I have been frequently asked to name my favorite player or the funniest player that I have ever covered, and the answer to both questions has been the same since I first met Mike Flanagan in 1979. He was the wittiest, sharpest, most clever baseball player I've ever seen, a guy who -- no matter the subject -- always provided perspective and context, usually wrapped in a laugh. On Wednesday night, Mike Flanagan died at age 59.
"Flanny," as everyone called him, had not been his usual personable, hilarious self in recent years. The many losses he took as the Orioles general manager wore on him, and he took them home. Being replaced as GM in 2008 depressed him even more. He returned to broadcasting in 2010, and again became one of the best color commentators in the game, but he still wasn't the guy I remember turning to after so many games for a line, a laugh or an observation. "I'm getting back to my old self," he told me last year. But the last time I saw him, less than a week ago, he didn't look very good. And now he's gone, and all of Baltimore is weeping that one of the greatest Orioles is gone before age 60.
I will remember him only with fondness. I will remember him as a great teammate, and a very good pitcher, a man who won 167 games and the American League Cy Young Award in 1979. He threw a sinking fastball and a terrific curveball, he had a great pick-off move and good control. Asked where that control came from, Flanagan said that when he was a teenager his 72-year-old grandfather would catch him in the backyard of their home in Manchester, N.H. "If I threw too far inside or too far outside, he couldn't reach it," he said. "And if he missed it, he would have to chase it. So, I had to learn how to hit the target."
Flanagan always had a story. The Orioles made it to the World Series in 1979. "I got on base in that series," he said. "Jimmy Frey [the Orioles first-base coach] told me when I got to first, 'OK, keep your left foot on the bag, and get as big a lead as you can with your right foot.'" The Orioles were a little late running out on the field for one of those World Series games. "People think we were having some team meeting before the game,'' Flanagan said. "But we were really all in the clubhouse waiting for [famed TV judge Joseph] Wapner to deliver his verdict."
In 1980, as another Orioles pitcher, Steve Stone, was on his way to winning the Cy Young, Flanagan determined the different stages of Cy: He was the reigning Cy Young. "[Jim] Palmer is Cy Old," he said. "Stone is Cy Present and Storm [Davis] is Cy Future. When you get hurt, you become Cy-bex. When you're done, you become Cy-onara."
Flanagan was great with names. He called Jose Canseco (back when he could mash) "Jose Don't Make A Mistake-o." He called Ruben Sierra, back when he could mash, "Ruben Scare-ya." He called former teammate Don Stanhouse, who was bizarre, "Stan The Man Unusual."
He had other memorable quips. On Opening Day 1986, the Oriole Bird fell off the top of the dugout during the game, and had to be helped off the field. As Flanagan left the clubhouse after the game, he said, "I told him to take two worms and call me in the morning."
That same year, teammate Mike Boddicker threw a really good game one night in Toronto, and his fastball was clocked at 87 mph. "That's 82 Canadian," Flanagan said, and kept on walking.
Flanagan was traded to the Blue Jays in 1987. The following spring, I asked him for the biggest difference between training in Dunedin as compared to the Orioles' spring training facility in a dangerous section of downtown Miami. "No armed guards in the parking lot," Flanagan said.
In his career, Flanagan met several United States presidents, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the Queen of England. "She left the game in the third inning, everyone else left in the fifth," Flanagan said of a terrible game that featured seven walks and three errors. "Maybe she was more accustomed to baseball than we know."
On Opening Day 1991, when he returned to pitch at Memorial Stadium, Flanagan received three standing ovations. "I got a bigger hand than the secretary of state," he said, referring to Dick Cheney, who attended the game. "And he had a better spring than I did."
I covered a game in 1991 in which Orioles DH/first baseman Sam Horn struck out six times consecutively, the first non-pitcher in AL history to do that. After the game, I went to Flanagan. "Three strikeouts is a hat trick," he said, "four is a sombrero, five is a golden sombrero and from now on, six will be known as a Horn. Seven will be a Horn-A-Plenty."
When Memorial Stadium closed down in 1991, after the game, all the players went to the positions at which they had played for the Orioles. There were two dozen pitchers on the mound when former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey got behind the plate and put down a sign. Dempsey was terrific defensively, and one of the game's best throwers, but he wasn't a particularly good game-caller. "All 25 pitchers shook him off,'' said Flanagan.
I will remember Flanagan playing basketball. Few people shot a basketball better than he did. In July 1987, I casually asked him what he did during the All-Star break. After much prodding from me, he told me that he shot some free throws with his nephew, and made 105 in a row. So, I wrote that in The Baltimore Sun the next day. The team was on the road, and Flanagan approached me the next day. "My wife told me that you put that in the paper today," Flanagan said. "I wanted to clarify something. I didn't miss the 106th free throw, my nephew got tired of feeding me, so he quit."
Hoops? Flanagan played in his high school alumni game one year, and scored 63 points. He played freshman basketball at UMass with Rick Pitino. Flanagan tried out for the varsity the next year. "I pulled up for a jumper on the break from the top of the key, and Julius Erving blocked it, then swoop-jammed on the other end,'' he said. "I knew then it was time to work on my slider."
But my favorite Flanagan story came in Toronto in 1987. He was driving to Exhibition Stadium with former teammate Mike Boddicker in a Blue Jays rental car, one with the Blue Jays' insignia splattered all over it. New players to the team drove these rentals until their own cars arrived. Flanagan spotted me as I was walking to the ballpark, lugging my computer and oversized bag of books. He gave me a ride.
"This was Phil Niekro's car," Flanagan said of the ancient pitcher who had just been released.
"How do you know it was his car?" I asked.
"I found his teeth in the glove compartment," he said.
No one made me laugh like Mike Flanagan. Tonight, he made me cry.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.