Mike Flanagan always made me laugh. Always. Even when the Orioles were playing their worst baseball. Even when the reason for my call was serious or grim. He had an easy way about him. A quick one-liner to ease the tension and put a smile on my face.
I covered the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun from 2002 to 2004. Flanagan, the 1979 Cy Young Award winner, was a TV analyst and a close friend of the owner, Peter Angelos. Flanagan moved into a job as co-General Manager, with Jim Beattie, and their first spring together running the team was 2003.
Since Flanagan's death Wednesday, from an apparent suicide, people have asked me what kind of person he was. To sum it up, here's a story I wrote for The Sun in February 2003, at another heartwrenching time in Orioles history. Most of the words are Flanagan's.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - They talked about baseball. They talked about life.
They laughed, they cried and they hugged.
For a few hours early Monday morning, when she wasn't sure if her husband would live or die, Kiley Bechler had someone she could turn to: Orioles vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan.
Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old Orioles pitching prospect, collapsed during Sunday's practice and suffered heatstroke, with his body temperature rising to 108 degrees. Kiley Bechler, who is 7 1/2 months pregnant, was driving cross-country when she got the news. After flying from Salt Lake City, she arrived at the hospital after midnight.
By 1:50 a.m., Steve Bechler's condition had stabilized. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and several staff members looked exhausted, so Flanagan sent them home, volunteering to remain at the intensive care unit with Kiley Bechler, who is 22.
In his own words, this is how Flanagan yesterday described those hours with a young woman he learned to admire:
We had the chance to start talking, and this woman was so down-to-earth and so grounded. She talked about her worries for Steve and what a loss it would be if he would never get to see his child.
I called home and told my wife, Alex, to talk with Kiley, so she could get a woman's perspective. They talked for an hour.
We started talking about baseball, things Kiley was remembering about Steve, and that triggered things that I remembered about coming through (the minors) for the first time.
We went all the way back to the first time they met. She told me how she used to pitch, how her changeup was better than Steve's. It was incredible stuff.
I put Alex back on the phone for a while, and then we would step outside to get some air because she had been traveling. (Kiley) just talked about what being an Oriole meant to her. It was incredibly draining and emotional.
At about 4:30 or 5, we wanted to shower and freshen up. Phil Itzoe, our traveling secretary, had made arrangements for her to stay in a hotel room if she wanted. I needed to get back and get a battery charger for my phone.
We got back around 5:30, and things looked good. There were people she wanted to call to give them updates.
At 7:30, I needed to go address the club.
I said, "I'll go over there for an hour and then come back."
And she said, "Can I go?"
The report (on Steve) had just come back very positive, though things were still very critical, obviously.
I said, "Are you sure?"
She said, "I'd like to talk to the players."
I said, "Absolutely, if you think you're strong enough to do it, sure."
And so, without hesitation, she came here, she didn't write anything down, and she gave the players a very heartfelt story about what she knew had transpired and brought us all to tears.
About 20 minutes after that, I got a call directly from the hospital that his condition had turned again. So we jumped in the car, going 70 mph down the road, and I said, "Are you OK?" and she said, "I drive much faster than this."
We got to the hospital, left the car doors open, left the car running.
Family members still had not been able to arrive, coming cross-country (from Oregon), so it was really Dr. (William) Goldiner (Orioles team physician), Kiley and myself as things continued to go badly.
And of course, she was hoping and watching the clock, hoping family would get in, and it didn't look like it would take place.
Allowing me to go in (the room), she would show me the callus on his finger, and she knew it was from his pitching. Incredible detail.
Baseball players are very concerned about numbers: ERA, wins and losses. The important number for her at that point was 10/22 - their wedding date - and I just happened to glance at my watch; it was 10:14.
Knowing the time, she said, "He's going to go soon."
She had that sense.
(Steve Bechler's official time of death was 10:10 a.m.)
The hospital staff was incredibly emotionally involved. I've never in my life seen such compassion for a potential young widow. You don't see nurses and doctors, who are used to life-threatening situations on a daily basis, become so connected with a young lady.
It was just an incredible journey, and she had the strength to get through it.