When You Fall in Love with Baseball

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, August 25, 2011 | | 17 comments »

The Washington Nationals followed a familiar script last night.  They got a good performance from their starting pitcher, only to see it wasted from lack of run support, eventually losing 4-2 to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hold a 2 1/2 game lead over the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants in the N.L. West.

There are plenty of game recaps from all the usual sources with the details of the game.  This is not one of them.

I was 12 years old when Mike Flanagan won the Cy Young and took the Baltimore Orioles to the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979.  I was, to put it bluntly, devastated when the Pirates came back from being down three games to one to defeat my Orioles.  The thought that the Orioles, as good and strong a team as they were, could even possibly lose never entered that 12-year old's mind.

To this day, I'd drive my car off the road if "We Are Family" came on the radio, just so I wouldn't have to hear it again.

The Orioles, and Flanagan, would go on to win their World Series in 1983.  It was a marvellous redemption for everyone that was on that '79 team and all of Baltimore, really.  And at 16, I can remember jumping up and down just like Cal Ripken did at shortstop when he snared that line drive from Garry Maddox to seal the Game Five win over the Phillies. 

But I never did, and probably never will, get over the the sting of losing in '79.

When you're 12, that's a pretty important time in a young person's life; a point where you're old enough to start making decisions based on your own feelings and desires, not just following your parents ideas and opinions blindly.  For me, it's when I fell in love with baseball.

I was always a pretty good athlete growing up.  And I played everything.  Baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, golf.  Whatever was in season.  But my parents weren't all that big into pro sports.  My mom liked football and grew up an Eagles fan and we'd watch Redskins games on Sundays, but my pop really didn't care for team sports and never watched them on t.v.  

The summer of 1979, as the Orioles were beating up the rest of the American League, was the first time in my life that I really got hooked on a team.  They were my team.  I would sneak a transistor radio under my pillow nightly listening to Chuck Thompson and Bill O'Donnell.  It was the year "Orioles Magic" was born.  "Wild" Bill Hagy.

I remember every single one of them like it was yesterday.  Eddie Murray. Rick Dempsey. Al Bumbry.  Jim Palmer.  Dennis Martinez.  Kiko Garcia. The left field combo of Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein, and all the rest.  Every single one of those guys that wore the cartoon bird on his hat -- my pop said it looked like a goofy duck -- is etched in my memory like they were a family member.

But two guys stood out on that team to that particular 12-year old more than all the rest.  And now they're both gone.

The two guys I wanted to be like were Mark Belanger and Mike Flanagan.

Belanger was near the end of his career at that point and was being phased out.  He was used mostly as a defensive replacement, gathering only 242 plate appearances.  But he was still the slickest fielding shortstop in baseball.  I still have my Mark Belanger model glove from little league, even though you can no longer make out his signature in the palm from all the baseballs that have been pounded into it.

Belanger passed in 1998 at the age of 54 from lung cancer.

Last night, sitting in the press box at Nats Park just as the game was starting, the first news reports came in that a body was found on the property of former Orioles great Mike Flanagan.  I treated the report with interest, but never figured Flanagan was actually involved.  The thought never entered my mind. 

But as more information slowly came out and it was confirmed that the body was indeed that of Flanagan, it hit me like a ton of bricks.  As I type this, it's been about four hours since the news was confirmed, and I'm still stunned.

Flanagan's baseball credentials are impeccable.  Cy Young. World Series Champ. Pitching Coach.  General Manager.  Television Analyst.  He may have played for the Toronto Blue Jays for a while, but he was always an Oriole.  He was so respected by his peers that he was the last man to throw a pitch in old Memorial Stadium.  That was the last day something in baseball moved me to tears.

It's been many, many years since I last felt any emotional attachment to the professional baseball team in Baltimore.  The team that plays there now still has "Orioles" stitched across their chest, but they aren't my Orioles.  That team has been long gone.  And now they are dying.

Details will surface about the cause of Flanagan's death. It's immaterial. Anyone that has ever met Flanagan, and I was fortunate enough to as an adult, knows how much the Orioles meant to him. 

