Ace uncovered

With staff hurting, pitcher finally got to settle in

Mike Boddicker

July 23, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Die-hard Orioles fans could have been forgiven for feeling tinges of panic when Mike Flanagan hobbled off the mound on May 17, 1983.

With Jim Palmer already on the shelf and Dennis Martinez unable to find any consistency, Flanagan's twisted knee made him the third mangled piece of the club's projected pitching puzzle.

Flanagan's injury occurred in the first half of a doubleheader against the slugging Chicago White Sox. Set to take the mound in Game 2 was a lithe Iowan named Mike Boddicker, who had come to Baltimore for brief stretches of the previous three seasons.

The humble farm boy was running out of chances to crack the Orioles' vaunted rotation. The previous year, when he had been sent down, he had promised manager Earl Weaver that if another club claimed him as a minor league free agent, he would stick it to the Orioles forever and ever.

Fortunately for Boddicker and the Orioles, that eventuality never arose.

Thrown into the breach that May evening, he pitched a shutout, striking out eight White Sox. It was the perfect opening to a brilliant rookie season in which Boddicker would win 16 games and set a record for strikeouts in an American League Championship Series game.

The rookie's ability to slide in for Palmer and Flanagan was an emblematic story line for a championship team full of unexpected and unsung heroes.

"We kind of all felt it would be our year in spring training," Flanagan said. "Then we had the rash of injuries, and usually that would be your death knell. But it didn't work out that way with our club."

Flanagan still keeps a photograph on his office wall depicting Boddicker's mock gratitude for the knee injury that gave him his chance.

"Mike went from a longtime Triple-A pitcher to, really, the ace of the staff in a very short period of time," Flanagan said. "Amazing."

Boddicker was always one to deflect credit, so perhaps it's not surprising he remembers few specifics from his glorious rookie run.

"I'm 50 years old," he said from his daughter's home in Kansas, where he was finishing some painting. "I barely remember what happened yesterday."

Boddicker grew up in Norway, a farm town of 633 near Cedar Rapids. He was a star strikeout pitcher at the University of Iowa and vaulted to Triple-A Rochester less than a year after the Orioles picked him in the sixth round in 1978.

He got called up to make his first big league start in late 1980, but for the next 2 1/2 seasons, he was stuck. Boddicker became such a familiar figure around Rochester he joked that a mayoral run seemed in the cards.

That's how it went in an organization where every rotation spot was held by an established standout. "It was hard to be bitter under the circumstances," he said.

Even when Boddicker was called up in May 1983 because of Palmer's bad neck, general manager Hank Peters told him not to give up his Triple-A apartment.

After all, Palmer's injury seemed minor and Flanagan was rolling along at 6-0, throwing better than he had since his Cy Young Award season in 1979. "It seemed like one of those years when everything was falling into place for me," he said.

Then, Flanagan's spike caught in the mound at Memorial Stadium, and his knee popped in and out. The previously indestructible left-hander had to begin a 12-week stint on the disabled list. Enter Boddicker.

Veteran teammates couldn't believe the new starter's focus, his ability to drop a perfect 3-2 breaking ball on the most dangerous hitter, his ruthlessness when he nosed ahead in the late innings.

Boddicker, in turn, couldn't believe how well he was treated. Flanagan cracked him up with the driest sense of humor he had encountered. The veterans always seemed loose, whether in the eighth inning of a tie game or at a day-off picnic at Ken Singleton's house.

And their store of knowledge? Incredible. For every hitter, the Orioles had a codified plan of attack. Ted Simmons? He could still murder fastballs. Rod Carew? Throw him slow, slower and slowest.

"They really made it very simple for me," Boddicker said.

As the season rolled on, the rookie got better and better. He saved his signature game for the ALCS, the night after Scott McGregor lost a nailbiter in Game 1 against the White Sox. Flanagan remembered pulling into the parking lot behind Boddicker that day and watching the rookie unfold himself from the back of a cramped Nissan hatchback.

Despite his humble ride, Boddicker was regal on the mound that day, duping the burly Sox with his fastball, curve and foshball (a split-finger changeup). Asked about his 14-strikout masterpiece, Boddicker typically took little credit.

"I remember that Durwood Merrill was behind the plate," he said. "And he had a very large strike zone."

Boddicker said his only goal that postseason was to pitch as well as McGregor, who also fooled hitters with junk and guile rather than blinding speed. "I figured if he could do it, I could do it," Boddicker said.

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