Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Mike Flanagan brought unique perspective to the top of the mound

Mike Flanagan was the best student of people, the toughest pitch-hurt competitor, the most unselfish teammate and the best world-leery wit of any Oriole of his time. Nobody was like him — at all.

A few years ago, the O’s honored former manager Earl Weaver with a plaque that’s on the wall, waist-high, in their dugout. “Oh, life size,” Flanagan quipped.

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Former Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan, who won 167 games over 18 seasons with Baltimore and Toronto, has died. Authorities found a body outside Flanagan's home Wednesday afternoon, and it was later determined to be the former left-handed pitcher.

Former Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan, who won 167 games over 18 seasons with Baltimore and Toronto, has died. Authorities found a body outside Flanagan's home Wednesday afternoon, and it was later determined to be the former left-handed pitcher.

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When he was a kid pitcher who allowed too many steals, Flanny threw a sideline session as Weaver watched. Suddenly Earl began running, yelling, “I just stole second on you.”

“How’d you ever get on base?” Flanagan replied.

That is the best-known version of Flanagan: the droll New Hampshire stoic, watching bemused, waiting with a needle that he never dug too deep. But there were several other Flannys, all worth valuing now in the wake of his death Wednesday at age 59.

Once, when no Oriole would say a good word for smart, angry, drug-plagued teammate Alan Wiggins, Flanagan analyzed, rather than judged.

“I always tend to give people two or three more chances than they deserve. That might help you in the long run because they give you more chances, too,” he said. “Maybe Alan gave everybody two or three less chances than they deserved. So they gave him no chances at all.”

That was Flanagan, too.

In 1983, Flanny pitched with a four-pound brace on his knee. The league knew he was, once again, sacrificing another notch off the power arm that won him the 1979 Cy Young Award. But as he had in several seasons, he wanted to help the O’s while other, slower-healing pitchers waited until they could stand the pain. Flanagan’s tough-it-out code, the product of being a third-generation pro pitcher, probably turned a potentially stellar career into a merely very good one: 167-143. But it brought vast dividends of respect.

That year on the O’s beat, I waited for somebody to bunt for a hit against Flanagan while he was wearing that brace. Nobody did, not even with a pennant at stake. It was beneath the dignity of the game to exploit him — because he wouldn’t throw at hitters, because he never took his spitball out of the bullpen and because, in his prime, he loved the challenge of attacking the strengths of the greatest hitters, such as Jim Rice.

That, also, was Flanagan.

During the bleakest years of Peter Angelos’s tenure as Orioles owner, few respected baseball executives would come to Baltimore. But Flanagan was always an Oriole first, all else a distant second. He befriended Angelos, tried to understand him, influence him for the best and explain him to others. As executive vice president of baseball operations from 2005 to ’08, he was the public face of the franchise.

It didn’t work. Just as he abused his arm for Weaver and the team, Flanagan sacrificed some of his reputation as an exec by being identified with Angelos. After Andy MacPhail became general manager, there was no logical place for Flanagan. He called friends throughout baseball to pick brains about jobs in other front offices. None apparently materialized.

After serving in more Orioles roles than any Baltimore player, including two stints as pitching coach, Flanagan went back to the TV broadcast booth to explain the latest 95-loss year — insightfully, generously and sardonically.

Flanagan was respected, beloved and seen as an exemplar of the best in the word “pro,” because he was so completely guided by his own internal compass of values. Ballplayers have just as much difficulty figuring out who they are as everybody else — maybe more, at times, because their stardom lets them delay maturation. Wise beyond years, Flanagan knew himself.

For example, when he was the reigning Cy Young winner, he showed me how to cheat. He scuffed one side of a ball, just two marks with a coat hanger in his locker. He played catch with Dennis Martinez to show how, effortlessly, he suddenly had four new pitches.

“It’s the same principle as a flat-sided Wiffle ball,” he said. “You hold the ball with the scuffed side opposite to the direction you want it to break. It takes no talent whatsoever.”

Why don’t you do it?

“My real stuff’s still too good,” said Flanagan, who won 23 games with the best left-handed curveball in the American League and a fastball in the 90s.

Then, seriously, he said: “I can understand why they do it and I can’t swear that I won’t ever do it, but I still hate it. [Once] when I was hurt, I got to the point where I actually took the mound thinking I’d cheat that day. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought, ‘If you’ll do this now, just to have a little better chance to win, what won’t you do eventually?’

“I guess I just felt too conspicuous out there.”

Conspicuous to whom?

“Myself, I guess.”

Flanagan always called his job description “fool on the hill” and wore a T-shirt under his uniform that said “Dead Goat Saloon.” Even as a player, you’d see him reading serious novels. Once, asked what he would have done if he were not a baseball player, he referred back to the old John Belushi skit on “Saturday Night Live” and said, “I think I’d have made an excellent Killer Bee.”

Flanagan was a first port of call for Orioles with problems because he had had his share. “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars — on stars where no human race is,” New Hampshire’s Robert Frost wrote. “I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places.”

Sometimes, Flanagan wore a black suit in summer, and his humor bore the etymology of the root word that described it: “mordant.” But what those who knew him best will recall — first and erasing all else — were his eyes crinkling to a slit with laughter and, behind those eyes, a bone-deep desire to give, even for things not asked, while taking little.

After years of frustration, when the O’s won the ’83 World Series, Flanagan said, “Now we got what we all wanted: a highlight film with a happy ending.”

This week, we don’t get the happy ending, but we can keep our highlights, our memories, of the life and the man, which still shine brighter than any trophy.

 
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