pitcher Ralph Branca, for instance, has spent the last 60 years of his life having to replay the epic home run the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit off him, in the last game of the 1951 pennant race, perhaps the most famous single game ever played.

Being reminded over and over again of the worst mistakes we ever made in public, for the rest of our lives—surely, this must be every player's waking nightmare. In sports, where things happen so quickly and suddenly, we are obsessed by how everything can turn in one, irretrievable moment—and we project that obsession onto the players, the constant objects of our veneration and our scorn, just as we project everything else.

This month is the 25th anniversary of one of the most infamous errors in all of major-league history: Bill Buckner's allowing Mookie Wilson's ground ball to trickle between his legs, for the error that sealed the Red Sox's fate in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, and saddled that team with yet another in a long line of traumatic defeats.

The error is overrated; it did not, by itself, cost the Red Sox either the game or the Series. But Buckner, like Branca before him, has endured with rare good grace ever since, even playing himself on a hilarious episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which he misses another baseball, but catches a baby thrown from a burning building.

Pushed to the background by these ceremonies of forgiveness has been a much darker story, from that same October of 1986. It is the story of Donnie Moore, a pitcher for the California Angels who, unable to overcome his own moment of failure, was supposedly driven to take his own life. Yet the chances are good that everything you think you know about his story is wrong.

Moore was a 32-year-old, itinerant relief pitcher from Lubbock, Texas, who was on his fifth major-league team. Tall, black, and mustachioed, the son of a maid and a truck driver, he had made the most out of a modest fastball and a snappy splitter. In 1985, he had put together his finest major-league season, saving 31 games, compiling an ERA of 1.92, and making the All-Star game.

Rewarded with a three-year, $3-million contract by Gene Autry, the Angels' free-spending owner, he immediately spent about a third of that money on a big house up in the Peralta Hills section of Anaheim, and moved in his wife, Tonya, who had been with him since Lubbock, and their three children. They looked and acted like the ideal family. Donnie Moore, it seemed, had finally arrived.

Yet things started to go wrong for Moore almost from the start of the 1986 season. He missed a month of play early on with what was diagnosed as a muscle strain in his rib cage, but was eventually found to be a bone spur near his spinal cord. Throwing awkwardly on his return, he soon found that his elbow and shoulder were aching, too. Before long he was taking a nerve-blocking agent for the rib cage, anesthesia and cortisone for his shoulder, and other medications for the migraines that had begun to plague him.

Donnie Moore was a mess, but he wasn't one to complain, at least not in public. The Angels could not find a reliever to close games without him, and Moore simply did what so many fans demand that athletes do, which was to play through the pain. Despite his injuries, he returned to save another 21 games, and the Angels became one of those teams that simply clicked. An intriguing mix of veteran stars such as Reggie Jackson, Don Sutton, Bobby Grich, Bob Boone, Rick Burleson, John Candelaria, and Doug DeCinces; and rising young players such as Wally Joyner, Kirk McCaskill, and Mike Witt, California ended up breezing to the American League's West Division title.

The Angels were still underdogs in the league championship series against the Red Sox. Besides Buckner, a former batting champion, Boston boasted future Hall-of-Famers Wade Boggs and Jim Rice, American League most valuable player and Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, and other all-stars such as Dwight Evans, Bruce Hurst, Don Baylor, and Rich Gedman. All of Boston was so certain it was at last their year that, on the eve of the playoffs, the Boston Globe ran a special literary supplement featuring John Updike, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen King, David Halberstam, George Will, and others mulling over why all good literati were Red Sox fans.

Then the games began, and things began to happen to the Red Sox, as they usually do. Mike Witt outpitched Clemens in the series opener in Fenway, and the Angels won going away, 8-1. Back in Anaheim, Clemens surrendered a 3-0 lead in the ninth when Jim Rice turned the wrong way on a flyball, and rookie reliever Calvin Schiraldi hit Angels catcher Brian Downing with a pitch to force in the tying run.

California won the game in 11 innings, and took a three-games-to-one lead in the series. The Sox ace would be unable to pitch again until the seventh game, while the Angels had their best pitcher, Witt, going in the fifth game of the series, at home in Anaheim. Surely California would wrap up the first pennant in its 26-year history—and the first for manager Gene Mauch, "the Little General," who through many heartbreaks of his own had set a record for wins by a major-league manager without ever making it to the World Series.

That afternoon, everything continued to go the Angels' way. Boston centerfielder Dave "Hendu" Henderson almost made a brilliant, leaping catch of a ball hit by Bobby Grich against the centerfield wall...only to see the ball tip out of his glove when it hit the wall, and fall over for a two-run homer.

