The last hurrah for Flanagan? Non-roster invitee giving comeback another go-round

February 22, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It is the first week of spring training and already the gloves are popping. Left-hander Brad Pennington is trying to clear the last rung of the player development ladder. Several minor-league journeymen are in camp looking to get ahead. The competition figures to be fierce.

Mike Flanagan is here, too, and he is hoping he has one more comeback in his 41-year-old arm.

He has come to Twin Lakes Park as a non-contract, non-roster invitee for the second time in three years, again looking like a long shot to make the major-league pitching staff. He thought about retiring before coming to camp along with Hall of Famer Jim Palmer in 1991, but not this time.

This time, baseball has issued a challenge that he cannot ignore. has told him -- by way of an 8.05 ERA in 1992 -- that maybe it's time to break out the fishing gear for good. The question is whether he'll get a true chance to prove otherwise.

"I just don't think last year was a true barometer," Flanagan said yesterday. "I want to show that 1991 was more indicative of my ability than last year."

The Orioles obviously have their doubts. His last contract included a club option on the 1993 season, but the team chose instead to release him in October and pursue other options. There is room to wonder if his presence at camp this year is merely a courtesy any team would afford a pitcher who is among the greatest in its history, but club officials insist he'll get a legitimate opportunity to make the major-league roster.

"We invited him because our people said he was throwing well," general manager Roland Hemond said. "He was throwing better this year than last year. And we recognize that last year, there were three or four outings in blowout games that had an effect on his overall numbers. He deserved the opportunity to come in, so by all means, we wanted him to come."

The similarities to 1991 are striking. The Orioles allowed Flanagan to work out at Memorial Stadium during the winter that year and he got rave reviews from coaches Elrod Hendricks and Cal Ripken Sr. He worked out this year at Oriole Park and again impressed the coaching staff.

Flanagan, however, prefers to dwell on the dissimilarities between 1991 and 1992 when he justifies his attempt to remain in the major leagues. He came into 1991 as a struggling starting pitcher and evolved into a very successful reliever. He came into '92 as a successful reliever, but struggled to adjust to a different bullpen chemistry.

"In '91, I came in with a completely open mind," he said. "I had sat out almost all of the 1990 season. I didn't know what to expect. It ended up being the best-case scenario for somebody in the bullpen -- a lot of work, a lot of appearances and a lot of innings. Last year, with Johnny going with one left-hander in the bullpen, I thought it would be even better, but I just didn't know how to handle it."

He never figured that he would get less work as the only left-hander, but Oates was forced to save him for spot situations that often didn't materialize. Then he was forced to use Flanagan in blowout games to try to keep him sharp.

"The starters were going good and they were throwing complete games," Flanagan said. "I didn't pitch at home in April last year. But you couldn't complain about that. You have to take it when it comes.

"There were too many games where we were up 7-1 or down 7-1. They'd say, let's save him for tomorrow. Too many tomorrows came and went. It was a vicious chain reaction."

The numbers are a little deceptive. Flanagan did not allow an earned run in 18 of his first 22 appearances, but he went into a deep June slump in which he allowed 21 of 25 batters to reach base in a seven-game stretch. More than half of the earned runs he gave up last year (18 of 34) came in three games. His ERA in his other 39 appearances was a far more respectable 4.41.

"I'm never going to be a good mop-up pitcher," he said. "In '91, it was a good role. Last year, it was hard to find a motivating factor."

Now there is motivation everywhere. There is motivation to prove that last year was an aberration. There is motivation to compete with the long list of twenty-something pitchers who have been brought in to compete for the last spot on the pitching staff. Oates concedes that Flanagan has a mountain to climb, but he isn't ruling anything out.

"There are pitchers on this staff who are signed, sealed and delivered, no matter what they do here," Oates said, "but there are certain cases where they have to just do it. If Pennington pitches well, he's going north with us. If Poole throws the way I think he will, he's going north, too. These other guys are all in the same situation. They are fighting for their lives."

Flanagan has less to lose. He was willing to hang it up after the 1990 season. He had turned in a stellar career as a starting pitcher before coming to an unhappy end with the Toronto Blue Jays. He accepted the invitation to come to spring training with ++ the Orioles, but he seemed comfortable with the concept of going home for good if it had come to that.

He's not ready to say that this year -- not yet, at least. He has to know he's a long shot, but he has been there before.

"I don't know how long the odds are," he said, "but I couldn't have told you what the odds were in '91, either."

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