One pitcher's integrity and one batter's lack of it

Baltimore Sun

Mike Flanagan, a Cy Young Award winner from back in the day, when the Orioles were winners, pitched in Major League Baseball's two eras - before juicing and after juicing. His long and strong career in Baltimore was coming to a close as Mark McGwire's was picking up speed in Oakland, and just as professional baseball players started seeing and hearing more about performance-enhancing drugs.

Mr. Flanagan has a distinct memory of facing Mr. McGwire in California in 1991, and the retired pitcher's story provides an insider's view of the steroid scandal and why it matters. It matters because baseball matters, because records matter, because honesty and integrity matter.

"Day game in Oakland, and sunny," says Mr. Flanagan who, like his longtime Orioles teammate Jim Palmer, has impressive recall of dates, places, game situations, weather conditions and specific pitches thrown to various batters. Mr. Flanagan, a lefty, had pitched for the Orioles from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s. He went to Toronto for a few seasons, then returned to Baltimore for the 1991 season, the last at old Memorial Stadium.

By then, Mr. Flanagan was 39 years old; he had been converted to a relief pitcher and was effective in that role, though the Orioles struggled with limited hitting in their lineup. (Their 1991 season record was 67-95.) On a May afternoon in Oakland, his manager, Frank Robinson, gave Mr. Flanagan a start against the Athletics. There was a good reason for that: Mr. Flanagan had never lost a game there. In Oakland, he was 15-0. And that included pitching against the young sluggers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, as their careers took off in the late 1980s.

Mr. Flanagan stepped on the pitcher's mound in Oakland on May 8, 1991, with a 1.50 earned run average. He was quite aware of where he stood among Orioles pitchers at the time - fourth in wins, directly behind Mike Cuellar. In the last year of his pitching career, Mr. Flanagan wanted to surpass Mr. Cuellar, and he was within three wins of doing so.

Tough as it was for a relief pitcher to get wins, especially with a team that would end up in sixth place, Mr. Flanagan relished the opportunity to face the A's as a starter.

The leadoff batter hit a double that hit chalk on the way to left field. The second batter reached first on a bunt single. Mr. Flanagan struck out the next batter, Mr. Canseco.

The fourth batter was Mr. McGwire.

"I remember when he and Canseco came along, I had never seen guys who looked like that," says Mr. Flanagan. "There had been some big guys around in my time, but not like that. They did not look human to me."

Since Monday, when he made his admissions after several years of denials, Mr. McGwire has said he started using steroids in 1993 and 1994. In an interview with television's Bob Costas, however, he said he had tried "a couple of weeks' worth" of the drugs in 1989 and 1990.

Many in the baseball world suspect that Mr. McGwire started using steroids because of a slump in 1991. However, Mr. Canseco says Mr. McGwire is still lying about the duration of their steroid use while teammates from 1986 to 1992.

Mr. Flanagan is convinced that Mr. McGwire was using steroids by the time he faced him in Oakland in 1991.

"I threw a good pitch," Mr. Flanagan recalled the other day. "It was low and in the middle, almost on the ground, just where you wanted it. With McGwire, you always wanted to stay away and change speeds. Center field is the largest part of the ballpark in Oakland, and on a sunny day the ball doesn't carry there. So that's where you want him to hit it."

Mr. Flanagan was amazed at what happened in the next instant. McGwire golfed at the low-and-dirty pitch and what, in the before-juicing era, might have been a fly ball ended up as a three-run homer.

In Peter Schmuck's account of the Orioles loss in The Baltimore Sun the next day, Mr. Flanagan was quoted as saying he had thrown a "bad pitch." In his memory, however, it remains a good pitch; the result never made sense, always bugged him and, as the years went by, made him more suspicious of Mr. McGwire.

Mr. Flanagan did not surpass Mike Cuellar on the all-time Orioles wins list, something that mattered to him. He finished his career with 141 wins as an Oriole, two behind Mr. Cuellar, and with 167 wins over all.

Mr. Flanagan, like almost all of the major leaguers of the before-juicing era, did things the old-fashioned way, and the record of their time in baseball stands without the shame of having cheated and without a lot of asterisks to qualify their accomplishments.

Whatever was at work that day in Oakland 19 years ago - Mr. Flanagan having a bad moment, or Mr. McGwire getting an edge from anabolic steroids - Mr. Flanagan still has his good name and his integrity. Mr. McGwire has shame and an asterisk.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
81°