Flanagan the man to make a good-faith pitch to fans

October 12, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

Find more starting pitching. Find an everyday first baseman. Find outfielders with more power. Find another closer if B.J. Ryan bolts.

Those would seem to be the top items on Mike Flanagan's to-do list as he sets out - by himself now - to try to right the Orioles after eight straight losing seasons, a daunting task if ever there was one.

But another must-do belongs even higher on his list:

Give the fans a reason to feel positive about the team instead of disgusted by it.

Restore the organization's dignity and self-respect.

That is by far the most important improvement the Orioles need to make after a 2005 season so depressing, it has caused more than a few fans to contemplate giving up.

Winning always soothes such hard feelings, so Flanagan, 53, obviously needs to concentrate on making that happen. But in the wake of a long year of steroids, DUIs, managerial firings and wicked hard falls, the Orioles desperately need to improve their public face, win or lose, and Flanagan can accomplish that by being accountable, witty, forthcoming and interesting - all things he naturally is, and all things the Orioles have lacked.

All he needs to do is step forward and become the face of the team himself, not the semi-recluse he strangely became at times when he shared the club's baseball decision-making with Jim Beattie.

Just by being himself, and by letting people see him being himself, he can give the Orioles a public relations boost they sorely need while he goes about putting together the team.

"I think you have to do both things. I think both of them are important. I see both as part of my job," he said yesterday.

His is a public face that plays well in this town, which reveres the past like a beloved family member. The popular former pitcher and broadcaster is a link to the glory days, an Orioles lifer, a guy who settled here, a guy who gets it.

He was immense after pitcher Steve Bechler's death in 2003, simultaneously exuding sadness, compassion and common sense, his priorities firmly in order. You knew the organization's response to the tragedy was in good hands.

That's why it was surprising to see him shrink from the spotlight recently; he had always been voluble, insightful and entertaining, his two cents and sense of humor always welcomed going all the way back to his playing days. But now he was around and/or available only occasionally, even less than Beattie.

What changed? Did the pressure and responsibility of the weightier role get to him? Was it that he shared the job and was afraid to step on Beattie's toes?

"It was not a conscious effort [to be less available]. I'm a little surprised at that [perception]," he said. "I felt I was around more. Maybe I wasn't visible on the field, but I was in the office working."

Whatever the explanation, Flanagan was a front-line player with a back-line profile. That can't happen anymore. The team needs him.

When people think of the Orioles now, they think of owner Peter Angelos, the lone constant through eight losing years; and if they don't think of Angelos, they think of Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson. To say the least, the story needs to change. And Flanagan is nothing if not a good storyteller.

He played with Brooks and Cal, pitched to Elrod and Dempsey, but far from being stuck in the past, now embraces the value of psychological testing in assessing players.

Given the events of the past six months, it's a good time for him to become the story.

Is he the right guy to turn around the team? Who knows? It's going to be hard to sign top free agents, and even harder competing with the Yankees and Red Sox, who spend so much more on salaries. Angelos' intermittent involvement can be, um, tricky.

But it's a good sign that Flanagan understands that the long-dormant minor league system is the priority, that it must produce if the Orioles are going to compete. And of course, now that he is working alone, there's no more of the vague two-headed arrangement, which seemed to produce a hesitant style.

"I'm very excited. This is a pretty special journey," Flanagan said.

It's asking too much to expect a full-blown return of the famously sly, dry-witted Flanagan who was once a back-of-the-bus wiseacre. His new job is just too stressful.

"In this line, you never really have a chance to sit back and enjoy it," he said.

But the Orioles need a semblance of that Flanagan; need it now more than ever, in fact. Their public face is crying out for a makeover.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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