Thursday, August 25, 2011
Way too soon
My brother and I gave our youngest brother a hard time when we growing up. We made sure that he knew that what we liked and followed was cool and what he liked and followed was lame.
We made up outlandish stories and delighted in our self-satisfied smugness as he believed every last one. We made up games and then excluded him, or at least scolded him when he couldn't get our rules right.
When it came to baseball, we said the Dodgers and Red Sox were the ultimate in greatness. He could root for the Orioles if he wanted, but they would never be as cool as our favorite teams.
When the Orioles faced the Pirates in the World Series in 1979, my brother and I rooted against our youngest brother's favorite team. Vigorously. I really, REALLY did not like the 1979 Orioles, and I think I'd have to go to a psychiatrist to tell you why my 9-year-old brother's favorite team bothered me so much.
Of course, the Pirates came back from a 3-to-1 deficit and won the World Series, and my brother and I reveled in our smug correctness again. We were also relieved that our youngest brother's team did not win a World Series title before we got to experience one from our teams.
My youngest brother did have the good sense to pick a team that was at the height of its success. But he was too young to appreciate Brooks Robinson, Mike Cuellar, Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, or even Jim Palmer.
So when Eddie Murray broke out in 1977, my brother found a player on his team that he could follow from the start and boast about to us. Murray was his guy. And Ken Singleton. Then there was this pitcher that came out of nowhere in 1977 to strike out 149 batters and win 15 games.
His name was Mike Flanagan.
Flanagan had long hair and a mustache like every cool, white ballplayer in the 1970s. Flanagan was on my youngest brother's favorite team. HIS team. Not his oldest brother's favorite team, or his other brother's favorite team. HIS team.
My youngest brother began to mention Mike Flanagan to us in that bragging sort of way that we used when we would bring up Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, or Don Sutton and Steve Garvey. In 1979, Flanagan went 23-9 and won the Cy Young Award. Meanwhile, the Dodgers finished fourth after going to the World Series two straight years. The Red Sox finished third after battling for the pennant three of the previous four years.
Suddenly, my youngest brother's favorite team was the best of the favorite teams in the house. My youngest brother gloated, and Mike Flanagan was often his best argument. We would laugh him off in our superior way, calling Flanagan a one-year wonder.
But Flanagan, never as amazing as he was in 1979, still was as consistent as they come. In 1983, he would help the Orioles win the World Series, and now my youngest brother was the smug one. All I could manage was calling it the dullest World Series I had ever seen.
After Flanagan's career ended, I lost track of him. Eventually I rediscovered him as the Orioles' general manager, a position I never had imagined for a mustachioed, long-haired '70s hurler. He had short hair. And glasses. He didn't seem like the same guy that pitched in the '70s/'80s.
A few hours ago, I heard that Flanagan had been found dead at his home. He was 59 years old.
That is way too young. I'm young enough that it is disturbing when my baseball heroes die. But when my youngest brother's baseball heroes die? That's between-the-eyes territory right there.
Those days seem so long ago only because it's been ages since the Orioles were good. The year 1979 marked my youngest brother's arrival as fan, a fan of a team that knew how to win, a fan that would not back down. Mike Flanagan had a lot to do with giving my brother enthusiasm for his team even as his older brothers tried to beat him down.
I don't feel great about how we treated him, but I chalk it up to brothers and growing up. I'm happy that all of us has experienced a world championship for our favorite team in our rooting lives. I have Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, Pedro Guerrero and Fernando. My other brother has Pedro Martinez, Big Papi, Manny Ramirez and Josh Beckett.
And my youngest brother, still clinging to that 1983 title, has Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Scotty McGregor and Mike Flanagan.
RIP, Mike. You helped a 9-year-old kid stand up for his team.
And, although I would never admit it to my brother then, I'll say this:
I wish you had pitched for my team.