Witt looked dominant again in the lazy, Southern California sunlight, carrying a 5-2 lead into the ninth. He surrendered a lead-off single to Buckner, of all people, but then froze Rice with a wicked curveball for strike three. Two outs to go. The 64,223 fans filling the Big A were now leaning over the railing, pounding on anything they could find, making an incredible racket. In the Angels' dugout, Reggie Jackson carefully pocketed his sunglasses and went over to congratulate Gene Mauch.

"It isn't over yet," Mauch reminded him.

Almost on cue, Don Baylor gulfed another, sharp-breaking Witt curveball over the fence in left-center. Now the score was 5-4, the standing, chanting crowd abruptly hushed, but Witt responded by inducing Dewey Evans to pop out weakly to third.

One more out. The crowd revived, and security guards began filling up the outfield bullpens. Smirking, helmeted, California Highway Patrol officers crowded the Red Sox into a corner of their own dugout, telling them, "C'mon, boys. There's going to be a party here."

Mauch, though, had decided that his starter was out of steam, lifting him for reliever Gary Lucas, rather than letting Witt face Boston catcher Rich Gedman. Gedman had rarely hit Witt, but he had already touched him up for a home run that afternoon. Lucas had struck out Gedman just the night before.

It seemed like the smart move—until Lucas hit the Boston catcher square on the forearm. It was the first batter he had hit in over four years, and four hundred innings. Lucas departed. Mauch brought in Donnie Moore.

This, too, seemed like the smart play. Moore was not only the team's closer but a righthanded pitcher, brought in to pitch to the righthanded Henderson, who had been having a horrendous time ever since coming over to Boston that September. Besides the ball that had gone off his glove for a home run, he was nursing a sore leg, batting just .189 in the championship series, and had already struck out in a key situation that afternoon. It seemed like a cinch.

But Moore's injuries had also taken their toll. Called on to protect a 4-1 lead in the third game of the series, he had surrendered either a hit or an outfield fly to all 11 Boston hitters he faced, barely escaping with the 5-3 victory.

Now he got two strikes on Henderson, and nearly struck him out with a split-fingered fastball, Hendu just nudging a weak foul down the third-base line. When he hit another, much harder foul off a straight fastball, catcher Bob Boone called for an off-speed splitter. Moore delivered—but the ball had no snap, his weakened shoulder throwing up a floater. Henderson pounced, hitting the ball eight rows deep in the left field stands, then danced around the bases. The Red Sox led, 6-5. The highway patrol boys retreated from the Red Sox dugout. Reggie Jackson put his glasses back on.

The game was not yet over, though, and much of what happened next has been forgotten. The Angels fought back to tie the score again in the bottom of the ninth, and then loaded the bases with just one out. Doug DeCinces, who had led the team in runs batted in, and Bobby Grich, two of the Angels' best hitters, were coming up. A long flyball or a soft grounder would win the game.

But neither hitter could deliver. Donnie Moore, running on fumes, gave up two more hits in the top of the tenth inning, but got Jim Rice to hit into a double-play. In the bottom of the inning, the Angels threatened again—only to see Rice, never known for his fielding, make an outstanding, two-handed catch against the wall.

Moore finally gave way in the 11th, allowing a sacrifice fly by—who else?—Hendu Henderson. The Red Sox had the lead again. This time they would hang on, then go back to Fenway and win the final two games of the series easily, 10-4 and 8-1. The Angels played as if they were shellshocked, booting easy balls and failing to hit in the clutch.

"It was strange. It was really weird," Jackson admitted once it was all over. "The past two days, it was like we weren't even here."

Afterwards there was plenty of blame to go around, but most of it came to congeal on Donnie Moore. Never mind that he had been pitching hurt, and pushed beyond what any reasonable manager would do today. It was all his fault.

Right away, Moore seemed to second-guess himself, telling reporters in the clubhouse after his Game Five loss, "Maybe if I had tried to blow it past him [Henderson], we'd be drinking champagne right now."

For the rest of his life, he would go back and forth about taking responsibility for the loss. He did admit in the clubhouse that same afternoon, "Every time I throw, my arm hurts," but—realizing he had broken the ballplayers' unwritten code—adding, "that's not why I lost the game. I was horseshit."

"I'll shoulder the blame. Somebody's got to take the blame, so I'll take it...I threw that pitch. I lost that game," he said after the final loss in Boston. Later he pointed out: "I don't believe the pitch cost us the game. We still could have won it."

Certainly, more of the blame should have been shared with Gary Lucas, or with the Angels' hitters for their repeated inability to get the winning run across the plate against a motley succession of Boston relievers that afternoon, or with Gene Mauch, for his dubious managerial decisions. Instead it was Moore (who, it's worth noting, was the one black man in the piece) who heard it from the fans and the media. He was booed and criticized relentlessly, especially as his injuries worsened and he moldered on the disabled list for most of the next two seasons.

