Flanagan on a quiet comeback

March 11, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The "other" comeback is coming along quite nicely, even if left-hander Mike Flanagan isn't getting quite the same kind of attention that routinely has been paid to past and present teammate Jim Palmer.

Flanagan made an impressive 1991 exhibition debut yesterday, bucking a stiff wind to pitch three scoreless innings in the Baltimore Orioles' 6-3 victory in 10 innings over the New York Yankees at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, but he wasn't ready to proclaim his comeback a success quite yet.

"The first time out in spring training, you don't want to get too judgmental," he said. "I would have liked to work on my breaking ball more, but the weather wouldn't permit. I just did the things you have to do."

He did more than that. He followed first-round draft choice Mike Mussina to the mound and retired the Yankees in order in the fourth and fifth innings. New York shortstop Alvaro Espinoza opened the sixth with a single, but Flanagan got the next three batters to retire the side.

"I don't think you ever come to the point where you say, 'That was great,' " he said, "but it was a good start. You don't get too excited, but you allow yourself to build on this one. If you go out and you're brutal, you have to break it down and start over. This way, you can take the good things and work from there."

Perhaps this is the real comeback story of spring. Flanagan is only about a year removed from his last major-league appearance. He was released by the Toronto Blue Jays last May and has been working to return since.

The Orioles invited him to camp with a specific role in mind. The club is short on left-handed pitching depth, and Flanagan could RTC fit in as a swingman (middle relief and spot starter) in the Baltimore bullpen. But manager Frank Robinson would not be specific about what it would take to win a place on the team.

"It's not just one thing," he said. "It won't be just the way he throws the ball here. It won't be just results. It's a matter of, at the end of spring, is he capable of getting people out and helping the ballclub."

Palmer's comeback is getting most of the publicity, but the club won't know what to do with him if it turns out that he still is a viable major-league pitcher. Even he admits that the odds against his pitching in the majors again are prohibitive. Flanagan is not chasing rainbows. There's a job here if he's up to it.

"I try not to even think about that," he said. "I think it's possible to have a great spring and not make it, and it's possible to have a mediocre spring and still make it, so what's the point of worrying about it? All I can do is what I can do, and whatever happens happens. They've gone out of their way to get me all the work I need. That's all anybody can ask."

The decision to come to camp with the Orioles -- as opposed to trying out somewhere else -- was not a tough one. Flanagan received what amounted to an open invitation from general manager Roland Hemond at last year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

He worked out at Memorial Stadium during the off-season and impressed the coaching staff so much that the club was happy to have him as a spring-training candidate.

"I would hope that's the situation," Flanagan said. "I don't think I would have come if I thought there was some kind of political pressure to bring me in. It wasn't that way. I agreed to come here because I know the coaching staff and I know the spring-training routine and I know what is expected of me. There is a certain amount of comfort that comes from that."

His performance yesterday must have provided a certain amount of comfort for Robinson, who still can't be sure what kind of relief he'll get from the left side this year.

Setup man Kevin Hickey is throwing well, but was erratic in 1990. Joe Price is back in camp after months of contract haggling, but cannot pitch at the major-league level until May 1. Rookie Mike Linskey is high on the club's depth chart, but probably won't start the season on the major-league roster.

The club hopes Flanagan can establish himself as a dependable pitcher and provide some experience and stability in the process.

"Flanny is Flanny," Robinson said. "He knows how to pitch and he knows what to do out there. If he does what he's capable of doing, he's got a chance to make this ballclub."

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