Death of Mike Flanagan, Orioles great, leaves shadows of doubt

A year after former Oriole's suicide, wife describes his long fight with depression

"Did you ever notice Mike when he came off the mound after a good inning?" asks Alex Flanagan, widow of the Orioles Hall-of-Famer who committed suicide a year ago. "He always had his head down."

That provokes a vivid memory of No. 46, the smart pitcher who studied all and fooled many of the 11,684 batters he faced over 18 major league seasons. He was the long-haired lefty with a mustache who won the American League Cy Young Award in the Orioles' 1979 World Series season. He was all business on the mound, and Alex is correct about Mike's demeanor during his walk to the dugout after most of his 2,770 innings: head down, serious, pondering what he had just done well or not so well.

Maybe it was modesty, or a taciturn manner he'd picked up in his native New England. But maybe Mike was sullen and full of doubt, too.

"Most people won't believe it," says Alex, in her first interview since her husband's death, "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 humor, that was part of his charm, but that was a cover for insecurity."

Perhaps we make too much of the head-down walk. Certainly, other pitchers have carried themselves that way. But considering how Mike's life ended last year at the age of 59 — with a shotgun blast Aug. 24 on the grounds of his stone farmhouse in Baltimore County — everything becomes the subject of reflection and questions.

Those of us who were his friends — I was a fishing companion of Mike's for 20 years — have been trying to understand, searching for clues in the things he said and did. The person closest to him, of course, was Alex. She saw a Mike Flanagan of doubt and pain the rest of us missed.

He had financial pressures, she says, in part from a lapse of steady income between jobs as the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations and as color commentator on game telecasts, that caused him to dip deeply into savings and into his player pension. He expressed resentment about the way he was treated after he lost his front-office job in 2008. He asked if I wanted to write a book about "the demise of a great baseball franchise," then put the idea on hold after he started working as an Orioles broadcaster again in 2010.

Those issues, money pressures and career disappointments, were the explanations that trickled out in the immediate aftermath of Mike's death. But they seemed too simple.

"The public wanted a reason why Mike killed himself," Alex says. "They wanted accountability and to blame something or someone. They needed a reason for an unreasonable act, and I understand because I've gone through all these questions myself."

Absent what she calls "a definitive answer to an impossible question," Alex shares observations about Mike, hoping they provide missing details. First and foremost, she says, he was depressed, and for a long time.

"He used to talk about shadows," she says in the den of the farmhouse, a couple of dogs and some packing crates nearby. "He would say, 'Sometimes there's this shadow that comes into my life,' and he wouldn't see anything good, just these shadows. ... He would see the world in black and white, without color."

She says Mike saw a psychiatrist for 20 years, but wonders whether he and his doctor were ever able to identify the source of the shadows.

"Mike always wanted to be the one who told people the good news," she says, suggesting that he had not been candid with his doctor. "He never wanted to be the bearer of bad news."

Especially about himself.

"Mike didn't talk or share much with anyone, which is what I wanted from him more than anything else," Alex says. "He was never fully able to open up. He was ashamed of not being perfect, he was afraid of hurting anyone."

In all the times I went fishing with him — he always caught more trout than I did, but never bragged — Mike rarely opened up about problems, and I didn't pry. He'd sometimes briefly vent about the frustrations of trying to make the Orioles a winning franchise again. He shared unhappiness about his status in the organization after his stint as vice president. He expressed disappointment and sadness that the widow of Elrod Hendricks, the beloved Orioles catcher and bullpen coach, suggested that the club had treated her husband — Mike's longtime friend — poorly in the weeks before his fatal heart attack in December 2005.

But most of the time with me, Mike was affable and funny, telling dozens of stories about his teammates from the 1970s and '80s. He certainly never mentioned money problems or seeing a psychiatrist.

Alex goes back to Mike's dugout walk — head down, even after striking out the side. Something haunted him, and she's convinced it went clear back to his childhood in New Hampshire.

Many years ago, when she was still working as a flight attendant and getting to know Mike, he expressed doubts about himself — not just small, fleeting ones, but profound ones. He could go from being playful to expressing dark thoughts. He had been full of doubts about his skills and his worth, he told her, even after winning the Cy Young Award and, in 1983, achieving a world championship with the Orioles.

By any measure, Mike had a long and successful baseball life. He played 12 seasons with the Orioles, went to Toronto for a few years and returned to Baltimore to finish his career. He retired in 1992 with 167 career wins and is a member of the team's Hall of Fame.

He married Alex, his second wife, and they lived in Parkton, on a place with a pond that Mike stocked with trout, not far from Little Falls. Soon after, he became an Orioles broadcaster. He also had stints as pitching coach. Through all those years, Alex says, Mike fought the shadows.

And he drank too much. They came to grips with that problem as a couple several years ago, she says, but eventually Mike became a secret drinker again. "He put a lot of effort into hiding it from me," she says.