Mike Flanagan, and the rest of those Orioles teams, will always be immortal to me.


17 comments

  1. Anonymous // August 25, 2011 at 2:11 AM  

    Nice story on Flanny.

    If you were a true fan, wouldn't you stick by your team through thick and thin instead of jumping ship? I imagine if the Orioles were still a winning franchise, you would still be a fan.

  2. Anonymous // August 25, 2011 at 2:31 AM  

    Good writing. Emotional attachments are very important to sports. It's amazing how attached we get to teams and players. It's crazy how much someone we may have never met means to us but it shows that were true fans.

  3. Over_head (Rob) // August 25, 2011 at 9:13 AM  

    I was an Orioles fan as well and I was 7 in 1979, but I shared the same experience you did. The news of Flanny's passing last night shocked and sadden me. But it also reminded me of wonderful memories, traveling up to Memorial stadium with my family , listening to the games on the radio and later, watching on TV.

  4. Gonat // August 25, 2011 at 9:50 AM  

    This quote below shook me. When you talk about a team being a "public trust" and an owner like Angelos has abused it, you never thought there would be consequences like this. I feel lucky that we have caring owners like the Lerners and Angelos is singularly the reason I left the O's for the Nationals.

    Sources confirmed that Flanagan took his own life "despondent over what he considered a false perception from a community he loved of his role in the team's prolonged failure,"

  5. Becky // August 25, 2011 at 10:39 AM  

    Thank you for the walk down memory lane! I was 14, and still have flash backs when I hear, "We are Family". I keep searching for my "guys" of today... Zimmerman, now maybe, Morse. Yesterday, was Cal's birthday, so sad he had to loose a good friend and teamate. They will forever be "My" Orioles! Just purchased a jersey for the first time in a long while... just hope Mike says here!

  6. Anonymous // August 25, 2011 at 10:46 AM  

    Gonat,
    The Lerners are "caring" owners, last I checked they presiding over two historically bad teams. Sure the future might look bright, but that's in part because they were so bad, thus the Nats were able to have high draft picks. The Orioles have never been that bad before, imagine if they had drafted Harper and Strasburg? The Nats payroll is still smaller than the Orioles despite the Lerners having ~3x the wealth of Angelos(I'm not defending the guy). Sounds very "caring" to me.

    So let me get this straight, you have an owner you don't like, you should just jump ship? Have you done that with the Skins?, Bisciotti is better than Snyder after all. What exactly has Leonsis done, besides early playoff exits?

    Saying an owner has abused a "public trust" is just easy way to stop rooting for a bad team. And I doubt you are a true sports fan.

  7. Dave Nichols // August 25, 2011 at 11:03 AM  

    Thank you all for the comments.

    Anon: you have certainly made your opinion known about what a "true fan" is.

    i didn't stop rooting for a losing team. there are a multitude of reasons I stopped rooting for the Orioles which i wont go into here because that wasn't the reason I wrote this piece. but their record on the field had nothing to do with that.

    so in your logic, no one should root for the Nationals except people under the age of 6 since the Nats didn't exist when they were growing up, or because they presumably were fans of another team since they didn't exist?

  8. Bernie // August 25, 2011 at 11:39 AM  

    One of the best tributes I've read Dave. I didn't know myself how involved with that bunch on players I was until you spelled it out. Great team that was. Flannagan was a big part of it. I pray his soul can rest and his familt can heal. Thx

  9. Anonymous // August 25, 2011 at 11:43 AM  

    Dave,
    No six is insane since I can't remember anything that young really. I would say more like 15 but it's more complex than that.

    I'll explain: If you were NEVER really an Orioles fan, but you followed the Orioles to get your baseball "fix," I don't have any problem with you being a Nats fan. Oh and if you were a Senators fan and became an Orioles fan, I don't really have that much of an issue either. In terms of non-Orioles fan bases conversions, I have less of an issue since you couldn't readily watch the games. It's a case-by-case basis with me.

