Flanagan brought humor, smarts to ballpark
The night before, the Angels had stolen a bunch of bases against the Orioles, so Earl Weaver ordered the pitchers to report to The Big A by 2:30 the next afternoon. At 3 p.m., Weaver lined them all up as baserunners on first. Earl stood at the front of the mound, Rick Dempsey was positioned in front of home plate, someone was playing infielder at second.
"No one breaks for second until I let go of the ball," Weaver bellowed. The idea was obvious. No one could get a running lead. Naturally, each pitcher then had no chance with Dempsey throwing from in front of the plate. Do a better job holding the runners. Get it?
One by one, each pitcher was thrown out by Dempsey in this faux steal situation, for three rounds. When the final pitcher was thrown out at the end of the third round, Weaver gathered them around the mound.
"OK, what did we learn today?" Earl asked.
Mike Flanagan raised his hand. "Next spring," he replied, "we'd better work on our leads."
All the pitchers broke up laughing. Weaver stalked off to the clubhouse.
If you've ever seen the famous video of the argument between Weaver and umpire Bill Haller in Oakland (in which Earl correctly predicted he would go to the Hall of Fame), it began because Haller called a balk on Flanagan. The obscenity-laded argument lasted a dozen minutes, and, finally, as Earl passed the mound en route to the third-base dugout and the clubhouse, Earl told Flanny, "You got [hosed]."
"Actually," Flanagan replied, "I balked."
One of the greatest punchlines no one ever heard.
There have been few greater baseball humorists in the last 50 years than Flanagan, a New England iconoclast as well as a brilliant pitching mind. He threw the last inning at Memorial Stadium because he was so revered in Baltimore, where he won the American League Cy Young Award in 1979 and helped win the O's the World Series in 1983.
Flanagan was effectively the man who created Chris Berman's nicknames. When Berman was a student at Brown University, I used to run the Mike Flanagan Nickname of the Week in the Boston Globe. John (Clams) Castino. When Tony Solaita was released and sold to Japan, he was Tony Obsolaita. Don Stanhouse was, appropriately, Stan the Man Unusual. And on and on. His teammates love to hear about his basketball days at the University of Massachusetts, where he played on what probably was the best freshman team in that school's history, with Al Skinner and Billy Endicott, scrimmaging daily with Julius Erving.
Flanny could really shoot, but he recalled that one day he came down on a three-on-one, but instead of passing to Endicott or John Burke, he pulled up for a jumper. Dr. J rejected him. "As I watched the ball sail towards midcourt," Flanagan recounted, "I thought, 'This would be a good time to work on my slider."
In 1987, he was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, and we lunched at a wonderful outdoor Toronto cafe; with Roger Angell of the New Yorker. Flanagan told Angell how his grandfather, Big Ed Flanagan, and my uncle, Everett, played on teams from New Hampshire and the South Shore of Massachusetts, respectively, that toured New England on the weekends and drew good crowds. My uncle would pitch one game, his catcher would pitch the nightcap, and Big Ed Flanagan pitched both games -- one right-handed, the other left-handed.
"When I was 7, Big Ed took me to the cellar and gave me a box of slippery elm tablets," Flanagan told Angell.
Now, slippery elm tablets caused one to salivate rather freely, and they were a favorite of spitballers throughout baseball history. Flanny laughed that hoarse laugh of his.
"A couple of nights ago, I was getting hit around," Flanagan continued, "and when Cito [Gaston] was walking towards the mound to get me, I was thinking, 'I wish I'd listened to Grampa Ed.'"
The next day, Oct. 3, 1987, Flanagan started against Jack Morris trying to stop the Jays' final-week slide that saw their lead whittled from 3 1/2 games down to a game in six days. His line was 11 8 2 1 2 9, and when he left after the 11th inning, the Tigers won, and the next day they won the division title.
After the game, Morris said, "Flanagan was so great, so competitive, that I considered my job to be survival -- somehow keep us tied until he left the game. We weren't going to get to the playoffs beating him, we could only get there surviving him."
Flanagan was a very good pitcher whose career was shortened because of a serious knee injury he suffered in the early 1980s that limited him until he retired as a reliever in '91. He went into the Orioles' rotation in '77 and went 15-10 in two-thirds of a season, then won 19 games in '78 and the AL Cy Young Award at 23-9 in '79. The next season, Steve Stone won the AL Cy Young Award, which prompted Flanagan's famous Mount Rushmore analogy -- "Cy Past [Jim Palmer], Cy Present [Flanagan], Cy Young [Stone] and Cy Future [Storm Davis]."
When he retired, Flanagan became a television analyst who spent countless hours each day preparing, on the Internet or using video. He was a pitching coach. He became general manager, and like most who have worked for the Orioles since they last had a winning season (1997), he fell out of favor and was replaced, criticized for going "above slot" in the Draft -- namely for signing Matt Wieters and Jake Arrieta, as if the Orioles wouldn't be in the International League without Wieters.
Flanny, like Palmer, had insights into pitching that were brilliant and practical, and one could hold conversations with him for hours. I once did an ESPN piece with him on the pitching rubber. Really. He turned Scott Erickson around in a day after his acquisition from Minnesota, simply lengthening his stride and getting to his dominant side, as Flanagan believed most pitchers are dominant to either their arm or glove side. He always wanted to implement the four-man rotation for stretches of Minor League seasons "so kids would learn to win without their best stuff rather than worrying about having great stuff every time out." Agents never allowed it.
Memorial Stadium in the 1970s and '80s was unique. The players were accessible, and because of Flanagan and Palmer, unpretentious and iconoclastic. Earl Weaver was smart enough to allow them to laugh; Earl hated pitchers to give up home runs on fastballs, so every time Flanny gave one up, when he got back to the dugout and Earl asked him what pitch he threw, Flanny answered "slider" to avoid the tirade, even though he admitted "80 percent of them were on fastballs."
Memorial Stadium was part of a Baltimore neighborhood that was an era unto itself, and the joy so many of us had will last forever. The final day of that park was the best ceremony I've ever seen, as player after player from 1955-91 took his position on the field as home plate was driven to the new park known as Camden Yards, the park that changed sports.
Palmer, Robin Roberts, Dave McNally and Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse all pitched for the Orioles, but it was Mike Flanagan who was the last Orioles pitcher standing on the mound on its final day. Somewhere, I have the video of that final day. I will watch it today, put Eric Von Schmidt and Rolf Cahn's "He Was a Friend of Mine" on the iPod and do what Palmer and Billy Endicott, John Lowenstein and anyone who ever knew Flanny is doing today, glorying in the fact that we knew him.
And for the last time, I'll pass on the advice he suggested last summer.
"All you kids out there," he said behind a cage at Fenway Park, recounting a home run he gave up there to Harvard's Jimmy Stoeckel that cost UMass a trip to the College World Series. "Remember -- listen to Grampa Ed Flanagan and get your slippery elm tablets. You may need them someday."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.