Flanagan's spring is study in relief

JOHN EISENBERG

March 23, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Subtitle this "The Continuing Education of Mike Flanagan, Spring Semester." (In which he attempts to make sense of his first spring training in the bullpen.)

"I wish I could say I was feeling just right," he said yesterday, VTC "but I'm not sure how I'm supposed to be feeling."

Yes. Well. He can always ask somebody: Say, Elrod, how am I feeling? Don't laugh. That's what he's been doing for the past year, since he became a relief pitcher after 18 years and 165 wins as a starter. Asking questions. Wondering if what he was feeling was what he was supposed to be feeling.

When he first began coming out of the bullpen last season, for instance, he would warm up for a few minutes after the call from the dugout and then turn to bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks.

"Well, are you ready to go in?" Hendricks would ask.

"I don't know, you tell me," Flanagan would say. "Am I ready?"

He had no clue. He understood the mysterious tickings and tockings of his arm as a starter, but this relief business was different.

"I'd watch Frohwirth and Williamson and the other relievers throw eight pitches [warming up] and turn and say they were ready, and I'd think, 'How the hell are they doing that?' " Flanagan said. "I couldn't believe it. What I did was ask a lot of questions."

How do you get ready? What does your arm feel like when you're ready? Do you want it entirely loose in the bullpen? Do you save something for the warm-up pitches on the mound?

"Mike was going to school, basically," Hendricks said.

It didn't take long for the material to take hold. "About a month," he said. Not that he was ever entirely comfortable with every aspect of the job, baseball's high-stress champion. Dan Quisenberry once said a reliever has to be a little stupid. Flanagan understands now.

"It's such a roller coaster," he said. "One day you save a game and you're a hero, and the next day you give up one bloop single and you're the goat. You either have to be super-intelligent and know how to deal with it, or be an idiot and not let it bother you. I don't know which I am. A little bit of both, I think."

Whatever, he adapted with an assuredness that startled everyone. Starting out as a non-roster camper coming off a sore-armed year, he wound up one of the best relievers in the American League. Only three threw more innings. And no pitchers, starters or relievers, were tougher on left-handed hitters.

His 64 appearances were the second-most by a left-hander in club history, one short of the record. He also shares the club record for starts in a season, 40. Now, there's a tough exacta.

"I'm real proud of being able to do that," he said. "I'm proud about the whole [1991] season. It was a real scary year, the way things went so well. I was really torn. I'd never thought about myself. It was always 'the team, the team, the team.' Now, we were losing a lot, but I was getting personal satisfaction.

"I got a kick out of getting out of jams, being able to get the team through the eighth without needing [Gregg] Olson. It was all so fresh, a new set of things to accomplish. That's great after 20 years."

After a while, the question he kept asking was this: Am I supposed to feel this good? His arm got stronger as the year went on, to the point that he was throwing 88 and 90 mph the last month.

"I hadn't thrown that hard in 10 years," he said. "I got locked into a groove, and it never let up. It was too bad the season had to end."

But they always do, and Flanagan found himself back in school again, wondering how to treat his arm in the off-season and spring. How often to throw. How many pitches to throw. How his arm should feel.

Of course, he understands better than most that all pitching is an inexact science, an amoeba, always changing. For years, he has kept a list of "focus points" on index cards, to help him concentrate. The list changes every year.

"I look at the things that were working last year, and they don't work now," he said. "So you're always adjusting, listening to your arm. Throw in the relief thing, and it's made for a spring that's a little strange.

"I knew the starter's spring routine, when I'd go through the dead-arm period, things like that. Now, I'm at the point where I'm throwing one good pitch, one bad pitch, and I don't know if that's right or not for right now. I just know my arm doesn't hurt, so nothing could be too bad."

No. And the Orioles aren't worried anyway.

"He could throw another three, four, five years at the rate he's going," Hendricks said. "Everything's fine. There are a lot of things that are different for him, yes. But Mike can pick up just about anything."

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