Death of Mike Flanagan, Orioles great, leaves shadows of doubt

A year after former Oriole's suicide, wife describes his long fight with depression

August 18, 2012|Dan Rodricks

"Did you ever notice Mike when he came off the mound after a good inning?" asks Alex Flanagan, widow of the Orioles Hall-of-Famer who committed suicide a year ago. "He always had his head down."

That provokes a vivid memory of No. 46, the smart pitcher who studied all and fooled many of the 11,684 batters he faced over 18 major league seasons. He was the long-haired lefty with a mustache who won the American League Cy Young Award in the Orioles' 1979 World Series season. He was all business on the mound, and Alex is correct about Mike's demeanor during his walk to the dugout after most of his 2,770 innings: head down, serious, pondering what he had just done well or not so well.

Maybe it was modesty, or a taciturn manner he'd picked up in his native New England. But maybe Mike was sullen and full of doubt, too.

"Most people won't believe it," says Alex, in her first interview since her husband's death, "but I don't think Mike ever believed in himself. He felt like a failure. And there were times when he hated himself and felt that he was a fake, that he had just been lucky. ... He was self-effacing in his humor, that was part of his charm, but that was a cover for insecurity."

Perhaps we make too much of the head-down walk. Certainly, other pitchers have carried themselves that way. But considering how Mike's life ended last year at the age of 59 — with a shotgun blast Aug. 24 on the grounds of his stone farmhouse in Baltimore County — everything becomes the subject of reflection and questions.

Those of us who were his friends — I was a fishing companion of Mike's for 20 years — have been trying to understand, searching for clues in the things he said and did. The person closest to him, of course, was Alex. She saw a Mike Flanagan of doubt and pain the rest of us missed.

He had financial pressures, she says, in part from a lapse of steady income between jobs as the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations and as color commentator on game telecasts, that caused him to dip deeply into savings and into his player pension. He expressed resentment about the way he was treated after he lost his front-office job in 2008. He asked if I wanted to write a book about "the demise of a great baseball franchise," then put the idea on hold after he started working as an Orioles broadcaster again in 2010.

Those issues, money pressures and career disappointments, were the explanations that trickled out in the immediate aftermath of Mike's death. But they seemed too simple.

"The public wanted a reason why Mike killed himself," Alex says. "They wanted accountability and to blame something or someone. They needed a reason for an unreasonable act, and I understand because I've gone through all these questions myself."

Absent what she calls "a definitive answer to an impossible question," Alex shares observations about Mike, hoping they provide missing details. First and foremost, she says, he was depressed, and for a long time.

"He used to talk about shadows," she says in the den of the farmhouse, a couple of dogs and some packing crates nearby. "He would say, 'Sometimes there's this shadow that comes into my life,' and he wouldn't see anything good, just these shadows. ... He would see the world in black and white, without color."

She says Mike saw a psychiatrist for 20 years, but wonders whether he and his doctor were ever able to identify the source of the shadows.

"Mike always wanted to be the one who told people the good news," she says, suggesting that he had not been candid with his doctor. "He never wanted to be the bearer of bad news."

Especially about himself.

"Mike didn't talk or share much with anyone, which is what I wanted from him more than anything else," Alex says. "He was never fully able to open up. He was ashamed of not being perfect, he was afraid of hurting anyone."

In all the times I went fishing with him — he always caught more trout than I did, but never bragged — Mike rarely opened up about problems, and I didn't pry. He'd sometimes briefly vent about the frustrations of trying to make the Orioles a winning franchise again. He shared unhappiness about his status in the organization after his stint as vice president. He expressed disappointment and sadness that the widow of Elrod Hendricks, the beloved Orioles catcher and bullpen coach, suggested that the club had treated her husband — Mike's longtime friend — poorly in the weeks before his fatal heart attack in December 2005.

But most of the time with me, Mike was affable and funny, telling dozens of stories about his teammates from the 1970s and '80s. He certainly never mentioned money problems or seeing a psychiatrist.

Alex goes back to Mike's dugout walk — head down, even after striking out the side. Something haunted him, and she's convinced it went clear back to his childhood in New Hampshire.

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