The Orioles will play an afternoon game today and the lineup should be posted shortly, but it still doesn’t feel like a normal day. Far from it.
This team has won three games in a row, has finally won a series, and it seems so insignificant. The news of Mike Flanagan’s death knocked the wind out of us. Trying to make sense of it is a futile exercise.
It wasn’t until late last night that I realized Flanagan was the first major league player that I interviewed for a game story. I was covering preps at The Sun, but was asked to fill in for York Daily Record beat writer Mike Lurie - a former Sun colleague - who planned his wedding for September 1989. Lurie never imagined that the Orioles would be contending that season, and that the games over the final month would hold any real significance.
Flanagan was pitching for the Blue Jays, and I remember him standing outside the visiting clubhouse with his family, holding his crying daughter and trying to answer a few questions from the media. I nervously fired off one seeking his reaction to coming out of the game in the middle innings, and he reminded me that it wasn’t his decision. Something along those lines. Not one of my finest moments in sports reporting.
I made plenty of calls to Flanagan’s house and cell phone during his tenure in the front office. Like everyone else on the beat, I developed a lasting relationship with his voice mail. It became a running joke.
I’ve often retold the story of how Flanagan kept denying rumors that the Orioles were going to trade for Sammy Sosa before the 2005 season. He’d tell me to shoot them down. One night, when the rumors had intensified, I asked whether I should still shoot them down. He replied, “With the biggest bullet you have.” So I did, in print and to a Chicago sports-talk radio station.
The next day, the Orioles traded for Sosa.
As Flanagan said - and Andy MacPhail has repeated the line many times - things can change with one phone call.
Flanagan had a dry, quick wit, and he was the best storyteller I’ve been around in all my years covering baseball. Nothing beat sitting at a table in a press dining room, at Camden Yards and on the road, and listening to Flanagan and former MASN play-by-play man Michael Reghi swap stories and play off each other. It made me look forward to coming to the ballpark each day despite all the losses.
“He had the ability to come up with quick-witted one-liners that would have you sit there and say, ‘How did he come up with that?’ He was amazing like that,” said former pitcher and current MASN analyst Dave Johnson.
“I grew up watching him, too, so I knew Flanny and the significance and relevance of him to Baltimore’s baseball history. Now, having an opportunity to be a colleague, I still always thought that was a pretty cool thing. He was just a guy that I thought, everything he did, he was pretty good at.”
Johnson watched from the dugout on Oct. 6, 1991 when Flanagan, as the last Oriole to throw a pitch at Memorial Stadium, struck out the only two batters he faced in the top of the ninth inning and walked off the mound to a rousing ovation.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wish that was me,’ ” said Johnson, who started the previous day. “I meant that I wish I had that type of career where I was the guy out there to close that ballpark. It was neat and fitting that it was him doing it because he had that type of career and he deserved to be out there. I thought the only other guy who should be out there besides him was (Jim) Palmer, and Palmer wasn’t playing.”
Former catcher Chris Hoiles was behind the plate for the last no-hitter in Orioles history - the combined effort of Bob Milacki, Flanagan, Mark Williamson and Greg Olson on July 13, 1991. Current Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin caught Flanagan on the final day, but Hoiles enjoyed every moment of it.
“I think it was only fitting, and (manager) Johnny Oates did one heck of a job understanding the magnitude of the move from Memorial Stadium to Oriole Park. He did a hell of a job of recognizing what was in the moment and allowing Flanny and fans to really collect a lot of years of Orioles baseball in a very tiny spot. When he got the last two outs, striking out (Dave) Bergman and (Travis) Fryman and was able to walk off the mound where he had played in two World Series and won a Cy Young Award and played on some great Orioles teams, to allow fans to recognize Flanny that way ... a lot of things in life make you shake your head, and that was one of those moments.
“I had the opportunity to have him as my pitching coach and the great thing about Flanny was, he was no different. There was no difference between Flanny as a player and a pitching coach. Flanny was who he was. To me, that was the best thing about him - his humor and his quick wit and one-liners, and he always knew how to get his point across without talking too much. He was a quiet person, but he knew exactly what to say to you in a situation in his own way. A lot times it was very lighthearted. He was doing it his way and it meant a lot to the players. When you read between the lines, you’d get the point he was trying to make.
“He helped me out from a catching standpoint tremendously, on calling games and utilizing what a pitcher had day to day and start to start. He was working with pitchers, but indirectly working with me, also. You could learn a lot if you had your eyes and ears open. He was a great guy to be around because of his humor and his wit. We always had a great work relationship together.
And now he’s gone. Unexpectedly and much too soon.
Flanagan was supposed to be in the MASN booth this weekend for the series against the Yankees at Camden Yards.
“It’s unbelievable and shocking when you first hear about it,” Hoiles said. “It left a very empty feeling in my stomach when I heard about it. For someone who was in the organization as long as he was, it makes you stop and think about the devotion he had for the team. It runs a lot deeper than a lot of people imagine.”
So does our sense of loss.
Update: The Flanagan family has issued the following statement: “We thank you for your support and kind words at this difficult time. Thank you for respecting our privacy as we grieve. A private memorial will be held at a later date.”