It was a different time.
It's funny how much things can change in 25 years (yes, I know I am 38, but bear with me). The Orioles were the only pro game in town. And while they were going through a rough patch they were only a few years removed from winning the World Series, so it isn't like there was some hugely disaffected fan base (like there is now). They didn't have to show up in orange shorts (and I mean shorts. This is pre-Fab 5 Michigan length) and tank tops to my middle school and play a game against some of the students and faculty. But they did.
I know now that they probably did this all over the state, but to my 7th and 8th grade brain these were the guys I watched in awe on the baseball field walking into my crappy gymnasium to take us on. They had just finished the regular season and I just knew that the calendar in the locker room had "Sept. 14,15,16 @NYY. Sept. 18,19,20 TEX. Jan. 17 @CBMS (that January date was circled in red ink, because THAT one was personal). And it wasn't just a bunch of end-of-the-bench and mop up reliever guys playing. It was Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray and Scott McGregor and Storm Davis.
And Mike Flanagan.
I don't remember much about the game (other than that we lost and that there was a picture of Mr. McMurray - one of our gym teachers - executing a perfect bounce pass past the outstretched arms of Cal in the yearbook. His face was the picture of concentration. HE was not in awe of these baseball players, that is for sure), and I don't recall any specific interactions with any of the players (I do recall a lot of the girls in my class swarming Cal after the game to get his autograph because they had crushes on him and his ice / steel blue eyes). I wish I could tell you that Flanagan said something to me, that he flashed his trademark sardonic wit and gave a kid a thrill. But I can't. He (like all of the Orioles) was polite, he was friendly, but he wasn't out there to find a 12 year old kid to make his new best friend. So my only real personal memory of Mike Flanagan, besides watching him pitch or listening to him during a game, is watching him run past me on the way to an easy layup. To tell you the truth, I don't remember being bothered all that much by being scored on by Flanagan (which is probably one of the reasons the Orioles won rather easily every time they played our school. That and because they were playing a mix of Social Studies teachers and gangly 13 year olds who were trying to figure out why their voice was cracking and why they were suddenly growing hair or boobs - or in the case of the hair growers how they could get to see those boobs - and why they had become REALLY uncoordinated).
By now you have heard that Mike Flanagan is dead. There are all sorts of rumors flying around right now about how (and possibly why) he died, but to be honest I don't care about that. The how and the why are secondary to the who, and the who is a man that cared as much about this ballclub as any one person has ever cared about anything. Whatever he was asked to do, he did it. He started games, he pitched in relief, he was traded for prospects and then came back as a Spring Training tryout (he was not even offered a minor league deal, which could easily be taken as a sign of disrespect) and made the team again, he worked in the broadcast booth, in the dugout as the pitching coach (on two separate occasions), and in the front office. I'm pretty sure that if someone had asked him to walk the aisles hawking beer or hot dogs he would have done it.
In an era where the vast majority of athletes are little more than high priced rentals, Mike Flanagan's dedication to the team that drafted him stands out. But our loss as fans who remember him for all he did for our team pales to the loss his family and friends are feeling right now. And while I know that the 24 hour news cycle demands fodder to be fed to it constantly, I hope that everyone takes a step back and thinks about what they would want if this was their teammate, their friend, their father, or their spouse, and gives those who are grieving that same respect.