On Oct. 6, 1991, in the final inning of the final game the Baltimore Orioles ever played at old Memorial Stadium, a chant went up from 50,700 slightly weepy fans across the big, darkening ballpark: “We want Flanagan. We want Flanagan.”
And there, as if on cue, came Mike Flanagan trudging out of the bullpen, and out of everyone’s collective memories, for the last time on 33rd Street.
The game was meaningless, but not the moment. The Orioles were losing to Detroit, 7 to 1, just one more numbing loss in a relentless tide of defeats that season. But this wasn’t about baseball, it was about raw sentiment. We wanted to finish with one of the family.
As Flanny slowly made his way to the mound, he seemed to arrive from some distant time. He was the carrier of all history, and all sentiment, and a reminder of the former greatness of the Baltimore Orioles.
He reminded us again Monday night, at the end of his life, at 59.
He wasn’t just one of the great pitchers of Orioles’ history – he was one of the great Baltimore figures, a guy who stuck around, who understood the town’s sports legacy, who was proud of it – and proud of his part in it.
He wasn’t one of the modern athletic gypsies, flitting from one town to the next for a few extra bucks. He’d long since become a Baltimore guy, a lifer.
Of course that crowd back in ’91 was chanting for him. He was our last reminder of the good times. Palmer and Cuellar and McNally were gone, and so were McGregor and Martinez (both Dennis and Tippy). For that matter, so were Frank and Brooks and Boog.
We needed a familiar face that final game, a guy who knew how our hearts were breaking. Flanny knew.
Years later, at sparkling Oriole Park, as we chatted our way through another Orioles’ loss, Flanny remembered that last game on 33rd Street. He called it the most moving, and tense, moment of his career.
This, from a guy who pitched in World Series games and playoff games and frantic pennant drives.
He understood that baseball is more than wins and losses. It’s affairs of the heart.
“Usually, I ran in from the bullpen,” he remembered about that last game at Memorial Stadium, “but I walked in that afternoon because I needed to think about the moment. And I need to calm my nerves.”
The emotions of that gloomy hour were raw. A whole history seemed to flash before everyone’s eyes. Flanagan understood.
“I felt like I was carrying the weight of a whole generation of players,” he said. And he started listing them all, Dauer and Singy, and Demper and Palmer and Murray, and on and on.
They were the generation that brought greatness to Baltimore baseball, and brought so much pride to so many of us.
Across the years, there was triumph, and there was frustration. Flanny won 167 games and a Cy Young award. The Orioles won division titles and pennants and a World Series and, across a 20-year period that included a large chunk of Flanagan’s career, more wins than any other team in major league baseball.
But then came the tough years. The ballclub hasn’t been to a World Series since 1983 and hasn’t had a winning season since 1997. Flanagan was part of the front office during some of the losing years. He took the losing to heart. He knew how badly fans wanted a return to the old days.
On that last day at Memorial Stadium, Flanagan pitched to the last two hitters in the ninth. He struck ‘em both out.
That’s the Mike Flanagan we should remember today – rising to the occasion when all our hearts were on the line.