"There is no guarantee that when a middle-aged man enters the dark forest where the black dog is waiting, he will come out healed. It is possible to be broken there beyond hope of repair."
-- Howell Raines, from "Fly Fishing Through The Midlife Crisis"
Mike Flanagan and I became friends after his major league pitching career ended and most of his old teammates and fishing buddies from the glory years of the Baltimore Orioles had scattered across the country. We were transplanted New Englanders, rooted in Maryland and approaching middle age with fly rods in our hands — mine in my right, Mike's in his left.
Because he was a southpaw, we could wade to the middle of a river — say, the Big Gunpowder Falls in Baltimore County — stand side by side and cast to separate banks. Mike always managed to catch more trout on the left bank than I did on the right, but he never rubbed that in, and he never bragged.
His ability to catch wild trout was uncanny. While I practiced the craft of fly fishing as it had been taught to me, matching the aquatic flies that hatched in the river with the manmade feather-and-fur ones in my fly box, Mike eschewed the science and caught three times the fish I did with just about any old fly that would float and that looked right in the moment.
He was blessed with great eyesight — "Ted Williams' eyes," I called them — and he could spot trout, make perfect casts to them and instill the lightest, magical charge into the line to make a fly dance and a finicky trout rise.
We fished the Gunpowder in the 1990s at a time when that river's reputation as a trout stream was spreading throughout the East. I have vivid memories of Mike quietly catching a half dozen trout as visiting anglers from other states, who had been skunked in their daylong efforts, watched in disbelief.
We fished in Pennsylvania and in New York. We made several trips with one of Mike's best friends, the Orioles longtime trainer Richie Bancells, to the great rivers of Western Maryland. We had a memorable day on Deer Creek in Harford County, during an April shad run, when we stood side by side and landed and released 100 fish among us.
We also fished the creek that flowed through Mike's land in Sparks. It was in 1998, a few days before Thanksgiving, when we went prospecting in the creek for the first time. Mike had been busy with the Orioles, serving in different capacities after his playing days, and he hadn't had time to survey the creek. Our expectations were low; we believed the water too warm, too degraded by erosion from upstream farming, to hold trout. But, an hour into our hike, we had a "wow" moment.
I caught the first one — a dinky brown trout, but proof of life. Thirty minutes later, Mike hooked a frisky, 14-inch brown in a deep hole beneath a leaning sycamore. Ten minutes after that, I lifted out of the water the head of a brown that must have been 2 feet long before an osprey ripped it apart. At that moment, Mike and I felt like two prospectors who had struck gold.
So we fished his creek often over the years.
We didn't talk about the Orioles unless Mike wanted to. After the 1997 season, the last time the team made the playoffs, there was a lot of losing, a lot of frustration. Later, Mike took on more responsibility; he worked harder and harder, and we didn't fish as much as we should have. He loved Baltimore and wanted to restore the Orioles to the winning ways he had known in the 1970s and 1980s.
In recent years, he talked more about his frustrations, and I heard in his voice something I had never heard in the two decades of our fishing friendship: bitterness. After he lost his job as the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, he felt kicked aside and wholly unappreciated. He spoke to me about writing a book together, a tell-all about the demise of a great baseball franchise. I wasn't sure he was serious. But, during a second conversation, it was clear that Mike believed his days in the Orioles organization were over, and he really wanted to write such a book.
Some time after that, in early 2010, he signed on as a TV color commentator. Though he desired a greater role with the club, I thought Mike was getting his groove back, and by this summer I assumed that we would go fishing again in October. That was our routine — baseball and business in spring and summer, fishing and replenished friendship in the fall and early winter.
I spoke to Richie Bancells the other day, after Mike took his own life on his land in Sparks, above the creek where we had fished, and he expressed the same shock, heartbreak and soul-wrenching loss that I felt and that so many others have felt. Mike hadn't let on that the black dog was still on his trail, deep in the woods. Either he hadn't called out for help or we hadn't heard him, and we'll wonder about that for the rest of our lives.