Mike Flanagan

August 29, 2011

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.


  1. I was at Camden Yards on Friday night, the last minute recipient of a $6 student night ticket in the LF nosebleeds, watching the O’s beat the living hell out of AJ Burnet. In between the first and second innings, the scoreboard unannounced and with no narrative, played a video tribute to Flannagan. The fans cheered politely. What else do you do in a situation like that?

    I’ll never forget Flannagan racing Guidry to 13-0 to start the `78 season. Guidry of course was absolutely invincible that year, going 25-3, grinding out an ERA well under 2.00, and tying Babe Ruth’s 60 year old American League record for complete game shout outs by a lefty: 9. Flannagan and the O’s would have to take a backseat the to repeating champions from the Bronx. But as you point out, 1979 was Flanny’s turn to garner a Cy Young and a pennant, and eventually a WS ring in 1983.

    He was truly an outstanding pitcher and a beloved TV color man for the O’s games here in Baltimore.

  2. When I heard about Mike, I had to pull out my first baseball glove. It was a Wilson Mike Flanagan model. It must have come out in 1980 as it says Cy Young Award Winner on the pinky. It still has my last name on the back wrist band that my mom wrote to keep the other Pirates on my tee-ball team from stealing it.
    It’s short on my palm but it still fits really well. The fingers are very soft and smooth inside and baseballs really POP in the “Dual Split Hinge” pocket.

    My dad told me I probably saw him when he was a Rochester Red Wing when I was a toddler. Baseball Reference tells me he played until 1992, the year I graduated from high school, but I honestly don’t remember him at all, except for the name on my glove. I was still very sad when I heard the news and the circumstances of his death.

  3. Motherf^&cker, this was good.

  4. This is, honestly, one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in months. Maybe a year. Thanks, Josh.

  5. A wood thrush makes the uncanny trills that haunt summer woods because it has something ordinary creatures don’t have, a syrinx, a voice box that allows more than one sound to be made simultaneously. As you say, the rest of us can only admire those with these special gifts from afar, before it’s over all too soon, and winter silences all.

  6. A syrinx! Thanks for that great info, brewerstt.

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