Mixed reverie Flanagan had fine '91, but team losses hurt him

February 25, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- For Mike Flanagan, 1991 was a bittersweet season.

While the Orioles were matching the fourth-worst record (67-95) in club history, the veteran lefthander was experiencing one of the most memorable seasons of his career.

"It was one of my most satisfying years because I did something I didn't know I could do -- pitch in relief," Flanagan said after going through his fourth workout of the spring here yesterday. "I'm proud of having pitched in 64 games.

"I'm sure a lot of people didn't think I could do that, because I didn't know if I could do it. Looking back, I don't know if I would have been as successful as a starter."

As rewarding as the year was for Flanagan personally, it was also frustrating. His 2-7 record mirrored the fortunes of the Orioles. His 2.38 earned run average and 98 1/3 innings (fourth highest among American League relievers) were better indicators of his performance.

That wasn't enough, however, to take the sting out of the club's disappointing season.

"I suffered through every one of those 95 losses," he said. "When I came back [after being traded to Toronto in 1986 and released four years later], it was like the old days to me. It was like [Earl] Weaver was still in the dugout."

After being invited to camp as a non-roster player, Flanagan had no idea what role, if any, he would play. As it turned out, he might have been the team's best starter.

Instead, he ended up in the bullpen -- where he hopes to finish his career. "Now that I've done it, that's where I want to be," said Flanagan.

Had circumstances been different, he admits he probably wouldn't even have attempted a comeback last spring.

"If I had gone through a full spring training, then gotten knocked around and released, I probably would've just hung it up," he said.

"But the [1990] lockout made it unusual. I didn't think that two innings in spring training and 20 in the regular season was enough to prove I was finished.

"It [the abbreviated spring training] didn't hurt the 20-year-olds, but it hurt me. It left a big question in my mind."

That big question put Flanagan on a mission -- and manager John Oates feels the Orioles will benefit the same way with Rick Sutcliffe this year.

Returning to the Orioles last season was very special for Flanagan. Once he made the team, his burning ambition was to throw the last pitch in Memorial Stadium history. "That would have been the ultimate," he said. But that game became loss No. 95 and Flanagan had to settle for being the last Oriole to throw a pitch in the old park.

Few of the Orioles could understand Flanagan's feelings for a simple reason. They hadn't experienced what he had during a brilliant period of the club's history.

"As it got closer, I remember thinking 'it's going to happen -- you're going to be in there,' " he said. "It was a very difficult day -- a very difficult weekend for me, period. I felt I was carrying the weight of a whole generation of players when I went out there. It wasn't just for me; it was for Scotty [McGregor], Bod [Mike Boddicker], Singy [Ken Singleton], Dennis [Martinez], Jim [Palmer], Demper [Rick Dempsey], Richie [Dauer] and all of those guys.

"That's why I walked into the game, instead of running as I had done the whole season. I was thinking about all of those things -- and I needed time to get myself under control."

When the game and ensuing ceremonies were over, it took Flanagan almost an hour to compose himself enough to talk about what had taken place.

"One of the most satisfying things about that day," said Flanagan, who struck out the only two batters he faced in the top of the ninth, "was Gregg Olson coming to me afterward and saying, 'Now I know how you feel.'

"A lot of guys just didn't understand -- until that day."

All that is in the past now. Flanagan's fondest memories always will be of the things that happened at Memorial Stadium, but his career moves into its final stage at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

This time, there doesn't appear to be any uncertainty about his immediate future. Last year, in keeping with his quick wit, Flanagan joked that he either would open the baseball or fishing season in April.

Now he has a contract with an option for another year. At the age of 40, he can look ahead, not behind.

"One thing that makes him valuable to us is that we don't have to worry about him facing righthanded hitters," said Oates. "Sometimes, that saves a pitcher at a crucial time."

Still, one thing about his new role that benefits Flanagan is the fact he faces a lot of lefthanded hitters. He has always been tough against lefthanders [they hit only .181 against him last year, the lowest average in the American League], and as a starter he often faced a lineup stacked with righthanders.

With a dominating righthander like Olson behind Flanagan, opposing managers are not as quick to remove lefthanded hitters.

"What satisfies me the most is to keep Olson out of the eighth inning," said Flanagan. "If I can get past the eighth, that gives him a fresh start in the ninth. And one of my strengths is that I can pitch to righthanded hitters, and I appreciate the fact that Johnny [Oates] has the confidence to let me do it."

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