Saying Goodbye To Flanny
Believe it or not, my Baltimore Orioles used to be one of the greatest franchises in baseball. They had an iconic coach who was famed for creating "The Oriole Way." They had a remarkable player development program that consistently produced tremendously talented players. And they had a winning tradition that, for the better part of two decades, was the envy of every other team in the game.
The Oriole teams of the 1970's and 80's were more than teams. They were families. They were woven into the fabric of the city for which they played, and were the pride and joy of every fan who rooted for them. The names are seemingly a part of some distant fairytale: Eddie, Kenny, Palmer, Tippy, the Demper, the Crow, and "Fullpack" Stanhouse, to name a few. There was one name among them that became as well known to a younger generation of fans as it had been to the old guard. It became as synonymous with Oriole baseball to those of us thirsting for a winning team as it had been to those who longed for the days of Oriole Magic.
That name was Flanny.
Mike Flanagan was a member of the Orioles organization for parts of five decades. He was a beloved pitcher, leading the Orioles to two World Series appearances, and the title in 1983. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 1979 when he won 23 games and pitched 265 innings. He would leave Baltimore for the Blue Jays during the 1987 season, only to return in 1991 just in time to finish out his career, and also record the final out by an Oriole pitcher at hallowed Memorial Stadium. All told, Flanagan would spend 15 of his 18 seasons in an Orioles uniform, and it was at Memorial Stadium where he cemented his legacy as a hard nosed, confident, and pensive left-handed starter with a devastating sinker. It was at Camden Yards, however, that he would continue to build on his career as a lifelong Oriole.
He would spend his post-playing career filling just about every position the Orioles could find for him to fill. He served two stints as the Orioles pitching coach, with mixed results. He filled a substantial need in the Orioles’ front office when he assumed the duties of executive vice president of baseball operations for several years in the 2000's. Obviously, he had the misfortune of being at the helm during what has been the worst stretch in club history, but certainly the blame or credit for any failure or success extends much further than one man. He made his mark as an announcer as well, joining play-by-play men such as Jim Hunter and Fred Manfra as a color analyst, and working as a pre- and post-game analyst alongside men like Jim Palmer, Tom Davis, and his catcher for many years, Rick Dempsey. Flanny was sharp witted, well spoken, and as knowledgeable as they come. In short, he was a fantastic broadcaster.
Flanny's time as a member of the Orioles organization came to an end last night, when he passed away near his home in Baltimore County at the age of 59. Upon hearing the news, every Oriole fan put aside the frustration of 14 consecutive years of losing seasons. We put aside the anguish and anger we've directed at the front office that has become the target of our displeasure as they struggle to return us to the glory days of yesteryear. We put aside these feelings, as anyone would, to mourn the loss of someone close to us. To mourn a member of our family. Of course, most of us never knew, or even met, Mike Flanagan. But when you live in a city like Baltimore, the sports heroes are more than just titanic figures on a screen. They are more than just tall tales about larger-than-life characters triumphing for their people. They are, simply, Orioles. And in Flanagan's case, he was, simply, Flanny.
I felt the mourning personally. But it was even more palpable when I called to relay the news to my parents. I spoke to my Dad, who recalled stories of Flanny's accomplishments on the mound, and then I listened silently as he realized that Flanagan was a mere five years older than he. Your heroes help you to face many things in your life, including your own mortality. I listened as my Mom, a die-hard Orioles fan since the day she arrived on earth, remembered watching bittersweetly as Flanny recorded the final out at Memorial Stadium, thereby bequeathing the place that she had cherished for some 30 years to the sands of time. In her words, there was no one else she would have rather seen on the mound that day for one last inning in the sun.
When you allow a sports figure to become a part of the history of your team, and you allow him to contribute a chapter to its story, he becomes a part of your memory. He becomes as integral a part of your recollection as the people you see and speak to everyday. And while you gain so much from accepting him as part of your team – the memories, the accomplishments, the unbelievable highs and the disheartening lows that you share in – you're also welcoming in the sadness and mourning that will inevitably arrive when he isn't part of the team any longer. But we accept that sadness as part of the deal. We accept it as payment for the years we spent living vicariously through him and the other men who take the mound or step to the plate. But every once in a while, we lose someone who we've grown particularly close to. Someone who achieves a familiarity that we could not have foreseen, but that we are thankful to have experienced.
Had Mike Flanagan been just another one of the guys, his death would not have been received with so much emotion. But he wasn't just one of the guys. He was one of our guys. He was an Oriole. He spent his life being an Oriole.
And that is how he will forever remain.