The Orioles have won the Wild Card Round; they will meet the New York Yankees come Sunday in the first postseason baseball the city of Baltimore has seen in over a decade. I’m not too concerned with that, though I know I should be.
Mike Flanagan is still gone, and I still think about him.
I listened to him on the radio and the television, and in the compartmentalized, measured way that we love the old wistful men who talk to us about baseball, I like to think I did. I didn’t know him, though; I never met him in person. But I cursed him. How I cursed him—three or four or seven or forty times, back when he was the Orioles’ Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations—back in the bad old days, back when I was younger. It was a fannish, reflexive thing; I was going after an idea, not a person. But I named that idea Mike Flanagan, and I thought he was a shithead because the Orioles weren’t a good baseball team, and that’s something that I have yet to let go.
Jim Palmer wrote a book, once upon a time—well, he less wrote a book and more sat down with his co-author, a guy named Jim Dale, and talked a lot about how little he and Earl Weaver agreed about baseball, and out of that came something called Together We Were Eleven Foot Nine. In it, Palmer’s himself: an arrogant, hilarious blowhard who knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t appreciate attempts to tell him otherwise. The majority of the narrative covers the various differences of opinion between him and Weaver, but there’s a story buried in the middle there, right near the photo inserts—this is one of those books where the photos are all printed on glossy paper in the center of the binding—about Mike Flanagan. Pending a lawsuit from Palmer’s attorneys, I’ve reproduced that section in full below; the book is unfortunately not available in an electronic format.
Mind Games, Urinals, and Confidence
Mike Flanagan’s head was talking to him a lot in 1977. (Earl Weaver wasn’t talking to him, but I’ll get to that.) Flanagan’s head was having regular conversations with the rest of Flanagan’s body. And that’s not good. Especially if you’re a pitcher.
It’s like this. Even though you throw with your arm, you don’t pitch with your arm. You pitch with your head. (Take it from a guy who’s in the Sore Arm and Head Hall of Fame.)
When your arm hurts, you can soak it, ice it, whirlpool it, X-ray it, MRI it, massage it, tape it, brace it, exercise it, rest it, salve it, balm it, acupuncture it, cortisone it, talk to it, beg it, or cast a spell over it. It hurts, which is why you can’t pitch. Therefore, if it didn’t hurt, you could pitch. Simple.
If your head gets screwed up, it’s also simple. You’re screwed. You can’t soak it or rest it or tape it or acupuncture it. (You could cut it off, but that’s drastic.) Your head keeps telling you, in this echoey head-voice: “You’re misssssing the corners, you’re loooosing your breaking ball, you’re aiming tooooo much, you’re not aiming eeeeeenough, you’re not con-cen-tra-ting, you’re no gooood, you never were any good, everybody knoooows you’re noooo good.”
Let’s stop there for a moment, actually. Obviously, just about every pitcher—every professional athelete—Hell, every person on the planet Earth goes through periods of self-doubt; periods where nothing they do seems to work, where they can’t catch a break, where everything goes sideways. But every person reading that paragraph who has ever suffered from depression probably just cringed a little bit, reading that. I know I did. The first time I read it I felt like Palmer had yanked five minutes out of one of my worst days, set it to baseball, and started narrating.
That’s the kind of stuff Flanagan’s head was saying to him in 1977. It was Mike’s first year with the Orioles, and he and I used to sit together a lot on the flights from city to city, the two of us kind of spread out across three bulkhead seats. Mike would have a couple beers and start talking/moaning/worrying about how he was doing, which wasn’t too good since he was 3-8 at the time. I’d listen to young guys like Flanagan and Scotty McGregor and Dennis Martinez because by then I was sort of the veteran, man of experience, old pro, old fart, leader…take your pick.
Flanagan is telling me that obviously Earl doesn’t have any faith in him. He figures, how could he have any faith since Flanagan is 3-8? And Earl has never said anything to him about what kind of 3-8 he was having. Like if it was a good 3-8 or a bad 3-8 and there is a difference depending on a lot of things, starting with whether your team is getting any runs behind you or whether they’re fielding the ball or making smart plays or at least showing up…stuff like that. Plus Mike has just come off spending a year in Triple A under Joe Altobelli who’s very compassionate and sensitive compared to most managers. And now he’s got Earl Weaver, who isn’t all that compassionate and sensitive compared to most chain gang wardens.
So it’s no wonder Flanagan’s head has been talking to him and that he’s talking to me and that I can hear his head-voice coming through loud and clear. To make matters worse for his head, we’re on our way to Boston. Fenway Park is a great place to watch a baseball game unless you’re a pitcher, which is what Mike was going to be in the next couple of days. Batters have a habit of hitting a lot of home runs over the short outfield walls in Fenway Park, and the Red Sox pitchers who pitch there half of every season know how to handle it better than visiting pitchers, like Mike was about to be. Visiting pitchers just see Fenway as a chance for the Red Sox to paint a bulls-eye on your butt and kick the shit out of you. “You’re no goooood, you never were any good, everybody knoooows you’re noooo good…”
Mike’s head won’t shut up. I’ve been there. And I’ve been with Mr. Compassion, the Earl of Sensitivity.
