One night a couple of weeks ago, I was walking home from the Metro subway stop to my home, listening to a sports-talk radio station in my ear buds. On came an hourly update that included news that a body had been discovered on the grounds of Mike Flanagan’s four-hectare country estate north of Baltimore, Maryland.
I can’t tell you exactly why, for there was no overt reason to suspect such a thing, but immediately a bleak thought ran through my mind: the body is Flanagan’s, and he has killed himself.
Mike Flanagan had been a Baltimore Orioles baseball star who in 1979 won the American League’s top pitching honor, the Cy Young Award. Later, he became the Orioles’ vice president for baseball operations at a time when the once-dominant franchise had fallen into a morass of lost games and attendance.
Try as he might, Flanagan had no better luck than his predecessors turning the team around, and — local hero or not — he was fired following the 2008 season.
But Flanagan was still beloved for his loyalty to the “O’s,” and for his rapier-like wit. With the team owner’s blessing, he was hired as an analyst on Orioles’ televised game broadcasts. Since those games are beamed into Washington as well as other cities beyond Baltimore, I began to watch and enjoy Flanagan and his droll style.
With a twinkle, Flanagan, a New Hampshireman of few well-chosen words, wrapped adept zingers about the Orioles’ pathetic play into his game analysis.
Subsequent reports confirmed that the body was that of Flanagan, the married father of three lovely girls, including one who had been the nation’s first in-vitro baby to be born naturally rather than via Caesarian section.
He had indeed killed himself with a shotgun blast. Some news reports hinted at money worries, but his friends said they knew of none, and court records revealed no bankruptcy, foreclosures, or other financial issues.
In addition to the expected sad tributes, exceptionally warm reminiscences of Flanagan as a giving, warm-hearted friend poured in.
Many recalled his irresistible wit. In the year that he won the Cy Young Award, for instance, someone asked him about another Baltimore pitcher, Jim Palmer, who had earned the same honor years earlier.
“Yeah, Palmer is Cy Old,” Flanagan replied, without cracking a smile.
One time the Orioles’ mascot, a fellow dressed in a full-body bird costume, fell off the roof of the team’s dugout.
Flanagan, who was nearby, called out to him, “Take two worms and call me in the morning.”
One more example, related by ESPN sports-network reporter Tim Kurkjian:
After a fellow Oriole pitcher who had only a fair fastball, averaging 87 miles per hour, overwhelmed the Toronto Blue Jays’ batters in a game played in Toronto in 1986, Flanagan cracked, “That’s only 82 Canadian” — a sly reference to the unfavorable exchange rate of the Canadian dollar in those days.
But Ken Singleton, his former teammate who is now a broadcaster for the New York Yankees, told Harvey Araton of the New York Times that Flanagan’s quiet good nature masked a silent burden. “Flanny,” as his friends called him, carried a gnawing sense of failure over his inability to revive the struggling Baltimore franchise. “He would read what people wrote on the Internet and take it to heart,” Singleton told Araton. “He wanted so much to make that team a winner again.”
Flanagan’s death occurred during what seemed like a tidal wave of confirmed or possible suicides involving professional athletes.
Among them, three rugged professional hockey “enforcers” — those of just adequate skating and scoring skills but immense talent in throwing their bodies and fists at opponents. One of them, 35-year-old Wade Belak, who was financially set and had a young and vibrant family, hanged himself in a downtown Toronto luxury hotel room. Another, 27-year-old Rick “the Ripper” Rypien, who had missed most of last season because of what his team called “personal issues,” committed suicide in his Alberta home.
Earlier this summer, Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, an American aerial skier who’d won Olympic silver and seven World Cups, and who’d awed the world with his “hurricane” mid-air move mixing three backflips and five twists, shot himself to death after battling depression and alcoholism. “Things have been going wrong for me since the day I was born,” Peterson once told Men’s Journal magazine.
Hideki Irabu, a star Japanese baseball pitcher who had joined the New York Yankees as a can’t-miss superstar but pitched inconsistently and slipped into baseball obscurity with other teams, hanged himself in suburban Los Angeles after his wife left him, taking their two children with her.
And although outwardly happy and engaged to be married, Dave Duerson, a former Super Bowl winner with the Chicago Bears, fired a shotgun into his chest after many setbacks in retirement, leaving behind a note that said he wanted to be sure his brain was undamaged so it could be studied. Duerson had suffered multiple concussions as a player.
Last year, Denver Broncos professional football player Kenny McKinley killed himself with a handgun after being sidelined with a knee injury. And former U.S. Olympic runner Antonio Pettigrew died after swallowing an entire bottle of sleeping pills. Pettigrew and three teammates, caught doping in the 2000 Olympic 1,600-meter relay, had been stripped of their Olympic gold medals.
