Sitting in the press booth at Ripken Stadium on Wednesday night following Aberdeen's 4-2 loss to Connecticut, I was approached by the IronBirds' radio man and public relations chief, Towney Godfrey, who, according to post-game ritual, asked me which team members I'd like to interview.
Still a bit fried from a chaotic week at the Ripken World Series, and feeling unsure about lobbing questions at a manager who'd just watched his team squander a very good ninth-inning opportunity to tie or possibly win the ballgame, I opted to skip a session with Aberdeen skipper Leo Gomez, and asked instead for players Matt Hobgood and Joe Velleggia.
Towney said that he'd track down the players I'd requested, then solemnly informed me that Gomez's former Oriole teammate, pitcher Mike Flanagan, had been found dead outside of his Monkton home earlier that evening.
After conducting my interviews, I went back to the booth to finish the game story, then hung around to watch MASN's post-game coverage with a few IronBirds' employees. Still a bit in shock, it was watching Jim Palmer, the smoothest and most aloof man ever to step on a pitching mound or slide behind an announcer's table, almost break down sobbing while reminiscing about his teammate and friend that conveyed to me just what we'd all lost with Flanagan's passing.
Flanagan, a member of the Orioles' Hall of Fame, was the best pitcher on the last of Baltimore's championship teams, going 23-9 and winning a Cy Young Award in 1979 when the O's went to the World Series, where they should have beat the Pirates, and battling back from a knee injury in 1983 to win four of his six starts in September, helping Baltimore secure an AL East title en route to its World Series victory over the Phillies.
After wrapping up his playing career, during which he won 141 games as an Oriole, he served two stints as the Orioles pitching coach, was Baltimore's general manager (or whatever messy, lumbering title the Orioles' front office likes to use), and was a member of the team's television broadcast team on three different occasions. To tie all that together on a personal level, Flanagan arguably gave more of his time than any other person trying to make my favorite sports franchise better.
Though I was aware of the Orioles from as early as I can remember, let's say three years old, it was not until 1986, when I was a six-year-old first grader, that I began to become a serious fan of Baltimore baseball. That year, I attended my first game at Memorial Stadium, a 3-0 loss to Toronto, if I remember correctly, began collecting baseball cards, and started watching and listening to broadcasts of Orioles games with my father.
At that time, like most six-year-olds who are lucky enough to grow up with a father present, my real-life hero was my dad (my fictional hero was Han Solo, and my semi-fictional hero was Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka). To me, he seemed the smartest, strongest, funniest guy in the universe, and I idolized him. As he and I bonded over baseball, it became clear to me that my hero was in awe of the baseball players, especially those who were part of what turned out to be the end of the Orioles' dynasty years. He spoke reverently of Scotty McGregor, Eddie Murray, Rick Dempsey, Dennis Martinez, Palmer and that left-handed sinkerball pitcher who left the club in 1987 to pitch for Toronto, a guy named Flanny, who, according to dad, would have wrapped up the '79 World Series, if the lineup had given him some runs, in game five. Watching the power the players had over my father, their ability to excite and confound him, make him howl in misery and in joy, elevated their stature even more. They were my hero's heroes, so that made them gods in my mind. Mike Flanagan was one of those gods, and now he's no longer with us.
In 1992, the first year the Orioles played at Camden Yards, and the final season of Flanagan's 18-year career, which he spent in Baltimore pitching out of the bullpen, I attended a game in early May with my friend, Trey, and his family. The Orioles' were playing the formidable Chicago White Sox, which then featured Frank Thomas, George Bell, Jack McDowell and Bobby Thigpen. Our group was seated in the left field bleachers, a few rows back from the wall, and just right of the bullpen area.
Around the fourth inning, Flanagan began warming up, prompting Trey and I to navigate over to some empty seats directly along the bullpen fence. With our noses poking through the fence, we watched the 40-year-old hurler firing fastballs that seemed to defy the laws of physics as we knew them, suddenly dropping down and toward the left-hand batter's box just as they reached the plate.
To that point in my life, I had seen a few curveballs, a couple of which made me dive out of the batter's box before they broke back down for strikes, but nothing of the world-class variety. As we watched, Flanagan made a small back and forth signal with his glove to warn the catcher that a breaking ball was coming, and he then snapped off a pitch that made the hair on the back of my arms stand up. It was one of those things that you aren't prepared to see, that is so alien to your sensibilities that it takes you a few moments to register what you just witnessed.
The ball seemed to break about four feet after traveling in a perfectly straight line for 58 feet. It was the curveball of a god, and seeing it created one of my most indelible memories. Thanks Flanny, you will be missed.