    From following your work(and you do a damn good job by the way), I've seen your admiration for Cal and hatred of the Pirates from even before my time, so I don't have it(I'm 25), not to mention this excellent tribute to Flanny. I don't understand how you could just cast that aside. You hate the Pirates still from 1979, yet you don't pull for the O's?

    Here's my issue, all the people who were die-hard Orioles fans through the World Series teams(which I never got to experience) and enjoyed the mid-90s success, who "left" because of Angelos, losing, or a combo of the two.

    I just believe many decided to "leave" the Orioles fanbase because Cal retired and the constant losing(like the Nats have ever won). The Angelos "excuse" is a good scapegoat to excuse the latter. If you left the fanbase in 1994 let's just say, I don't have such of an issue because you missed some good times (Cal breaking the Streak/two LCS appearances). Just your leaving coincided with the losing, I guess that's possible.

    I take it these Redskins aren't "your Redskins" since they have become a deplorable product both on and off the field and Gibbs, Monk, and Darrell Green are all gone. But a true fan of course wouldn't jump ship to the Ravens or another team.

  10. Dave Nichols // August 25, 2011 at 12:08 PM  

    Anon: all I can say is it's hard to explain if you're just 25 and didn't experience it. you seem to have a pretty black & white opinion about who and how to root for a team. all i'm saying is that there are shades of gray.

    i don't judge anyone that changes a rooting interest for whatever reason. situations change. people change. things you think are permanent aren't always the case.

  11. Sec314 // August 25, 2011 at 12:15 PM  

    I can understand Dave's point of view completely.

    I was 9 when the baseball bug bit me in 1969 and a die-hard Senators fan. The best team in baseball at the time was the Orioles and they beat up my team regularly.

    The Orioles were the Evil Empire of the time. After 1971 I would beg my parents to drive me to Baltimore from No.Va. so that I could root AGAINST the Orioles.

    It was the 1979 Orioles who started to lure me to fandom. The late season run, the defeat of the Angels all impressed me, but I still rooted against them. I went to Game 6 of the Series and cheered for the Pirates, but it did not feel right.

    In 1982 I moved to Baltimore right out of college and lived within walking distance of Memorial Stadium-- and finally became a full fledged Birds fan...with the caveat that if MY city, Washington, D.C. ever got a team back, I would go back to my true allegiance.

    By 2005 making the switch to the Nationals was easy thanks to Angelos' ineptitude. Trust me, if Jon Miller was still calling the Orioles games on the radio, I'd listen to every one. More than anything else, Angelos' refusal to renew that contract was what really dimmed my interest.

  12. Anonymous // August 25, 2011 at 12:58 PM  

    Dave,
    I said it was "complex" and on a case-by-case basis. So I don't think it is that black&white. And yes things change. You seemed like a pretty die-hard Oriole fan, so it's surprising to me that you "divorced" yourself from them. Sorry if I sounded judgmental, it's a free country, you can make your own decisions. And I was explaining my logic, which is just my opinion. Who knows, maybe ill be a member of Red Sox nation when I am your age.

    I get that you no longer feel a connection to the Orioles as the current cast led by Markakis and B-Rob(on the DL forever it seems) in no way resembles the so-called "Oriole way." I think that has more to do with the times than anything else though. With free agency even more rapid than it was in the 80s. Just saying when Zimm, Stras, Harper, etc are gone these probably won't by "Your Nats" either. Nothing lasts forever after all.

    Sec314,
    I get more where you are coming from as someone who began as a Senators fan(did you see I mentioned that above?) and a DCer. But you would still listen to games of such a lousy team no matter who was broadcasting when you were rooting for a different team? Interesting.

  13. Sec314 // August 25, 2011 at 3:12 PM  

    I listen to Jon Miller do Giants games on Sirius/XM often. He can make any game, even an 8-2 drubbing interesting.