She worried when, a few years after the couple and their young daughter moved to the stone farmhouse in Sparks, he started taking his shotgun out of a closet to shoot woodchucks on their property.

"Mike wasn't a hunter," she says. "He was a catch-and-release fisherman who would get upset if a fish he caught died. I think he took the gun out to get anger out of his system."

Over the years, Alex says, Mike resisted confrontations when people ignored his advice — on the mound as he tried to teach young pitchers who called him "dude" or in the front office as he made suggestions about prospects and trades. He shared his frustrations only with her, his best friend.

"Someone would say or do something that bothered Mike, and instead of confronting them about it, he'd come home and express anguish to me at not having stood up to them," she says. "And he'd get bitter at people who didn't seem to put in the time and effort the way he did."

Mike was heart and soul an Oriole, a believer in the Oriole Way. He 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. (The Orioles declined to comment for this article, saying the matter was private.) 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.

Worst of all, she says, was the crushing feeling of no longer being valued — as a player, as an executive and, before he got his final contract with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, a broadcaster.

"He felt worthless," Alex says.

"Insignificant" was the word used in a Baltimore County police report after Alex called them to the farmhouse two months before his suicide. Having contained his pain for so many years, Mike had started to express suicidal thoughts. She hugged him and made him pledge to work at staying alive.

"He was broken," she says. "I spent most of the last four years trying to assure him of just how much he was loved. ... I believed that overwhelming love would do it, but a depressed person can't hear that. I [begged] him to seek more treatment. He started going to counseling twice per week instead of once."

At the same time, her mother had been undergoing treatment for cancer in New Jersey, and that's where Alex was in August when, a few hours after their last conversation, Mike took the shotgun outside for the final time.

"Believe me," she says, "I was frustrated that this was going on while my mother was sick. I tried the best I could, given the situation. But I'll always blame myself for not doing more.

"I loved him so much," she says, breaking into tears, "and I miss him so much."

Alex recently read a New Yorker article about Bruce Springsteen in which the rock star told of his bouts with depression and self-loathing.

"I read that and said, 'Yes, that's it,' and good for Springsteen for telling people about it," she says. "People don't talk about depression enough. It affects so many families, yet people don't face it and learn about it. ... There's still a stigma. More people need to know how horrible depression is, not only for the person who is suffering but to all those who love them and feel helpless. ... I wanted Mike to try medication, and I'll always wonder if it might have made a difference, but I'll never know."

She's read a lot about the disorder since Mike's death and attended a fundraising dinner for a suicide-prevention program in New York. She thinks about working with such an organization here, though her plans seem to be leaning away from Maryland. The farmhouse is for sale. The Flanagans' daughter, Kendall — the youngest of his three — goes off to college in New Jersey this month.

"After Mike died," Alex says, "many close friends told me of friends and family members who had committed suicide, and I received dozens of condolence cards from casual baseball fans who described themselves as survivors. The common thread in the stories was depression, along with the feelings of either hopelessness or insignificance."

She reaches for a lesson or a message in Mike's death: "I want this to be a wake-up call to anyone suffering from depression, dark or suicidal thoughts. There are more people than you'll ever believe that know exactly how you feel, and it's OK to ask for help."

People who knew Mike wonder how we missed seeing pain so severe he would take his own life and leave people he loved in so much grief and anguish.

He was intelligent and witty. He wrote comic poems, loved all kinds of music, loved the outdoors. He long ago earned the respect of thousands of fans around Baltimore, who remember Orioles Magic. Another generation knew him as a competent television broadcaster and knowledgeable baseball man.

He was good at a lot of things, especially, it's clear, at hiding his pain.

Less than two weeks before his death, Mike had taken part in the inductions of longtime trainer Richie Bancells and former shortstop Mike Bordick into the Orioles Hall of Fame. He had appeared happy on that occasion and seemed to have become engaged in the game again, enjoying regular conversations with manager Buck Showalter.

Over the past year, Alex has been going through Mike's possessions, reliving important moments in his life.

Among the many cherished items from his playing days were two photographs that he had had framed together: on the left, Bob Turley throwing the first pitch for the home team at the Orioles' first game at Memorial Stadium, April 15, 1954; on the right, Mike Flanagan throwing the last pitch for the home team in the final game at Memorial Stadium, Oct. 6, 1991.

Mike was particularly proud of having struck out the last two Detroit Tigers batters in front of a nostalgic crowd that remembered his best days. When he came off the mound, in the long shadows of that autumn afternoon, there was such an ovation that Mike lifted his head, raised his black Orioles cap and wiped a tear from his eye.

"That," he later told Alex, "was my most selfish moment in baseball."

Information about suicide prevention

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Maryland Crisis Hotline: 1-800-422-0009; TDD line 410-531-5086

 
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