Thursday, August 25, 2011
The passing of Mike FlanaganPosted by Bruce Markusen
After last week’s article about Don Wilson, Danny Thomas and Donnie Moore, I didn’t think I’d be writing about another possible baseball suicide so quickly. I certainly didn’t want to be. Unfortunately, the unexpected death of Mike Flanagan has again brought the baseball world up against the issue of suicide.
Flanagan, who was found dead on his property yesterday afternoon, was only 59 and was still an active television broadcaster for the Orioles, working some of their games on the MASN network. According to early reports last night, he was despondent over the perception that he had failed as one of the team’s top executives from 2002 to 2008 and had contributed to the Orioles’ long run of disappointment in the American League East.
We still don’t know exactly what happened to Flanagan in his final hours—or even in his final days—but we do know that he was a very fine starting pitcher during his playing days. At his peak, Flanagan was the ace of some very good Orioles teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He wasn’t overpowering—he didn’t throw in the mid-90s—but he put hitters away with a heavy sinker, an excellent slow curve ball, an effective change-up, and an ability to change arm angles, particularly against left-handed hitters.
In 1979, when the Orioles won the American League pennant, Flanagan was at his best, earning the league’s Cy Young Award on the strength of 23 wins, a 3.08 ERA, five shutouts and 265 innings of general mastery.
Growing up as a Yankees fan in the late 1970s, I dreadedg those games when they had to face Flanagan. With a lineup that leaned to the left, the Yankees seemed especially vulnerable to Flanagan’s repertoire of deception. He also seemed so unflappable on the mound, showing little emotion as he teased hitters with that overhand curveball and that sinking fastball.
At one time, I thought Flanagan might have been on pace for a Hall of Fame career, but a major leg injury—not an arm ailment—played havoc with that possibility. Flanagan hurt his knee in the midst of Baltimore’s 1983 world championship season; not only was he limited to 20 starts that season, but except for a brief resurgence in 1984, he wasn’t quite the same pitcher ever again. Given that he was only 31 at the time of the knee injury, it’s certainly fair to speculate what might have been.
Still, Flanagan remained an important part of the Orioles franchise. Even with his knee at less than full efficiency, Flanagan assumed a stronger leadership role of the Baltimore pitching staff after the retirement of Jim Palmer. Late in his career, after a fairly successful two-year stint with the Blue Jays, Flanagan returned to Baltimore in a different role, putting in an effective season out of the bullpen in 1991.
Fittingly, Flanagan was the last Oriole to pitch a game at Memorial Stadium, the team’s ballpark before its move to Camden Yards. He later served as the Orioles’ pitching coach, their general manager, and over three different stints, as one of the club’s color announcers.
Given those different connections to the franchise, he’ll always be associated with the Orioles, but first and foremost, as one of the best starting pitchers in team history. An all-time Oriole pitching staff would have to include Flanagan, alongside Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally in the starting rotation.
Sadly, Palmer is the only one who remains with us. As with Cuellar and McNally, Mike Flanagan left us far too soon.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.