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Aug '11 29

Old World Pastime – On Ballplayers and Mental Health



John Miller, a Belgian-American journalist, and a player/coach for the Brussels Kangaroos, is in his fourth year of writing Old World Pastime, a take on baseball as lived in 21th century Europe.

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic

From “Perfection Wasted” by John Updike

In July 1987, I was nine, on vacation in Maryland with my parents. My uncle Steve took us to Memorial Stadium, the Orioles’s grand old brick park.

It was a day when fans were let onto the field. I shook hand with Cal Ripken. A pretty girl next to me gave him an envelope.

One player, I remember, carried on actual conversations. I snapped his picture and, for years, kept it in my box of family snaps. That player was Mike Flanagan.

For the 24 years between that summer day and last week, I followed his pitching, coaching and broadcasting. His voice became familiar. I felt like I knew him.

So his suicide last week at age 59 is like losing a planet one has long gazed at from afar.

I’m only 34, but I’ve seen enough mental illness in friends and family to know that it strikes mercilessly. The details that drive some to self-slaughter are just details. It is the darkness, not the cards, that says fold.

That fragility, to different degrees, is part of being human. But it takes shape in childhood, and it’s worth thinking about as we watch 12-year-olds in the Little League World Series. We baseball coaches are stewards of a priceless, vulnerable piece of a young man’s life, when he wakes up to a talent for playing shortstop or pitching or stealing bases.

There is a risk that we convey that the player is to be appreciated only because he can pick it and make the throw from the hole. Teach that, and beware the painful emptiness when the ball gets through.

The hardest part of being a coach is not communicating an appreciation for excellence. That’s easy, isn’t it?

The challenge, I would argue, is communicating that you are not judging kids on being kids, that you are grading only hardball plays, and that they are always worthy of appreciation and respect for who they are, no matter what.

This is hard. I’ve not yet figured out how to do it well. But I know it’s important.

It was clear reading the clips that Flanagan was a man who had married himself to his identity as a baseball pitcher. It was what he was good at. And he was good when the Orioles were great, winning a World Series in 1983.

Rare is the individual ballplayer who maintains his sense of self through good times and bad. And when the good times were so good, it is ever harder to remind yourself, when the winds turn, that you might need to take a walk and find a few flowers elsewhere.

There was speculation in the media that Flanagan was depressed because the Orioles who have been terrible in the last decade, including between 2002 and 2008 when he was co-general manager.

We have no idea whether this is true, and it is none of our business.

But there is a lesson here, especially for we who run baseball in Europe, and are prone to a. falling in love with the odd B+ player who comes along and b. risk despairing over a poor team or organization.

Sometimes, a baseball leader needs to remind himself and his players that we are all human and noble, even when we don’t hit doubles in the gap. You never know whose hidden darkness those words might shine into.

As I read dozens of stories about Flanagan, one that stuck was a fan’s description of meeting Flanagan at spring training a few years ago. He asked for an autograph. The 1979 Cy Young award winner penned his name followed by the tag, “CY ‘79”.

Just “Mike Flanagan” was not enough.

This is a rather serious topic for OWP, but I’m still taking your emails at oldworldpastime@gmail.com




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