A Death in the Family
Baltimore is the biggest small town in America. Everyone has a sense that they’re either related to, or that they know, most everyone else in town. We feel that way about the athletes who represent us as well, beginning with the old Baltimore Colts who lived in the city year-round and who worked regular jobs in the off-season. You bought hamburgers and beer and insurance and suits from these guys, and they spoke to you and you felt as if they were now part of the family, too.
The Orioles developed a branch of the family, especially after the patriarch Brooks Robinson arrived. He taught guys such as Jim Palmer something that we still respectfully and proudly and longingly refer to as “the Oriole way.” Palmer in the role of the eldest taught all his younger brothers who came along throughout the ’70s until the Oriole family blossomed in 1979 and stayed sweet and beautiful for the next five years. Every summer’s night at Memorial Stadium was like a giant family reunion, and all of us cousins were invited. One of us, Wild Bill Hagy, even got to wave his cowboy hat atop the Birds’ dugout; got that close to all our uncles who were the life of the party. We called it Oriole Magic, and it was born on June 22, 1979. Trailing Detroit 5-3 heading to the bottom of the 9th, Ken Singleton homered and two out, Doug DeCinces hit a two-run shot to cap the comeback. Mike Flanagan started that game.
It was a bad night in a great year for Flanagan, who was knocked out in the third inning. And now, Mike Flanagan one of our favorite uncles, has committed suicide.
If you saw the Orioles’ post-game show Wednesday night, shortly after Flanagan’s death was announced, you saw how strong that brotherly bond remains, even after all these years and even after the Oriole name is now in tatters. Both Jim Palmer and Rick Dempsey were barely able to speak, but speak they did, giving voice to all of us who sat at home dumbfounded. They fulfilled their familial responsibilities.
Your favorite uncle, the wittiest of the bunch, isn’t supposed to commit suicide.
The Orioles have placed a memorial patch on their uniform sleeves, placed a banner below the MASN broadcast booth, and Friday night, a video tribute was presented at the end of the first inning. The Orioles flag on the flag court will fly at half-staff for the remainder of the season. Nothing but heartfelt tributes are being left on the blogs; it’s a hero’s tribute.
But heroes aren’t supposed to commit suicide, an act still regarded as a mortal sin by some.
An immediate explanation for Flanagan’s act has arisen, which holds that he was depressed that he could not reverse the sad fortunes of the Orioles while he was general manager. A related explanation states that he was depressed that he was let go by the Orioles. Indeed, Flanagan’s departure from the Orioles was strange, as he wasn’t reassigned or even fired, and his contract as GM was simply allowed to expire. In a sense, he was quietly disowned.
Such explanations say much more about us Oriole “cousins” than it does about Flanagan. This current reaction, however, predates sophisticated concepts such as sin. There is something archetypal in our response to Mike Flanagan’s suicide. You see, we have sympathized, and no doubt we will moralize in our intellectually modern way; but at our primitive core, we see a man who could not resuscitate the Baltimore Orioles, and so he gathered upon himself all of our frustration and misery and threw himself on the funeral pyre. And if that is not even close to what happened, it matters not because we want to believe in heroes, and we have no desire to be reminded of the frailties and failings that we all share.
In any case, those of us who were there at the birth of Oriole Magic, our youth now as long gone as Section 34, are perhaps no longer so ready to judge harshly the desperation of others. No one can truly explain Mike Flanagan’s thinking in his final moments; reason rarely appears in matters of love and of death, nor in our reactions to the death of those we love.
Everyone in the family is asking what we could’ve and should’ve and would’ve done, and since there is no satisfactory answer to those questions, we tenderly turn the pages of old programs and lower the Oriole flag to half-staff. There is something that we can do, however, that is always a fitting tribute under such circumstances. Mike Flanagan’s tragic death should inspire us all to spend more time looking out for each other. After all, in the end, we’re all part of one big Family.