Mike Flanagan pitching for the Baltimore Orioles in 1977, and with fellow former Oriole Rick Dempsey in 2007. (Photos: Baltimore Orioles/ tradingcarddb.com via Wikimedia Commons, Keith Allison/Flickr)

Topics: Ethical Living | Opinion

What I learned from this baseball player’s death

A longtime baseball fan and armchair critic reflects on his attitude towards athletes and mental health

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“What? I can’t believe it,” I said, out loud, on the bus a few weeks ago.

I was reading Hello Friends! Stories from My Life and Blue Jays Baseball, the autobiography of Jerry Howarth. He retired in 2018 after 36 years as the Toronto Blue Jays’ radio play-by-play announcer.

I was enjoying his stories of the Jays. And then midway through the book, the writing took a dark turn when Howarth mentioned veteran Mike Flanagan joining the team in 1987.

“He was an excellent addition, with his pitching skills, quick wit and sense of humour. Mike had players, fans, and this broadcaster laughing incessantly.”

I’ve been a baseball addict for most of my 61 years. I certainly remembered Flanagan winning baseball’s top pitching honour, the Cy Young Award, when he was with the Baltimore Orioles in 1979. And I recalled his 18 years as a solid starting pitcher. But since he retired from playing, I hadn’t thought about him at all.

Howarth concluded his section on Flanagan with this: “Sadly, with all his humour and creative abilities on the field and later as an Orioles television broadcaster and eventually their general manager, Mike took his own life in August of 2011. He was 59.”

Mike Flanagan (left) in 2008 with an Orioles fan. (Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr)

That was when I shouted out loud on the bus. He’d had a fine career. And then he killed himself?

I hit the Internet. I learned Flanagan had shot himself in the backyard of his home outside Baltimore. The Internet was full of interviews from immediately after his death with his former teammates and broadcasting colleagues. They were in shock and tears. And no one could make sense of why Flanny, as they knew him, would end his life.

A year later, his wife, Alex, shed some light in an interview with Dan Rodricks in the Baltimore Sun. He was depressed, she said, and had been for years.

“Most people won’t believe it, but I don’t think Mike ever believed in himself. He felt like a failure. And there were times when he hated himself and felt that he was a fake, that he had just been lucky… He was self-effacing in his humour, that was part of his charm, but that was as cover for insecurity.”

Rodricks’ article goes on to say that as an executive with the Orioles, Flanagan “worked long hours trying to turn the franchise around. But he was disillusioned by the modern baseball business and the extended streak of losing seasons affected him deeply… There were a lot of cruel statements made by fans on Internet forums, Alex says, and Mike read many of them and they brought him great pain.”

That hit me hard. I have often been hyper-critical of players. I’ll be watching a baseball, hockey or basketball game and yell back at the TV, “Aw, you guys stink.” I may well have said that to Flanagan at some point. I probably would have said that about Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard if “The Shot” in Game 7 of the playoff series versus the 76ers had not gone in the basket. I can, unfortunately, easily imagine myself saying, “You guys are chokers.”

Why? Because I am hooked on success. And when the people I want to win – athletes, politicians, actors, myself – don’t officially win, I think of them (and myself) as failures. It’s a sad, awful part of my thought process. And I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.

I realized that all I knew of him was the player on the mound and the statistics of his career. I had never considered him as a whole person.

Around this time, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost their series against the Boston Bruins and were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. I was scrolling through Facebook and saw that two friends had posted this comment: “The Leafs never disappoint in disappointing their fans.” Then the calls came for coach Mike Babcock to be fired.

I used to be part of this vitriol. I’ve been guilty of calling out players for mistakes on social media.

But once I learned about Mike Flanagan’s suicide and the possible motivating factors behind it, I realized that all I knew of him was the player on the mound and the statistics of his career. I had never considered him as a whole person.

I felt awful.

Although it’s impossible to know what led to his death, just the possibility that sports fans’ bad behaviour could have contributed made me shudder.

I realized that athletes and those involved in pro sports are simply doing a job. They make a lot of money and often become celebrities. As a result, we seem to believe we have the right to heap criticism on them. I now believe that we need to stop doing that.

So I wrote this on Facebook: “Thanks to the Leafs for a great season.”

And Mike Flanagan, if you’re up there watching me, I apologize for thinking of you as a one-dimensional object of my entertainment.

And to the athletes and sports teams I follow, here’s a pledge: from now on, I’m going to simply enjoy the fact that you are out there trying. I’m finished with winning and losing.

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  • says:

    I often wonder how many athletes, movie stars and politicians grew up in modest humility.
    A talent, or gift, sets them up to be larger than life. Once there, they need something more to satisfy their pride. Be it in different forms, we all do it. To me, suicide is selfishness or self love, usually giving the hate or pain to those left behind. Jeremiah 17:5-10 gives us reason to trust in God rather than ourselves. We can easily be self deceived. James 4:1-3 “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
    With the approach of the writer, perhaps I should be like David in his psalms and “Praise, the LORD” rather than give vain glory to my living idols.

  • says:

    Great read Paul, didn't know much of Mike Flanigan but as a somewhat casual baseball fan yes, I did hear of him and recognized his name. So sad he never got the help that he needed, like so many others who have committed suicide whatever walk of life they lived.