Jim Palmer’s been there, no doubt. I’m sure every single player in baseball, at any level, has heard that voice from time to time. But I’m going to go out on a limb, make an assumption, and say that Palmer never heard that voice like Mike Flanagan did. I suspect there were days that Flanagan woke up with that voice and it never stopped talking and after twelve or fourteen hours it was hard to get to sleep, and I suspect there were a lot of those days. I suspect the voice would go away for a bit, and then he’d see some sign on the street, hear some throwaway bit of nonsense in the corner of his ear, and it would slither right back in and start a one-way conversation. I think—I know—that some people can’t tell that voice to go away on their own. And Jim Palmer might not have really known or understood it at the time but what he did next might have been the best thing he could have possibly done for Mike Flanagan.
The next day, we’re in the visitors’ locker room at Fenway. Some architect with a sense of humor has put the manager’s office opposite the urinal, or vice versa, depending on which one you think has more status. Well, nature calls and I go to use the facility and right next to me—and a couple of feet below—is Earl. (I’m urinating and Earl is taking a piss.)
I decide this would be the perfect time to talk to him about Mike. Earl can’t leave midstream, or if he does he’s going to get his shoes all wet.
I say, “Earl, I sit with Mike on the plane a lot and you know, he thinks you don’t have any confidence in him.”
And Earl gets, well, literally “pissed off.” That is, he starts shouting, and I swear, that noise that pee makes when it hits the water actually stops while he shouts and then starts up again when he’s finished, kind of like dramatic pauses. He says, during a pee-silence, “Have you looked at his fucking record?! He’s three and fucking eight!”
“But Earl…” I say.
Earl keeps shouting and stops peeing. “Do I have any fucking confidence in him? I put his name in the fucking lineup every fourth day. He ought to fucking know that I have confidence in him or I wouldn’t fucking do that!”
I finally get my turn and say, “But Earl, the way Mike sees it, he doesn’t know how you feel. You know, you can be 3-8 and be good or be 3-8 and be shitty. He hasn’t gotten much offensive backup from the team. He played for Altobelli and Joe has a different style from you.” (This is called understatement.) “Anyway, if you’re going to pitch him every fourth day, it’s probably because you think he has a good future but he doesn’t know you think that. Maybe you should talk to him.”
I get ready for Earl to shout again, but he doesn’t. He’s finally just done peeing. He doesn’t answer me. He just walks away.
I don’t know how true this story is. It’s easy. It’s perfect. It solves every problem neatly and it makes Jim Palmer look like a goddamn hero, just like every other story in this book. I choose to believe it’s true mostly because, despite his arrogance, within the realm of baseball I do believe Palmer actually is a goddamn hero, for better or worse. Maybe I don’t know him well enough—of course I don't know him well enough; most heroes turn into regular human beings when you get too close. The better ones among them were regular human beings to start with; flawed like we always have been. The best ones, though, are usually liars.
Tonight, Mike Flanagan isn’t around to enjoy Baltimore’s win over Texas. He killed himself with a shotgun over a year ago. There were reports he was despondent over the “perceived failures during his tenure in the Orioles’ front office.” There were reports that he was depressed. It’s impossible to actually know, but I believe it. I feel dirty talking about it, even now, like some sort of horrible gawker—I feel terrible every time I bring Mike Flanagan up, and afterwards I feel even worse.
It’s a fucked up, confusing thing when you try to know a person by the words he’s said and the things he’s done and he’s not here but you think he should be and you never knew him but he’s gone.
Now it's three days later and we’re on the plane out of Boston and, as I recall, Mike pitched okay there.
We take our usual seats and he starts talking. “You know what? Earl came to talk to me.”
I say, “Oh, really?”
He says, “Yeah, he called me into his office. You know, at Fenway, across from the urinal.”
I say, “Yeah, I know.”
He says, “Earl told me he has confidence in me and I’m pitching better than my record and that’s why he’s putting me in the rotation every fourth day.”
And I say, “No kidding?”
And I listen real close and for the first time in a long time I don’t hear his other voice, the echoey one from his head, the one that won’t let you pitch no matter how good your arm feels. Not a word.
Mike goes from 3-8 to 15-10. I’m not taking the credit. That belongs to Flanagan. And to Earl. And the architect who put the urinal across from the manager’s office.
Somewhere in those last six paragraphs, every time I read them, inevitably I start to cry.