Mike Flanagan, RIP: Why?

The early morning-after speculation proved true. Suicide. And those with direct and indirect interest, his actual and his baseball family alike, must wonder. What drove Mike Flanagan–once a tenacious but abundantly-humourous Baltimore Orioles pitcher, eventually a team coach, broadcaster, and executive who withstood the heat in and for Peter Angelos’s chameleonic kitchen–to leave himself with a bullet in his head, to be found dead on a trail of his property at 59.

What drives a man who knew himself, laughed at himself, analysed where others might condemn, thought where others might explode, and taught a proud city bedeviled by its once-proud baseball team’s failures and foibles to bear with it in good or at least fatalistic humour, not just to his own death but to make it difficult, if not impossible, to identify him right away? The Orioles, past and present, would love to know.

“Mike was such a unique guy, talented, witty, funny,” said Jim Palmer, Flanagan’s Hall of Fame rotation mate. “You are not ready to lose someone like Mike Flanagan. But on the other side, I feel lucky to be part of the organization and have had him as a friend and a confidant and buddy, and see all facets of him.”

“Mike made a point of making me feel welcomed from Day One,” says current manager Buck Showalter. “I always looked forward to him coming in and sitting down and drinking coffee with me, and not only talking about baseball but talking about life. He was a passionate man about the Orioles and family, and he impacted a lot of people’s lives, not just by the way he pitched but [as] someone our organization has always been proud of not only for the way he pitched but the way he treated people.”

Mike Flanagan, the self-proclaimed Fool on the Hill . . .

As a lefthanded pitcher, Flanagan brandished one of the league’s outstanding curve balls and a cheerful insouciance about his work. He embraced the legendary Oriole Way whole-hogger, but he could make even crusty Earl Weaver stop dead before laughing in a simple pitching drill. The story is that a young Flanagan was working on holding runners and preventing theft, something once a problem for him, when Weaver broke into a run and hollered, “I just stole second on you!” Flanagan, deadpan, answered, “How’d you ever get on base?”

“It’s just shock right now,” said Flanagan’s one-time catcher, Rick Dempsey. “I know everybody on that team loved him to death.”

As a team executive vice president and (for seven seasons) its co-general manager, long after his retirement from the mound (where he’d also pitched three of his eighteen seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays), Flanagan bucked up, bore up, and took perhaps a little too much heat over front-office failures not necessarily of his own making. He strained to understand the chameleonic Angelos and his other minions and took hits. He strained to make sense of the nonsensical, as the Orioles devolved from one of the American League’s most admirable franchises to one of its running gags, and though his public face remained one that threatened to break into a soft gotcha or a winking shaft of wise wit there may have lain a deepening storm behind it.

Reporting later Thursday indicated Flanagan was hounded by financial issues. But prowl around elsewhere and few may buy that as readily as another theory: That Flanagan took the Orioles’s collapse harder than most. He wasn’t the most famous or fabled Oriole; his stubborn insistence on pitching through pain turned what might have been a stellar career into a mere good one. He wasn’t nearly as recognisable as Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray, but he may have taken the Orioles’ striking highs and staggering lows with equal passion.

Some have even suggested Flanagan blamed himself for the Orioles’ devolution even more ardently than some foolish Oriole fans blamed him, or at least held him accountable. Maybe they mistook a stand-up man–which is exactly what Flanagan was, in all his Oriole roles, whether trying to make sense of Rafael Palmeiro’s suspension or Sammy Sosa’s invisibility, whether trying to understand Alan Wiggins’s furies or why stout men such as Sam Perlozzo or Lee Mazzilli couldn’t make use of what little they were provided–for the man in charge.

And maybe the customarily self-aware Flanagan believed it, too, enough not to listen to anyone trying to convince him otherwise.

He could win a Cy Young Award with brains as much as repertoire. He could win big American League Championship Series games; he could grin and bear with the best of them during horrible losses. (Perhaps it was the gods looking kindly upon him that he was traded to Toronto after 1987, just in time not to be part of the Orioles’ 1988-opening 21-game losing streak.) He could pitch through enormous pain on behalf of allowing Oriole pitchers with less pain tolerance than his the chance to heal; he could even demonstrate illegal pitches in spring training yet refuse to even think about using them during game competition.

. . . and the stand-up front office executive who may have taken franchise failures too much to heart.

Flanagan once buttonholed Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post. The defending Cy Young winner held up a clean, new baseball, put three equal inch-long scars into one side of the meat with a coat hanger, and mused, “That’s much more than a real scuffballer would need. God, Gaylord Perry or Tommy John could make this ball sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.” He threw to Dennis Martinez, whom he’d invited mischieviously to have a catch, and quipped, “Any time I want four new pitches, I got ’em because I can make a scuffed ball break in, out, up, or down . . . You hold the ball with the scuffed side opposite to the direction you want it to break. It takes no talent whatsoever. You just throw it like a mediocre fastball. The scuff gives the break.”

Then, after kidding about himself as an older, thought-to-be-fading former star making a “mysterious” comeback with that repertoire, Flanagan grew serious and explained why he wouldn’t do it in an actual game, spring exhibition or otherwise. “I can understand why they do it, and I can’t swear that I won’t ever do it, but I still hate it,” he told Boswell, after waxing against suspected scuffers in Seattle (led by Rick Honeycutt and Glenn Abbott, allegedly) and Oakland. (Where Billy Martin reputedly taught his splendid young rotation the scuffers as soon as possible, and you might “see the bottom falling out of pitches from guys who never had a super sinker or a great screwball before.”) “When I was hurt three years ago, I got to a point where I actually took the mound thinking I’d cheat that day. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought, ‘If you’ll do this now, just to have a little better chance to win, what won’t you do eventually?’ I guess I just felt too conspicuous out there.” To whom? “Myself, I guess.”

A man with that kind of integrity, even when he develops or has been handed the keys to the short or at least the sneaky cut, is a man who just might take his chosen employer’s fortunes seriously enough to let the worst of them tear his insides apart. Just enough that nothing else and nobody else, not even a loving wife and loving daughters (one of whom, incidentally, was America’s fourth in vitro fertilisation and birth), can lead him to their healing.

And again the question will be asked–by his former teammates, by his chosen employers’ incumbent personnel, but especially by his wife, who was out of town and last spoke to her husband at 1 a.m. Wednesday, ending the conversation with a promise to talk of what troubled him the following day—about this decent, witty, quietly passionate man, the third member of Baltimore’s last World Series winner to die, whose suicide is as baffling for now as his curve ball once was for many a healthy season.


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