I didn’t cry when I heard that former Baltimore pitcher (and current Orioles TV color commentator) Mike Flanagan shot himself in the head Wednesday afternoon. I did tear up a bit when I heard that Jim Palmer started to cry in the broadcast booth while conveying the news to the Baltimore faithful.
I didn’t know Mike Flanagan well, but I interviewed him several times, both for the Village Voice and Inside Sports when the Orioles were at Yankee Stadium in the early 1980s. He was intelligent, courteous and always happy to talk about baseball — three things most professional athletes are not.
There’s a tendency when a ballplayer you like has passed to make him seem better, in retrospect, than he was. In Flanagan’s case, that’s easy.
In the seven seasons from 1977-1983 (when the Orioles won the AL pennant and beat a very good Phillies team in the World Series), Flanagan was 109-68, with a won-lost percentage of .616. His best season was 1979, when he was 23-9 and won the Cy Young. (The Orioles won the pennant that year and lost the World Series to the Pirates.)
He had arm trouble on and off over the years, but if he’d had, say, two more really good seasons, winning maybe 19-20 games … well, no, I guess not even then would he have been a Hall of Fame candidate. But I can tell you that at his peak he was damned good, usually against the Yankees.
Flanagan had a wonderful sense of humor and was a great storyteller. One of his favorite topics was his stint as a weatherman on Baltimore TV during the 1981 strike and how he was going to pursue it when his career was over. He became a pitching coach, then an Orioles executive before moving to the broadcast booth. I got a big chuckle out of him in 1983 before a Yankees game by telling him the FBI had a file on him as “a former Weatherman.”
A friend of mine pulls a baseball card from his collection, puts a black X on it and tacks it to the wall each time a player from his youth dies. “It’s like a little piece of yourself dying,” he says.
I know what he means. That’s true with all athletes, but more so, I think, with baseball players, because if you follow the game you are in touch with them all through the season for many years, and even for much of the off-season.
And in a way, it’s more true of the marginal stars than it is of the big ones. If you love baseball, you marked the end of an era in your life when Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle died. I don’t quite feel that way about Mike Flanagan, but I do feel a little older and as if a little piece of my life is gone. R.I.P.