August 24, 2011
Mike Flanagan played for the Baltimore Orioles when they weren't a punchline.
He made the All-Star game in 1978, tossed a league-leading five shutouts and won the AL Cy Young Award in '79, pitched on the O's World Series champion club in '83 and was part of a no-hitter in 1991.
He also worked as the team's pitching coach, as its vice president and, starting in 2010, as a TV broadcaster.
In a shocking loss of life for what has been one of the prouder franchises in the majors, police found Flanagan's body on Wednesday on a trail near his home in Baltimore County. He was 59 years old. Flanagan leaves a wife and three (presumably grown) daughters.
His death has been reported as an apparent suicide on WNST and elsewhere. As if the story needed to be sadder.
He isn't as well-known nationally as icons such as Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray, but Flanagan's accomplishments in Orioles history haven't been equaled by many — one of the somberly put observations made by catcher Rick Dempsey to the Baltimore Sun:
"It's just shock right now," said Dempsey. "I know everybody that played with him loved him to death. He was the backbone of that pitching staff. He never quit — this guy never quit. He was there for the duration. We had so many great games and so many great times. I just can't believe it."
The photo above shows Flanagan with the irrepressible Earl Weaver, the O's manager in 1979. The shot was taken after Game 1 of the '79 Series, in which Flanagan and the O's beat the Pirates.
As a pitcher, Flanagan might have personified the term "crafty left-hander." His style was Jamie Moyer(notes)-esque. He changed speeds. Changed locations. Changed swing planes. Probably as frustrating as heck to bat against. He struck out 4.8 batters per nine innings — an amazingly low rate for someone who made 404 career starts. But he managed to miss enough bats. How the O's thrived with Flanagan and Scott McGregor at the same time — now there's a guy who never struck anyone out — I'll never know.
Though his bio lists him as 6-feet and 180 pounds, to a 10-year-old version of myself, he always seemed bigger. In my mind's eye, Flanagan was a huge man, actually. Maybe it was his head of thick, layered, feathered and parted hair — ballplayer style. Or the bushy mustache, which he had shaved by the time he worked in the O's front office. Or the undersized numbers in the Orioles jerseys of the late '70s and early '80s that made all of them look like they had giant backs. Flanagan looked like a bear.
The Orioles, generally, were larger than life in those days. It's hard to imagine now, but the Orioles and the Kansas City Royals were modern major league success stories. They won games, they won championships. And when they didn't win, they got close. They were respected for their consistent competence and unwavering class.
Flanagan didn't pitch for the Orioles for his entire career; he was traded to the Blue Jays in 1987 and had a 2.37 ERA in seven starts down the stretch of a legendary pennant race. In the penultimate game of the season, Flanagan went 11 innings in a duel with Jack Morris that the Jays lost after he left.
Near the end of Flanagan's career in 1991 — not long after he pitched in a four-way no-hitter with Bob Milacki, Mark Williamson and Gregg Olson — Ken Rosenthal wrote a column for the Sun asking the Orioles to keep Flanagan and not ship him to a contender at the trade deadline like they did years before. He stayed, and helped close Memorial Stadium.
Flanagan was a product of, and a reason for, the Orioles' success. The stories coming out in the wake of his death about feelings of guilt for his role in Baltimore's recent decline — they're not fair. I don't have much of an opinion of Flanagan as an O's executive, other than it seems to me that the organization's problems go higher and deeper than him.
It's already a shame he's gone, but it would be a damn shame if somehow his performance as an executive had something to do with how he died. It's not fair at all. And not the way he ought to be remembered.
Flanagan is the third member of the '83 Orioles to die. Aurelio Rodriguez (who actually finished the season with the White Sox) and Todd Cruz are the others.
I disliked that O's team because they beat the White Sox in the playoffs. Flanagan helped to beat them in Game 3. But the O's had my respect. And Mike Flanagan was a ballplayer worthy of respect.