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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Remembering the funniest man in baseball


The lines of type on Mike Flanagan's baseball card say he won a Cy Young Award, pitched in 18 seasons, won 167 games. But no conversation about Flanny, who was found dead Wednesday at the age of 59, could begin with any of that, because he was a self-deprecating New Englander with the sharpest wit and a gift for one-liners and anecdotes.

You have to start with a story. Flanny always had stories, always made you laugh.

Mike Flanagan
Mike Flanagan, shown here in July of 1991, won a Cy Young and pitched in two World Series.

He was the pitching coach of the Orioles in 1995, the first of two seasons that I covered the team for the Baltimore Sun, and one of his challenges was to help guide a temperamental youngster with a 100 mph fastball, Armando Benitez. It wasn't easy. Midway through the season, Armando gave up a grand slam homer to Edgar Martinez and then drilled the next hitter, Tino Martinez, and after the benches cleared and Benitez was taken off the field, he cleared out his locker in frustration and informed the Orioles' coaching staff he was quitting baseball.

Flanny and others on the Orioles' staff calmed him down, and after a brief stint in the minors, Armando returned. Near the end of a disappointing season, the Orioles played a series in Milwaukee, and after the final game against the Brewers, the Baltimore veterans administered the standard hazing of rookies, having their street clothes removed and replaced with custom-made outfits -- dresses, etc.

Armando refused to wear the clothes that the veterans had picked out for him.

As the other Orioles players showered and dressed, Benitez sat in front of his locker angrily, refusing to move. The other Orioles walked out of the clubhouse and climbed onto the team buses, preparing for the trip to the airport; Benitez didn't move. He would not wear the clothes.

Benitez remained in the visitors' clubhouse in County Stadium; the rest of the team was on the bus, engines running. Nobody knew how it going to end. "It was like the showdown at the OK Corral," Flanny recalled, among the many times we laughed over the story, the strangest I ever covered; I positioned myself in the concourse, so I could see both the door from the clubhouse and the team bus.

Manny Alexander -- friend to Armando, and another young player from the Dominican Republic -- was dispatched from the bus, like a negotiator, to convince Benitez to get dressed and join the rest of the team. Alexander went into the clubhouse, and after five minutes, he had not emerged. The team bus continued to run, sitting in place.

Rafael Palmeiro was the next off the bus, another Spanish-speaking player, with a decade in the majors; maybe he could coax Armando out of the clubhouse. Another five minutes went by. No sight of Manny, no sight of Raffy, no sight of Armando.

Flanny was next into the clubhouse -- the pitching coach sent to extricate one of his pitchers. A minute later, Flanny, Raffy, Manny and Armando emerged from the clubhouse. Armando walked to the bus in a white dress shirt, baseball pants, stocking feet. I looked at Flanny as he passed by, wondering what happened behind the closed clubhouse door, and he rolled his eyes in exasperation, saying with his expression: I'll tell you later.

When Flanny walked into the clubhouse, he told me the next day, "I find Armando in his underwear, holding a bat like he's going to hit somebody. And he's got Manny and Raffy cornered in the shower."

Flanny looked at Benitez and said, "Armando, get on the damn bus."

And after that, Flanny privately referred to Benitez by a new name: Demando.

For Flanny, the stories were as much part of baseball as the sport itself -- the community of baseball, the shared experience. He had stories about Earl, and about Rip Sr. and Cakes and Eddie and Demper -- as in, Earl Weaver, Cal Ripken Sr., Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Rick Dempsey. He had stories about clubhouse man Ernie Tyler, about Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Ripken and Mike Mussina.

Flanny was without pretension, so none of his stories were about his 23-win season or about pitching in two World Series, or the Cy Young -- unless he was making fun of himself. Flanny had been a great high school basketball player, but his decision to play pro baseball instead of basketball, he explained, came in a moment during a pickup game. Flanny took a jump shot at UMass, and an opponent emerged from underneath the basket to block his shot, collect the loose ball and then, with several long strides, dunk the ball. That was Flanny's introduction to a young Julius Erving.

He and I became fast friends, partly because he knew my late uncle, Bob Marks, who had owned and operated a sporting goods store in Flanny's hometown. He was born and raised in Manchester, N.H., and was a classic New Englander in the Calvin Coolidge mold, rarely changing his tone; he was always droll. But the evenness of his voice masked his intelligence -- that's the first thing everybody would say about him, how smart he was -- and his raging competitiveness and his deep appreciation for the high standards set by the Orioles. He told the funniest stories about Weaver's emotionalism and sarcasm, but he loved the Oriole Way, how the whole organization was built from Class A to the majors under Weaver and Cal Sr. -- the attention to details, the focused approach to how the game was played, the respect for the sport and for teammates, the accountability.

Manager Johnny Oates understood Flanny's devotion to the organization, and this is why the veteran left-hander was asked to get the final outs in the final inning of the final game at Memorial Stadium, on Oct. 6, 1991. And after he struck out Dave Bergman and Travis Fryman, Flanagan stepped off the mound and into an ovation. He lifted his cap, in tears.

Sitting in a bar with him in Anaheim, Calif., I asked him to relate that story. Flanny had so many insights into others, could seemingly see through them, and at the same time, he could build a wall around his own feelings; he didn't like talking about them, except when he spoke with such joy and love about his father.

But he obliged me, and he talked about coming off the mound for the last time that day.

And Flanny, the funniest man in baseball, cried again.

---

Jim Palmer talks about his old friend here.

Old friend Peter Gammons has many memories of Flanny.

Some former Orioles shared memories of Flanny in this Dan Connolly piece. Flanagan made his best pitch on and off the field, writes Peter Schmuck. He was a player of substance, says Ken Rosenthal.

Tim Kurkjian knew Flanny for more than 30 years, and had some of the best stories here.

Flanagan was the best in all of us, writes Richard Justice.

Police were called to Flanagan's home on Wednesday afternoon.

And today will be better than yesterday.