And three years earlier, one of pro football’s most vicious tacklers, Andre Waters, killed himself at home, 11 years into retirement. Shortly thereafter former college football player and professional wrestler Christopher Nowinski, whose career was ended by post-concussion syndrome, gained the Waters’ family’s permission to have Waters’s brain tested at the University of Pittsburgh. The conclusion: Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football. Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu added that, in his view, this led to Waters’s depression and factored into his suicide.
“You can never link a single act to a disease; however, a large percentage of CTE cases have committed suicide,” Chris Nowinski said after the recent spate of suicides by athletes. “It’s a potential link, something we have to explore.” CTE is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressively degenerating brain disease that has been found in a number of former athletes who had suffered multiple concussions.
Suicides by athletes account for only a handful of the estimated 35,000 Americans and 4,000 Canadians who kill themselves each year, of course. In the United States, suicide is the 11th most common cause of death.
Still, while most anyone encounters stressful pressures, athletes work in a fishbowl. Thousands who cheer them one day may boo them lustily, and en masse, the next. On sports-talk radio and online, the vitriol spat at perceived failures such as Mike Flanagan during his executive days can be unfettered and cruel.
Like others in the public eye, athletes must wonder whether people love them only for their skills and fame and fortunes, not their gentle souls or giving ways or Flannyesque sense of humor.
Reflecting on the deaths of his three fellow hockey bruisers, New Jersey Devils “enforcer” Cam Janssen told the Newark Star-Ledger, “People look at the fame and the money part of pro athletes and they don’t understand how hard and stressful it can be.”
If you look at me, talk to me and see me every day, you’d say, “This kid has absolutely no depression.” But everybody has depression. Some have it more than others. It’s how you deal with it. You can feel sorry for yourself, lock yourself in your room all day and kind of crawl into a hole and deal with it that way. Or you can go out and get something accomplished, work out and do the right things to get over it. There are different ways of coping with depression.
Steve Palumbo, a columnist on the Devils’ Web site, lost a friend to suicide in high school. Reflecting on the rash of recent suicides in pro hockey, he wrote, “Athletes are perceived as superhuman, when in fact it turns out that they may be more vulnerable to mental health issues than non-athletes.”
Many of these athletes keep their demons inside them, and without the proper help it eats at them until they can’t deal with the pain any longer. Most of the time nobody knows anything is wrong until it’s too late, as was the case with my friend.
“Aren’t these young, sculpted, famous, rich gladiators antithetical to the whole concept of depression?” Sports Illustrated magazine senior writer Jon Wertheim asked on the sports site SI.com. “Aren’t pro athletes supposed to be impervious to all manner of pain?”
In their macho world, depression and other mental illnesses “are stigmatized as maladies of the weak,” Wertheim pointed out. Those who exhibit depression symptoms are termed “gutless” or “head cases.” Some are told, as if they had simply twisted an ankle, to “run it off.”
If your reputation and your lucrative earnings and your entire career hinged on “toughing it out” through any and all adversity, would you go to your coach and ask for help in dealing with emotional pain?
You’ve heard the old expression that “money can’t buy happiness.”
Neither, as illustrated by the litany of suicides that I’ve chronicled — and there are many, many more of obscure high-school and college “jocks” — can fame, adoration, and stardom on the field or court or ice.
As I was walking home the evening that I heard about the discovery of a body on Mike Flanagan’s property, something told me that it wasn’t that of a stranger and it wasn’t a natural death, say from overexertion in the garden.
Something, and I can’t tell you exactly what, in Flanagan’s sardonic smile on TV had given me an uneasy feeling that it masked some private grief or sadness.
In the Baltimore Sun a few days after Flanagan’s death, Dan Rodricks quoted Howell Raines, who, in a different but similarly competitive world, was also once riding high.
Raines was executive editor of the New York Times from 2001 to 2003, when a scandal involving a plagiarizing journalist besmirched the paper and cost Raines his job.
Reflecting upon it, he wrote, “There is no guarantee that when a middle-aged man enters the dark forest where the black dog is waiting, he will come out healed. It is possible to be broken there beyond hope of repair.”
The ghostly “black dog,” a nocturnal apparition that portends death in British folklore, became Winston Churchill’s melancholy expression for ever-present depression.
The black dog has no respect for position, wealth, fame — or athletic prowess — when it howls mournfully in one’s mind.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Droll. Whimsical, lightly self-mocking.
Morass. Geologically, a morass is a patch of soggy ground. Metaphorically, it’s a similarly engulfing or overwhelming situation from which one has difficulty escaping.
Sardonic. Cynically mocking. Not just words but also expressions such as smiles can have a sardonic twist.