HELLER: Flanagan tragedy puts losing in perspective

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It is impossible to understand, of course, what caused Mike Flanagan to pull the trigger Wednesday afternoon. Speculation has run rampant since the tragedy, and much of it surmises that the Baltimore Orioles‘ ongoing failures were responsible for the suicide of a man who spent nearly 40 years as a player, executive and broadcaster with the organization.

We can only hope this was not a factor, likely though it might seem. Even for those of us who love baseball from within and without, it is important to remember it is only a game and therefore not very important in the overall scheme of things.

Everyone who knew Flanagan — and I did, although not well — understood that he was devastated when owner Peter Angelos fired him as executive vice president of baseball operations (read: general manager) four years ago and hired Andy MacPhail. Some reports indicated Flanagan had been depressed since then over what the Orioles‘ diminished fan base thought of his efforts.

True, Flanagan and executive partners Jim Beattie and Jim Duquette were unable to reverse an interminable skid that has produced 14 consecutive losing seasons, including this one. There was some hope when veteran manager Buck Showalter took over in midseason 2010 and led the O’s to a startling 34-23 finish. Yet that clearly was an aberration, as demonstrated by this year’s 51-77 record.

Surely every fan between Philadelphia and Washington knows who turned one of baseball’s best franchises into one of its worst. Since buying the club in 1993, Angelos has wrecked it with a meddling, dictatorial ownership style that can be loosely translated as “my way or the highway.”

Over 18 years, Angelos and his minions have hired and/or fired seven general managers (including 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Pat Gillick), nine field managers and heaven knows how many gatekeepers and ushers. His two sons supposedly run the club now, but I imagine King Peter is never far away with “suggestions.”

Almost a decade ago, I compiled this Top Ten list (with apologies to David Letterman) of reasons to no longer support the Orioles. No. 1: Cal Ripken is no longer around. Nos. 2-10: Peter Angelos is. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for a baseball lifer like Flanny to need approval of every move from Angelos, a guy who excelled primarily at winning asbestos-related lawsuits rather than ballgames.

If Flanagan’s suicide was indeed related to what used to be called our national pastime, he is hardly the first victim. The Baseball Almanac lists nearly two dozen players or former players who took their own lives. The most prominent case in recent decades involves Angels pitcher Donnie Moore, who shot and killed his wife and himself in July 1989, three years after he allowed a crucial home run by Dave Henderson of the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS and earned the everlasting wrath of the team’s fans.

Going further back, Red Sox manager Chick Stahl swallowed poison during spring training in 1908, Reds backup catcher Willard Hershberger slit his throat in a hotel room in August 1940 and former Dodgers relief pitcher Hugh Casey shot himself in July 1951. There are far too many others on this grim list.

Most people involved with professional sports understand that losses, even the embarrassing kind, are part of their game. Blame, like credit, always belongs to everybody who took part in a sporting endeavor that ended up the wrong way. But it is easy to forget this during the so-called agony of defeat and its aftermath. It’s extremely unwise and unhealthy for a player, manager or executive to feel that he let everybody down.

During days to come, we’ll hear much more about what motivated Flanagan to end his life, but it will all be pointless guesswork. All that matters is that a good, respected and universally liked man is gone. As former teammate and broadcast partner Jim Palmer put it, simply and sadly, “You are not ready to lose somebody like Mike Flanagan.”

• For more of the author’s columns, go to dickheller.wordpress.com

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