Friday, August 26, 2011

FLANAGAN'S WAKE

Those who read this space now and then know that the subject of baseball often comes up. This is not the place of a fanatic’s ravings about a manager’s wisdom or an umpire’s eyesight, but rather a place where someone passionate about a game looks at the human moments, the harsh realities, and frailties of the sport and the men who play it. Those things make “the game” more about work and real life.

Sometimes the reality of that life is too real, too jarring, too disappointing. This week there was another of those moments.

Years after I understood that I would never have the talent to be more than an adequate softball substitute, a man pitched for the Baltimore Orioles. Trivia buffs remember him as the last man to pitch in old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, that iconic ball yard in the suburbs, striking out the only two Detroit batters he was asked to face to the delight of the 50,700 fans in attendance. Baseball statisticians would remember him as man that won the highest honor a pitcher can be given for a season of work, the Cy Yong Award in 1979 by winning 23 games and losing only 9. He received all but two of the votes. Then, on a very bad leg, went 12-4 in 1983 to help the Orioles win the World Championship.

The fans in Baltimore will remember him as an icon of the era along with the other pitchers of that staff who, with his quiet New England wit, could often make their genuis and borderline insane Hall of Fame Manager Earl Weaver sorry that he ever brought a subject up. They remember him as a pitching coach and a Vice President of the Oriole’s. In the last few years, after taking the fall for having failed in some way to make the woeful franchise better he became a television analyst. Those fans also know, as do the other pitchers on the staff who watched him, that he pitched to those last two batters in that famous stadium before the team moved downtown because he was the only Oriole on the roster who deserved to do it, and the fact that he did it so well shocked no one.

His wit and work ethic was well known from the days he pitched and played basketball at UMASS. He was drafted in 1973 and reached the majors two years later. He became a regular starter one-third of the way through 1977 and won 15, then 19 the following year. He was an extrodinary pitcher who suffered a serious knee injury in the 1980’s, but worked as a relief pitcher until he retired in 1991 His body of work included a remarkable141 wins in 18 years, many of which came after his injury.

He was responsible for one of the more uproarious arguments (and there were many) that the irascible Weaver ever had with and umpire. It was remarkable. Mike had walked the first man he faced (games in those days started at seven-thirty five). The umpire called a balk on his first attempt to hold the runner close—that is, he threw the ball to first rather than home to try to take the runner’s lead away from him. It was four minutes into the game. The classic 15-minute video clearly shows the clock during Weavers subsequent twelve minute discussion with Tom Haller, the first base umpire who made the call and awarded the runner second base. During the tirade, Weaver argued that there was no balk and somehow managed to assure Haller that he--because when he retired he would be in the Hall of Fame—knew that better than any of the umpires. He was told that he could leave for the night when he had initially run out on the field screaming epithets, leaving many scribes to wonder how he could be that angry four mintes into the game. Finally, having exhausted all his rather extensive vocabulary of blue language he turned and marched back to the third base dugout. He passed Flanagan, who had been standing there the whole time, he would say later, in awe of Earl’s antics. When he did he turned to Mike and said, “You were [hosed,”] or words to that effect. Flanagan never cracked a smile. “Actually,” he said, “I balked.” Weaver simply stared at him for a moment and continued his walk into exile for the evening. It is one of the great punch lines never heard.

 “Flanny” as he was know by one and all was not only a great pitcher he was an intelligent and giving man. Sharing his knowledge of the game he loved was as natural as his New Hampshire twang. He once did an interview for more than 30 minutes on the way to use the rubber slab on the mound to one's advantage. Really. The quiet, reserved, even stoic New Englander most of the time, he could not seem to control his dry humor when he was with his fellow pitchers, Jim Palmer and Steve Stone, among others. Weaver tolerated their nonsense only because they all in their turn won the Cy Young Award and helped make up such a potent pitching staff that few others in the modern era compare.

After a particular galling loss in Anaheim one night when five Angels stole second base, Weaver had seen enough of the slow windups and inattention to the runners of his pitchers. He was so aggravated he ordered all the pitchers to appear at the park at two-thirty the next afternoon. He had them all stand at first base. Rick Dempsey, the regular catcher (the son of circus performers himself) stood in front of home plate and Weaver instructed the pitchers to leave the base and try to steal second but only after the ball left his hand. He positioned himself in front of the pitcher’s mound and threw the ball 12 times. Each pitcher tried and failed to steal second under Earl’s rules. Having believed he had now adequately made his point that the bases stolen the night before were their fault, not Dempsey's, the smiling, bandy rooster-like Weaver, all 5 foot 5 inches of him, bounced over to  what he believed was a chastened collection of pitchers now standing behind second base near the kid infielder who had been recruited to apply the tag. He asked in his usual raspy half scream, “So, what have we learned today?” Flanny raised his hand and broke up the assembled group and sent Weaver stalking off the field talking to himself when he replied, “I guess we better work harder on getting a better lead next spring, huh Skip?” Much of what made it funny was the fact that pitchers in the American League had not hit or run the bases since the implementation of the Designated Hitter Rule in 1973.

That was the essential Mike Flanagan. The man who gave nicknames that players carried for life sprung from his fertile mind, the man who could shut the irrepressible Earl Weaver’s mouth with a few witty words. That is the man and the legend Baltimore remembers. Yet, on Thursday morning sometime after 1 AM, his body was discovered 250 feet behind his house. For no reason that anyone can understand, at the age of 59, Mike Flanagan, this kind, funny,and gentle man shot himself in the head.

The deed cannot be reconciled by those who knew him. His family and friends cannot explain it. Yet it happened. The world is a sadder place now for his leaving it. What torment he never shared with them, we may or may not ever know. He is now and will be always honored for his place in the history of Oriole baseball and as part of the warp and woof of the game.

 We are left to wonder of the demons and harsh truths of his life.

2 comments:

  1. Reamus, a fitting and moving remembrance. It concentrates on the good things, the things Mike Flanagan deserves to be remembered for.

    Thank you.

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