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

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.

 
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