Flanagan, O's Ellis both happy to pitch in

Broadcaster, coach double-team hill woes

Baseball

May 16, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The arrangement is little different from years before, when pitching coaches Ray Miller and Bruce Kison would seek Mike Flanagan out for his insight, his dry wit or maybe just a cigarette. Now, as the Orioles' seventh pitching coach in as many seasons, it is Sammy Ellis' turn.

But in earlier days, Mike Mussina wasn't a pending free agent nor 1-5.

Jason Johnson had yet to arrive at Camden Yards as a start-to-start enigma.

And Flanagan was allowed to move about quietly, serving a multiple role as Home Team Sports broadcaster, pitching consultant, former teammate and low-key clubhouse humorist.

The Orioles begin today's six-game road trip ranked last in the American League in pitching with a 6.03 ERA, 2.57 runs higher than league-leading Boston (3.46) and 1.26 runs higher than the team's season-ending figure from 1999.

Given Mussina's statement May 9 in Toronto that he didn't care "what was in bounds or out of bounds" in regards to seeking help from his ex-teammate Flanagan, mixed signals were unintentionally sent. What sounded like a rupture is instead an extension of an arrangement forged by Ellis, manager Mike Hargrove and Flanagan this spring. If the Orioles' frustrating pitching woes are too heavy for one man to lift, then all three may have success pulling together.

"A lot of it sounds like I'm shutting out Sammy to talk to Flanny. That's not true at all," Mussina said. "I've known Flanny a long time. He knows me. Don't you think it would be pretty stupid if I didn't use that kind of relationship to my benefit and the benefit of the team?"

If that means Mussina approaches Flanagan on a team charter, as he did last week coming home from Toronto, fine.

"This isn't about ego or who gets credit," said Ellis. "This is about us having success as a team. However we can do that is great with me. Mike Flanagan knows a tremendous amount about pitching. He's been around these guys a long time. What a great resource."

`The last thing I want is to be pitching coach again," said Flanagan, who has done so twice in the past five years and found neither experience satisfying.

The Orioles have again begun a season under a microscope. The same negative tendencies that ruined last season have shown themselves again. As Ellis tries to fix what is broken, he is still considered part of the solution rather than the problem. Meanwhile, Mussina has endured one win in nine starts, Johnson began the season in the minors after being projected as No. 3 starter in the rotation, no starter has won since April 29 and Scott Erickson is only two starts removed from a two-month rehabilitation following arthroscopic elbow surgery.

"It's way too early in the season to start pointing fingers. I like Sammy. He does a good job. He's very knowledgeable," Hargrove said following Sunday's 10-1 loss.

"It won't continue like this," Ellis promised, "because it can't."

Last season's rough ride might serve as both cautionary tale and inspiration for Ellis. During the Orioles' early meltdown, majority owner Peter Angelos asked then-manager Miller if he wanted to dismiss his pitching coach, Kison. Miller instead protected Kison, and the angular, blunt coach eventually established an easier rapport with Mussina and Erickson. After Kison and his veterans reached middle ground, the staff ended the season with the league's fourth-best ERA. A bullpen that suffered 20 blown saves in the first half blew only five in the second.

"A lot of people thought we hated Kison. That's not true," said Mussina. "It's just that he brought in his own deal and we had our routines. After a while we meshed them together and I thought it worked well."

Flanagan, the 1979 AL Cy Young Award winner and Mussina's former teammate, is understated and laid-back cool; Ellis, a 22-game winner with the 1965 Cincinnati Reds who as pitching coach tutored Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage and Greg Maddux, among others, is old school. While Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone rocks nervously on the bench when his pitchers find trouble, Ellis, his face offset by a headful of white hair, turns beet red.

Ellis' personality hasn't represented an obstacle, say all parties involved. Both men are described as unfailingly positive; both are approachable. Overcoming almost a decade of incessant turnover is the greater challenge.

"They've never established continuity here for the pitchers," said Mussina. "Flanny's the only one who's seen us year in and year out. After a while, you get used to taking care of yourself because you're never sure who'll be around the next season."

"It's a learning process -- for me and for them," Ellis said. "I'm becoming more comfortable with them and I'm sure they're becoming more comfortable with me."

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