Sad news for baseball fans of my generation

Woke up today to hear that former Baltimore Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan had passed away unexpectedly at age 59.  (News via the Baseball Reference Blog – which, by the way, is yet another excellent feature of an indispensable resource for baseball lovers.)

*(please see below the jump for updates; latest at 10:40 pm, and well worth it.  I was so grateful to have a happy thought to associate with this, to start to celebrate the life and career of the man and not stand helpless against the manner of his passing)*

Flanagan won the American League Cy Young Award in 1979, part of one of those great Earl Weaver ballclubs that filled the sports background of my earliest childhood.  I hadn’t gotten into baseball yet, really.  At the time, I was all hockey.  I had a wonderful poster of the New York Islanders of 1978-79, a giveaway from Burger King – the players were lithographed, as I recall, fine line drawings of Westfall, Trottier, Bossy, Smitty, Potvin, Gillies, Merrick, Bourne… and among them, Al Arbour in his glasses, trying to figure out how to finally get them to the Stanley Cup.  I lived and died with those guys.

But baseball was still inescapable, in the landscape, as it had to be on Long Island.  We were right in the epicenter of the heyday of the American League East Division.  To our immediate west were the Yankees – the Bombers, the juggernaut, the Evil Empire, with George Steinbrenner as their Emperor.  They had won the three previous AL pennants, 1976-78, brawling and blustering through baseball as the New York papers covered their exploits in rivers of ink, rivaling the rivers of ticker tape they sailed on down the Canyon of Heroes.  The Bronx Zoo was inescapable while growing up on Long Island in the 70’s and 80’s.  It was their identity, even as players came and went via free agency.  Reggie and his candy bar gave way to Rickey Henderson, the ultimate hot dog; Willie Randolph was driven in by Nettles and Munson, and then by Mattingly and Winfield; Billy Martin came and went like the swallows to San Capistrano.  And they had their arch-rivals, each year, every year, bracketing them to the North and South, each with their own identity: the Boston Red Sox, the perennial foils, with their slugging lineup and long burden of last-second defeats; and the Baltimore Orioles, the home of endless pitching and the three-run dinger, Earl Weaver and the Oriole Way.

At the time, nobody knew that Cal Ripken Jr. was going to play baseball every day for fifteen years.  Steady Eddie Murray was just getting started.  Ken Singleton and Doug DeCinces were the big threats in the lineup.  The Orioles were their Pitching, then.  I grew up on the legend of the Four 20-game winners: Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally. Palmer was now the veteran with a new group of kids – Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor, and Mike Flanagan (and eventually, Mike Boddicker). Would they all win 20, too?

Flanagan did, in his sterling 1979, finally breaking the Yankee/Red Sox stronghold in the AL East and carrying Baltimore to their classic 7-game World Series against the We Are Family Pirates.  He won Game 1, and lost Game 5.  In Game Seven, trailing 2-1, the Orioles called on Flanagan in the desperate ninth inning, with a runner on second and one out.  He threw three pitches to Omar Moreno, the third of which was sent back past him to score the insurance run.

Baltimore would get back in 1983.  Five of the six pitchers they used in that Game Seven – McGregor, Flanagan, D. Martinez, Tippy Martinez, and Tim Stoddard – would also return, and celebrate Baltimore’s victory over the Phillies.  They haven’t been back since, however.  They have not won even 80 games in a season since last making the playoffs in 1997.  (Their ’79 opponents, the Pirates, have similarly suffered since their last playoffs in 1992.)  The new AL East heydey again features the Yankees and Red Sox, only the Tampa Bay Rays have improbably moved into Baltimore’s old place – since 2003, two of those three teams have made the AL playoffs every season save 2006, and they’re on track to add this season to the list.  The Orioles, once known for their pitching and slugging, do little of either now, finishing in the bottom half of the 14-team AL in runs scored and runs allowed nearly constantly for a decade, and frequently in the bottom three.

Flanagan was a huge part of the organization for so long.  It’s a shame that he couldn’t see them fight their way back into the mix again.  It’s far sadder that he left so soon, and so suddenly.  Rest in peace, and the consolation of Christ be with his family and friends.

updated, 11:41 am – preliminary reports are that Flanagan may have taken his own life.  This is getting progressively more horrible.

updated, 11:53 am – dammit.  Even worse, reports are coming in that Flanagan may have killed himself BECAUSE of the Orioles’ recent run of miserable play; he was one of their main front-office executives from 2002-2008, and he was badly bothered by the perception that he’d let down the city by not being able to help the team improve the way he wished.

update, 7:06 pm – the latest reports suggest that Flanagan was also under financial stress.  He spoke to his wife late Tuesday/early Wednesday, went out near the barn on his property, and fired a shotgun into his face.  And there he lay until a friend called 9-1-1 when he checked the home and couldn’t find him.  His wounds were terrible enough to prevent police from identifying him until this morning.  Dear Lord.

His fellow Oriole, Davey Johnson, is left to wonder like so many distraught friends and family, all too often before… “If only I had known, if only I could have helped.”  It’s common in depression for the sufferer not to let people in because of the conviction that it will only drag everyone else into the abyss.  One becomes sure that this is easier and less painful for all concerned.  And it may be no help to be reminded that there’s still a lot of good left in one’s life, a lot to live for, and a way out of the crisis.  One of the subtlest and most dangerous effects of depression is the certainty that even if you “make it out,” you’re still YOU.   No matter how good your life and how loved you are, you’re the one who has to live with it.  The darkness is not in your surroundings but in your heart.

update, 10:40 pm – and a hopeful one, courtesy of the great Joe Posnanski, who lights the first candle in the face of the darkness: an appreciation of Mike Flanagan and his career by inaugurating the Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame.  Flanagan goes in first-ballot.


3 thoughts on “Sad news for baseball fans of my generation

  1. Rob Ferrara (@RobFerrara) August 25, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I attended my first ever MLB game with my wife at Fenway Park in 1986 the night after the Red Sox clinched the division. My luck. 🙂 We had purchased the tickets months in advance. They were playing the Orioles. The Sox scratched their starter (Bruce Hurst) and the regulars only played a couple of innings each. The highlights of the evening were a towering home run over the Green Monster by Rick Dempsey and Mike Flanagan throwing in the bullpen not five feet from us in the right field bleachers. Tragic is the only word I have.

    • nightfly August 25, 2011 at 12:25 pm

      I hear you on bad baseball luck. My Aunt treated me to a ballgame at Yankee Stadium for my 21st birthday – the day after Jim Abbott’s no-hitter. We just shook our heads and laughed when we met to go out to the ballpark.

      The news about Flanagan gets more heartbreaking every time there’s an update.

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