Moore suffered in silence before the doctors finally found and removed the spur near his spine that had been tormenting him. Meanwhile, the Angels' star veterans began to retire, and the team dropped to last in the division. Gene Mauch hung it up for good in spring training, 1988, after a record 26 seasons without a pennant—and California cut Donnie Moore loose before the end of the season. In 1989, the Royals released him from their Triple-A team in Omaha, ending his baseball career at the age of 35. The big house in Peralta Hills went on the market.

On July 20, 1989, the smog seemed to sock in a particular madness over the Southland. Word came that Rebecca Schaefer, a pretty young TV actress, was shot and killed at her home by a deranged stalker. That same day, less than a week after his release by Omaha, Donnie Moore shot himself in the head with a .45. The instant assumption was that he killed himself because of a home run.

"I think insanity set in. He could not live with himself after Henderson hit the home run. He kept blaming himself," Moore's agent, Mike Pinter, told everyone who would listen. He added, "That home run killed him."

Moore's old teammate, Brian Downing, blamed the fans and the media: "You destroyed a man's life over one pitch. The guy was just not the same after that." The press quickly picked up the theme. Headlines from coast to coast read, "Sometimes, This Game Is Life or Death," "A Ballplayer's Life Turns on a Home Run," and "Donnie Moore: 'That Home Run Killed Him'"

Lyle Spencer, a columnist for the New York Post asked, "How many times did a media type remind him of the pitch that didn't break...How many times did he hear this—'Moore, you blew it!'—from some drunk and disorderly fan with the sensitivity of a cockroach?" Tom Boswell in the Washington Post lamented "an American predisposition with Puritan equate defeat with sin," and asked that "before we boo or use words like 'choke' and 'goat,' perhaps we should think sometimes of Donnie Moore."

Yet the truth was that there were much worse demons haunting Donnie Moore, and probably always had been. Donnie and his wife Tonya had been together since they were high school sweethearts, all right, but this was not a romance.

Violently jealous and possessive, Moore started beating her when she was just 19 years old, and kept it up through the rest of their years together, especially when he had knocked back too much Jack Daniels. Well before Game Five of the 1986 American League Championship Series, he would become enraged whenever she so much as looked at or talked with another man, and he often kept her a virtual prisoner in their home. It was a side of Donnie Moore that he doesn't seem to have allowed his teammates or the sportswriters to see—or perhaps no one wanted to look very hard.

Tonya tried to leave her husband when his baseball career ended, knowing he would become still more violent. When a brief attempt at a reconciliation failed, he chased her around their beautiful home with his gun, shooting her through the neck, lungs, and chest in front of their three children. Somehow, Tonya made it to the backseat of her car, and her 17-year-old daughter drove her to an emergency room, screaming most of the way. Miraculously, Tonya Moore walked into the hospital under her own power and survived, although months of physical and mental rehabilitation would be necessary before she could fully recover.

Back at home with his young sons, Donnie Moore put the .45 to his head and pulled the trigger as they watched. Something had been lost, all right, but it wasn't a ballgame, and it didn't happen in a moment.

Ballplayers, especially professional ballplayers, find ways to adapt and get past their failures—and to live with them. True, the losses and the errors don't go away. Reading Lawrence Ritter's seminal oral history, The Glory of Their Times (1980, 2010), one finds players still mulling over famous catastrophes four and five decades later—the Merkle "bonehead" play, Snodgrass muffed fly, the ball that hit a pebble and bounced over Freddie Lindstrom's shoulder, costing his team a World Series.

Yet even when not allowed to forget their failures, most of them find a way to get on with their careers, and their lives. Ralph Branca, asking the family priest why this had happened to him, was able to accept the answer, "Because God knows your faith is strong enough to handle it." (Branca would, earlier this year, discover that his mother had been born Jewish. All this time, he could have simply blamed it on yiddishe mazel!) Buckner was able to laugh about the worst moment of his playing career on national television, and accept the cheers of the Red Sox faithful when he returned to Fenway this year.

This is what fans too often don't understand about the athletes they follow. When it comes to the game, the mental toughness that enabled them to excel in the first place usually allows them to go on. It's the rest of life that can be too much—as it can be for all the rest of us. Ω

[Kevin Baker is a novelist and freelance writer. His first novel, Sometimes You See It Coming (1993, 2003), was based loosely on the life of Ty Cobb, but set in the modern day. Baker has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Harper’s magazine, and The Industry Standard. He is a graduate of Columbia University.]

Copyright © 2011 The Atlantic Monthly Group

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves