A cold, steady rain mixed with snow had caused Game One of the 1979 World Series to be postponed. The following day, morning snow and afternoon rain had given way to a cold and damp evening, with the game time temperature 41 degrees. More than three hours later, it was considerably colder as Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan and Pirates slugging first basemen Willie Stargell stared each other down with two outs in the ninth inning, their breath apparent in the chilled night air. The effect of the biting cold had been plainly evident in the combined six errors committed that night by two normally excellent defensive teams. Mr. Flanagan, however, inning after inning, seemingly willed himself to keep pitching, despite the falling temperature and the unpredictable play that it produced.
The Orioles had taken a 5-0 lead in the first inning, thanks, in large part, to two walks, a critical error and a wild pitch. Doug DeCinces' two-run homer had helped drive Pittsburgh's starter, Bruce Kison, from the game, but four relievers would hold the home team in check for the remainder of the long, cold night. Meanwhile, with the advancing chill, the Pirates had pecked away against the Orioles' 23-game winner. Two singles and two groundouts produced a run in the fourth inning. In the sixth, an error resulted in two unearned runs. In the eighth, Mr. Stargell's home run had brought the Pirates to within one. Now he faced Mr. Flanagan again in a 5-4 game.
Earlier in the inning, Dave Parker had singled with one out. Mr. Flanagan, executing with a deftness that defied the conditions, the late hour and his fatigue, cleanly picked Mr. Parker off first. However, Mr. Parker's hard slide into second base dislodged the ball from shortstop Mark Belanger's glove, and the error left the runner safe at second. He moved to third on a groundout, bringing the powerful Mr. Stargell to the plate with two outs and the tying run 90 feet away.
It was their fifth confrontation of the night. Mr. Stargell, a future Hall of Famer, had struck out twice and driven in a run on a groundout before his solo home run. The presence of prayer was palpable throughout bone-chilled Memorial Stadium. The gloved hands of fans wrenched as if caressing imaginary rosaries. With the count two balls and one strike, Mr. Parker prepared to spring from third. Mr. Stargell began his characteristic windmill swing before coming set to await the pitch. Mr. Flanagan took a breath, went into his motion and delivered the ball. Mr. Stargell swung mightily and made contact, the ball rising off his bat like the launch of a toy rocket. All eyes followed its trajectory high up into the freezing mist. Relief for the home faithful arrived in form of Mark Belanger's flailing arms, signaling that he would make the catch. The ball finally settled into his glove in shallow left field. Mike Flanagan had a complete game World Series win.
It was just one night of Mike Flanagan's notable career. One night in the history of Orioles baseball. One night in a town's collective memory. But Mike Flanagan was one of us. A son we adopted and followed with pride, and with whom we shared both exaltation and disappointment. He was a part of our community and the spiritual bond we shared when the Orioles were the class of baseball.
That he died in August so tragically — by his own hand, at home, in our midst — is incongruent with the never-give-up determination that was so evident that long-ago October night; the same determination that allowed him to overcome a serious and painful knee injury, to pitch with a heavy leg brace, and, ultimately, learn to pitch with guile when his superb athleticism was diminished. It is in deep contrast to the easy humor to which he had made us so accustomed. It is anathema to the images we have of his unflappable composure under pressure.
And in his death we have lost of part of our revered past that, in a most somber way, reflects disturbingly on the state of the Orioles baseball team that so many of us once cherished. Mike Flanagan was a beloved part of a group of players that became a family to each other, and part of the greater family of our community. It was a rare confluence of individual talents, personalities, and a town eager to embrace them. Their hard work and professionalism reflected with pride the image we wished for ourselves.
Now, on the final day of the 2011 season, we have a team that has produced an unfathomable 14th straight losing season. They did manage to put on a late season surge, and, at the same time, introduce new faces, some acquired in trades and others promoted from the minors. However, their admirable September performance against contending teams cannot overshadow the fact that the franchise, which once had winning seasons in 24 out of 26 years (including 18 in a row), is finishing in last place for a fourth straight year.
The annual losing has become a painful exercise for devoted fans. It is painful, too, for the downtown businesses that once reveled in the crowds and excitement brought by a packed Camden Yards and now suffer the economic damage spawned by dwindling attendance that has fallen to 26th of the 30 major league teams. Indeed, the team has witnessed an entire generation of potential fans who have passed through childhood without the euphoria of cheering for a winner.
One can only hope that the current state of the Orioles is alarming enough to ownership that it takes the drastic and assertive action necessary to produce a team that will foster fond memories for a new generation. Like the time we shivered in the cold and held our breath as Mike Flanagan, summoning the last fragment of effort, sent us jubilant into the night.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is email@example.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun