Such a sad story, the Mike Flanagan passing — which now appears to be a suicide.
He died Wednesday afternoon at his home in Maryland, at the age of 59. The shocking death has led to a steady stream of reporters’ personal memories. My favorite probably was the piece by ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, who retold one classic “Flanny” one-liner after another.
One of my favorites:
I covered a game in 1991 in which Orioles DH/first baseman Sam Horn struck out six times consecutively, the first non-pitcher in AL history to do that. After the game, I went to Flanagan. “Three strikeouts is a hat trick,” he said, “four is a sombrero, five is a golden sombrero and from now on, six will be known as a Horn. Seven will be a Horn-A-Plenty.”
Flanagan pitched 18 seasons in the major leagues, all but three with the Orioles. He was 167-143, winning the 1979 Cy Young (23-9, 3.08 ERA, five shutouts) and helping Baltimore win the 1983 world championship.
The crafty lefty with the sick curveball also had a very impressive career against the Tigers, the old American League East rivals. His 18 wins against Detroit are the most he had against any one team, and he had a 3.66 ERA in 49 games (42 starts).
Two games against the Tigers probably stand out more than the others.
The first was in September 1987, when Flanagan — a midseason addition by the postseason-hungry Blue Jays — took the mound at Tiger Stadium in Game 161, with the teams tied in the standings, at 96-64. The classic weekend would be most remembered for the next day’s game, when Larry Herndon homered into a stiff breeze and Frank Tanana shut out the Blue Jays as the Tigers celebrated their unlikely (and last) division championship.
But Flanagan, the day before, did his best to make sure the Tigers needed to win the next day just to tie for a title. Facing Tigers ace Jack Morris on Oct. 3, 1987, Flanny was on his game — so much so, that he outpitched Morris. Both did well. But one did better.
Staked to a 1-0 lead on Rance Mulliniks’ sacrifice fly before he even took the mound, Flanagan made it stand for two innings. In the third, he had a little hiccup. Tigers catcher Mike Heath hit a one-out double to center field, and after Lou Whitaker flew out to left, Bill Madlock (Detroit’s key in-season addition) doubled to left to tie the score.
It stayed that way until the top of the fifth, when the Blue Jays again took the lead, when Manny Lee doubled and Nelson Liriano brought him home with a single.
The lead lasted only a matter of minutes, but it was little fault of Flanny’s. Tom Brookens, the Tigers’ current first-base coach, led off with a routine grounder to short, but Lee, the shortstop, booted it to put the leadoff man on. And the next batter, Heath, made him pay with an RBI double to right. That was all the Tigers got against Flanny.
And he pitched the next six innings.
For the game, Flanagan went 11, allowing one earned run on eight hits and two walks. He struck out nine.
Morris, meanwhile, went nine innings. Both his runs were earned; he allowed eight hits and five walks, and K’d six.
Neither, of course, were around when the game ended in the bottom of the 12th, when Alan Trammell, up with the bases loaded and one out, greeted Blue Jays reliever Mark Eichhorn with a walk-off single to left field. It put the Tigers in position to celebrate 24 hours later, and they did.
Flanagan wasn’t overly upset being taken out of the game. He was more miffed that he was being removed for another left-hander, Jeff Musselman, and not the right-handed All-Star closer, Tom Henke.
Here’s what he told Ken Rosenthal, then with The Sun, the next spring:
“That was my beef. I thought for sure it must be Henke. Then I can’t argue. [Manager Jimy Williams] said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘I’m fine.’ He was asking me that from the sixth inning on. It became kind of ludicrous. I struck out nine. And I didn’t start striking out people until the fifth or sixth.”
Four years later, the Tigers played a supporting role in one of the defining moments of Flanagan’s career.
His 1990 season was cut short by injuries, and in May the Blue Jays released him. He missed the rest of the season, and the following spring got a tryout — but only a tryout — with the Orioles. He impressed so much, though, that he made the team, signed for a modest $250,000, and, at the age of 39, became one of the Orioles’ best relievers.
He was on such a roll, in fact, that the Orioles found themselves fielding offers from other clubs before the trade deadline, and it would’ve made so much sense to move him. They were out awful, way of contention, and his value wouldn’t be any higher.
There was just one issue: Flanagan longed to be the last Oriole to throw a pitch at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, which was closing its doors at season’s end.
And so he stayed in Baltimore, and performed. In mid-July, he even combined with Bob Milacki (six innings), Gregg Olson (one) and Mark Williamson (one) to no-hit the Athletics. But the highlight of his season (a good one: 2-2, 2.38, three saves) and perhaps even his career came a little more than two months later, when he got his wish — and closed out the old ballpark in grand style.
The second-place (and also-out-of-contention) Tigers were in town for the final weekend. Oct. 6, 1991 was the final day. With Detroit leading 7-1 entering the top of the ninth, Olson got the call to start the inning, and he got Tony Phillips to ground out weakly. Then Orioles manager Johnny Oates made Flanagan the happiest man in Baltimore.
And all Flanny did was strike out the two men he faced, Dave Bergman and Travis Fryman.
He walked off to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 50,700.
It was reportedly an emotional scene, especially for Flanagan. But during the postgame ceremony, he was back to his old self, good for another classic quote (again, to Kurkjian):
When Memorial Stadium closed down in 1991, after the game, all the players went to the positions at which they had played for the Orioles. There were two dozen pitchers on the mound when former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey got behind the plate and put down a sign. Dempsey was terrific defensively, and one of the game’s best throwers, but he wasn’t a particularly good game-caller.
“All 25 pitchers shook him off,” said Flanagan.