Cumberland Times-News

Columns

August 25, 2011

Flanagan the best of the last brightest time

On Wednesday, one of the most beloved faces of the era of Orioles baseball — the last of The Oriole Way — died too suddenly.

Mike Flanagan, dry, kindred New England, witty, self-deprecating, hilarious Mike Flanagan; Mike Flanagan, one of the best and clearly the toughest and gutsiest pitcher in Orioles history, was found dead on his property in Monkton.

He was just 59 years old, but his ways seemed much older than that, even when he broke in with the Orioles 36 years ago.

He won 141 games in the Orioles uniform and must have pitched more 150-pitch complete games than any pitcher of his era. Twice he was the pitching coach of the Orioles, twice he was an Orioles broadcaster and he was the vice president for baseball operations of the Orioles. Above all else, he was an Oriole.

He came up through Bluefield, Miami and Rochester as all of the Orioles did when they were the best franchise in baseball, but he knew how to pitch long before that.

A native of Manchester, N.H., his grandfather and his father pitched in the Boston Red Sox organization, but in 1973, his family became the Baltimore Orioles. If you saw the grief of Jim Palmer and Rick Dempsey Wednesday night, you understand this. If you are an Orioles fan of far too vintage days, you know this. The Orioles were a family, and Mike Flanagan was the favorite son and brother of the family.

He was the master of pinning a nickname on anybody. Don Stanhouse, the frizzy-haired closer who drove Earl Weaver to smoke a full pack of cigarettes whenever he pitched, was known as “Full Pack” and “Stan The Man Unusual.” John Castino, a third baseman for the Minnesota Twins in the late ’70s was “Clams” Castino.

In 1980 when the Orioles roster was crawling with Cy Young Award winners, Flanagan, who had won the award in 1979, said he was Cy Young, Jim Palmer was Cy Old, Steve Stone was Cy Present and Scott McGregor was Cy Future. When young Storm Davis came on to the scene two years later, pitching with a motion that resembled Palmer’s, Flanagan, naturally, anointed him Cy Clone.

He had some of the greatest one-liners in baseball history, his most famous being, “I could never play in New York. The first time I came into a game there, I got into the bullpen car and they told me to lock the doors.”

He once told a reporter he didn’t have any superstitions on the days he pitched that he knew of, although it seemed kind of odd to him that he rarely pitched well on days they played the National Anthem.

In 1987 when the rebuilding Orioles traded Flanagan to Toronto in a deal that involved pitcher Jose Mesa coming to Baltimore, Flanagan, while unhappy about leaving the Orioles, was still able to quip, “My God, I’ve been traded for Joe Table.”

My favorite one, though, was one the Baltimore Sun’s Peter Schmuck used in his Thursday column, when a Toronto reporter asked Flanagan what he did during the Vietnam War.

“I was stationed up here,” he said.

Now Flanagan wasn’t my favorite general manager to be certain, but since Pat Gillick was run out of town, how has anybody ever been permitted to be? Even though Flanagan was my favorite pitcher, sure, I was angry with him for a couple of years because of the way Sam Perlozzo was treated. But even though it was Flanagan who announced Sam’s dismissal from a job he had wanted and earned for his entire life, think about it. Flanagan was essentially dismissed that day as well from a job he had wanted for much of his life as that was the day Andy MacPhail came on board.

I remember that morning when Sam called me to say he had been called in by the club and that this was likely the end.

“By MacPhail?” I asked.

“MacPhail?” Sam said. “What are you talking about?”

All of which leads me to believe that Flanagan had little or no idea himself that he would no longer be running the club until possibly that same morning.

And while I was angry at Flanagan, as he was one of two faces of baseball operations up to that point, along with Jim Duquette, I knew Mike Flanagan loved and wanted the best for the Orioles in a way I could never imagine. For while I had spent my life rooting for the Orioles, he had lived his life as an Oriole.

Mike Flanagan was a face of all that was good about the Orioles, and not only did the fans know it, opponents knew it and respected it.

In 1983 when he came back too soon to pitch after suffering a knee injury after he had gotten off to his best start, he pitched on guts and guile, and was forced to wear a bulky knee brace that likely weighed as much as his injured leg.

Surely opposing batters would bunt Flanagan out of games since it was physically impossible for him to come off the mound in any great hurry. But for the rest of the season not one did. Such was the respect Mike Flanagan had engendered throughout the game.

He would win six more games that season and help lead the Orioles to their third and final world championship.

On the final day of the 1991 season, he was the final Oriole pitcher to take the mound in Memorial Stadium. How fitting and how wonderful for him and the fans. The noise in Memorial Stadium, which was known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum, was unprecedented when he walked in from the bullpen with one out in the ninth and it was announced that Flanagan, at the age of 40, had signed a two-year contract extension to remain with the Orioles.

He would strike out two Detroit Tigers, the final one on the unhittable Flanagan hook, to lay Memorial Stadium and that golden, glorious age to rest.

May Mike Flanagan, so fondly remembered from that age, rest in peace as well.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com

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