When I got this card in 1978, I would have had no wish for my life above being a major league baseball player. Back then I would have envisioned myself as a member of my favorite team, which was not the Orioles, but now, in my early 40s, looking back on that purposeful team and on my own often purposeless life, looking also at this card of a young focused left-hander throwing free and easy, a year from winning the Cy Young award and the first game of the World Series, I am thinking that if I could have been a baseball player, someone with a rare and beautiful gift, and I could have chosen an organization to come up in as a player, I would have been an Oriole during the golden years of that franchise.
I would have learned the right way to do things, the Oriole Way, and I would have learned what my place was in the world, my role, and I would have learned how to play that role. I would have been surrounded by others with rare and beautiful gifts doing the same thing, all of us coming together instead of pulling apart. Life is in constant disintegration, but to be an Oriole during those years must have felt like something close to that opposite of that, as if a life could be led, at least for a while, as an integral part of a song.
Some years after the Orioles fell from that grace into a more familiar kind of perpetual disintegration, I spent four seasons in a primitive cabin in the woods. I’ve been thinking about that cabin lately. Sometimes, at dusk, there was a symphony. I don’t want to romanticize it: more likely than not, I would have been depressed, aching with loneliness, guilty for wasting another day, angry at my inability to write anything worthwhile, wishing not that I was part of a song but that I had more batteries for my handheld battery-powered television so that I could watch sitcom reruns on the screen the size of a baseball card. That is, I was not in a lotus position peacefully drinking in the majesty of the forest. But now, many years later, I can discard the fetid personal demons fouling the moment and remember that there were two main parts of the symphony: frogs and a wood thrush. The frogs honked along dumbly, one-note simpletons, and then every once in a while the wood thrush would let loose with that watery many-noted call that I wish I could describe but can only say that whenever I heard it I loosened up just a little on the chronic grip that held me to my misery.
I thought about that symphony a few days ago when I heard that Mike Flanagan had been found dead, that he’d done himself in with a shotgun. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, one of my more memorable trips to the ballpark was when I saw the Red Sox play the Orioles and a pack of drunk guys behind us spent the whole game honking at the opposing pitcher, “Mike Flanagan: UMASS!” They were fellow UMASS guys, I guess, trumpeting their pride, but what I was thinking about a few days ago was how their drunken monotonous croaking was to the graceful pitching of the victorious Flanagan like the frogs’ guttural belching to the song of the wood thrush. Those guys were fans, like I am a fan, and we fans are of this earth, simple and dull, limited, unblessed by the rare and beautiful gift that inspires our croaking, and all we can do is call out to those we believe are part of something higher.
And if there’s such a thing as prayer, let me send mine into the sky like a frog croaking at dusk, and let the words of the prayer be “Mike Flanagan: UMASS!” and let the prayer find Mike Flanagan somewhere with the wish that such a thing, blunt and absurd, but sincere, could help spirit him back into the center of the harmony he once knew, a blessed note in the center of a swinging, indestructible song.