Flanagan works quietly toward spot with Orioles Left-hander may be ahead of Palmer

February 27, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The crowds gather daily at Twin Lakes Park to witness a historic comeback attempt, which leaves Mike Flanagan to engineer his return to the major leagues in relative peace.

Jim Palmer is getting most of the publicity, but Flanagan, 39, has the best chance of sticking with the Baltimore Orioles when they head north to open the 1991 season.

There is a job open for Flanagan if he shows that his arm is healthy and he can still get left-handed hitters out.

Palmer would have to pry someone off the pitching staff and says that the odds of doing so are extremely long. Flanagan was invited to camp after working out for the Orioles during the winter. Palmer, in a sense, invited himself to camp. If nothing else, the two are enjoying one last spring together in the Florida sun.

"Mike still feels like he can do a job," manager Frank Robinson said. "He got himself in shape, and there is a need."

The Orioles are long on right-handers, which is why the odds are long on Palmer. They are short on left-handed depth, which makes an experienced pitcher who can start and relieve a valuable commodity. That Flanagan had some outstanding years an Oriole just adds to the equation.

"I don't know if I ever envisioned this," Flanagan said, "but early in your career, they tell you you're See ORIOLES, 4B, Col. 1ORIOLES, from 1Dlucky to be left-handed, because you can pitch a long time if you're healthy."

He pitched for 13 years in Baltimore before the Orioles traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1987. He won 23 games and a Cy Young Award on the way to the World Series in 1979. He won 15 games or more five times in six seasons from 1977-1982. He would be a perfect addition for the club's final year at Memorial Stadium. It's just a matter of winning a job.

"It's just great to have him here," said general manager Roland Hemond, who always has been a sucker for a little nostalgia. "I think it shows our young players how much it means to a veteran to continue his career. It shows how much he loves the game and doesn't want to part with it."

Flanagan wasn't ready to part with it last year, but he was released by the Blue Jays early in the season and decided not to catch on with anyone else until he was sure his arm was up to major-league standards. It wasn't so much that he was hurting, but his poor performance left him wondering if there was any physical reason why he wasn't effective.

"It's hard to say what happened," he said. "A couple of innings is all we got after the lockout last year. The Jays didn't get off to a good start. They had three left-handers all struggling. I was the oldest."

He had his arm thoroughly evaluated by two sports-medicine specialists and concluded that there was nothing wrong that couldn't be corrected with exercise. The Orioles inquired about him at the time, but Flanagan decided to rethink his mechanics and spent the rest of the year working his way back into shape.

"I've been throwing since August," he said. "I always intended to do the therapy to get my shoulder back in shape, but you don't know what interest there is going to be."

But a chance meeting with Hemond at the Hall of Fame ceremonies last August let him know that there might be some in Baltimore.

"We were in the auditorium," he said. "The ceremony had been forced inside by rain. My family and I were sitting by Roland purely by accident. We got to talking and he said, 'If you're feeling up to it, give us a call.' He extended an invitation to use the stadium to work out. I had always worked out there in the winter, even when I was with the Blue Jays."

The actual invitation was not just a courtesy call. Both Elrod Hendricks and Cal Ripken Sr. told Hemond that Flanagan was throwing well enough to warrant a trip to Sarasota. Both Robinson and Hemond say there is a job to be won and they would like to see Flanagan win it.

"I think the feeling's mutual," Flanagan said. "If I thought my arm ,, couldn't handle it, I wouldn't have come to camp. I felt I was throwing too well to give up. I'll know if my arm can't take it. No one will have to tell me."

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