  14. David // August 25, 2011 at 4:21 PM  

    I too was born an O's fan. But I'm from northern Virginia, so DC is my city. Not Baltimore. My dad rooted for the O's because they had a good tradition and they were the closest pro team. We never went to Baltimore except to catch O's games. My favorite player was Mussina growing up. Personally I played baseball every year of my life from kindergarten through senior year of high school, so my connection with the sport is also deep. I can't explain the feeling of finally having a HOMETOWN team to root for. It didn't matter who had better owners (MLB then the Lerners or Angelos). What mattered is I finally had a team with Washington on their jerseys to root for. It opened up a world of D.C. baseball history that was unknown to me. Walter Johnson, Bucky Harris, Goose Goslin, the 1924, 1925 and 1933 pennants. The 1924 World Series. Clark Griffith. Frank Howard. The Short family. One year of Ted Williams. That is D.C. baseball history and it was exciting to connect with that. I don't dislike the O's. I just root harder and pay more attention to the Nats. Plus, the National League game is so much more fascinating to watch than the AL. I'd love to see a World Series, Nats vs. O's. But I know who I'd be rooting for...

  15. Anonymous // August 25, 2011 at 6:47 PM  

    I think the discussion of team loyalty is an interesting one. Maybe a quick discussion of my relationships with the Nats and Orioles will help Anon understand the “it’s complicated” side of team loyalty.

    For myself, I think the character of a team has a lot more to do with a rooting interest than the name on a jersey. Interestingly, my father and grandfather were both Orioles/Colts fans since the 60s, even though they never lived in (or anywhere near) Baltimore. Talking to them, the big thing was the "Oriole way" -- the players were certainly gifted, but most of them, like Flanagan, put team ahead of self, busted their butts each and every day, and focused on playing smart, fundamental baseball (I should note that neither was a big Jim Palmer fan). Same thing with the Colts and Johnny Unitas. They felt a connection because those teams represented their values, and they never lived anywhere large enough long enough to have a real hometown team anyways.

    I grew up rooting for the Orioles in the 80s, but once Angelos bought the franchise my family slowly drifted away. Angelos might not have orchestrated the move to Camden Yards, but as the move nearly coincided with the start of his ownership it really felt like the end of an era. And the “Oriole way” might have been on the way out before Angelos, but again, he really symbolized a new business and a new way of doing things – a meddling egocentric owner with high priced free agents like Albert Belle who couldn’t leave his employees alone to do their jobs and take care of business (a real pity, as he’s a lot of very fine baseball people working for him). In the process, he destroyed a lot of Oriole identity (see running off Ripken).

    Well, my father and grandfather still root for the Orioles, but not with a whole lot of passion. I think they’re still sticking around because there aren’t any other sports franchises these days which embody their values any more than the Orioles do, and they both love baseball.

    As for me, well the Belle signing (and his attempt to run over trick-or-treaters) was really my last straw. I drifted away from baseball for a bit and the start of the Nationals in 2005 seemed like a fresh slate – a team I could follow from the beginning, a team I could follow without feeling like I was just hopping on the bandwagon of last years’ champs. Plus, I love losers.

  16. Anonymous // August 25, 2011 at 10:31 PM  

    Interesting all these stories about everyone's fandom, it wasn't my intention but cool to learn about how everyone's changed.

    I guess my story isn't that interesting since I've only had one team. My dad has always been a huge baseball fan, so I guess you could say he passed it on to me. Living in the DC area without a baseball team and my mom's side of the family being from Baltimore, it was a pretty easy decision to root for the Orioles. Plus from the early to mid 90s as I was growing up they had some decent teams and a bigger identity than I do now. When the Nats came, I didn't switch to them but I fully enjoyed seeing NL ball. Even though I am an AL guy, I actually prefer the pitcher hitting.

    To be honest, I'm not sure who I would be a bigger fan of if I was say 15, but I like following my childhood team and sticking with them. I have great respect for hardcore Nationals fans and I do think it's cool to be able to watch a team grow from the ground up.

  17. Cheryl Nichols // August 26, 2011 at 5:55 PM  

    Orioles are honoring Flanny tonight at Camden Yards.
    http://mlb.mlb.com/bal/fan_forum/flanagan.jsp?partnerId=ed-5190196-219058588