Baseball, Mike Flanagan, and Depression
It’s now been a week since former pitcher Mike Flanagan’s death rocked the world of major league baseball. It’s been six days since Flanagan’s death was ruled a suicide. And it’s taken me all this time to try, somehow, to come to terms with Flanagan’s death enough to discuss it because I think it’s important.
Flanagan lived an interesting, fulfilling life, and was a bright man with a biting wit and a winning personality to go along with his substantial athletic gifts; all you have to do to understand this is to read Washington Post baseball writer Thomas Boswell’s tribute to him, or perhaps former Washington Post baseball writer Jane Leavy’s piece about how unusual Flanagan was because he wasn’t self-focused as many athletes are, or better yet, Kevin Cowherd’s assessment in the Baltimore Sun (reprinted by the Boston Herald, where I found it) on how the Orioles did their best to cope in their first game back (Friday night) after Flanagan’s suicide. All of these are essential reading if you want to know who Flanagan was, much less how big a hole his passing has left in its wake.
But to this long-time Brewers fan, the best way I have to remember Flanagan is to remember how good a pitcher he was. How strong a competitor he was. How indomitable his spirit seemed while he was out on the mound, and how impressive Flanagan was even in defeat (which was a rare thing as the Brewers seemingly never got the better of him).
But baseball, as important as it was to Flanagan, wasn’t the sum total of his life. Flanagan was a husband, a father, a friend, a mentor, and many other good things in a life that spanned fifty-nine years; that he left behind three daughters, a wife, many close friends and a baseball community behind who will miss him greatly is heartbreaking.
Depression is an illness that knows no boundaries; it can strike anyone at any time. Baseball players are far from immune, and baseball itself should have realized this quite some time ago as it’s been over fifty years since Jimmy Piersall wrote FEAR STRIKES OUT, the story of Piersall’s struggles with mental illness and how he overcame them to play professional baseball with the Boston Red Sox and other teams. And yet despite the publication of Piersall’s important book, it seems like baseball would rather not admit problems like Piersall’s — or Flanagan’s — exist.
Flanagan’s depression and suicide is not an isolated incident by any means, as there have been a number of players suffering depression in recent years. Joey Votto, famously, had to make a statement regarding his father’s death and subsequent severe depression. Ken Griffey, Jr., once tried to commit suicide; fortunately, he didn’t succeed. On the Milwaukee Brewers, my favorite team, there are two players — both pitchers — who have problems often linked to depression or anxiety. These are Zack Greinke, who has SAD, an anxiety disorder treated by medication, and Zach Braddock, who has a severe sleep disorder that may well have caused some depression — quite understandably, to be sure — and who is now on the disabled list.
So this problem is not unknown here in Milwaukee; in actuality, we should be among the cities who understand this issue the most because two of our players are battling these problems.
Yet it disturbs me that so little has been said in the Milwaukee area regarding the death of Flanagan, who was a superb pitcher in his time and used to give the Brewers fits (this, of course, was when the Brewers were still in the American League). Bob Uecker discussed the rain-out of games due to Hurricane Irene and made an off-handed remark after finding out that the Orioles didn’t want to schedule a double-header on Friday that Baltimore probably “didn’t want to lose out on gate receipts” in conversation with Cory Provis on the Brewers Radio Network last Friday night. But Uecker had to know that the real reason the Orioles didn’t want to play a double-header that evening is because the team was grieving and in shock as Flanagan had been one of the Orioles’ television broadcasters at the time of his death, and had been heavily identified with the whole Orioles franchise as he’d been a player, coach, assistant general manager, and member of the television broadcast team. And Friday’s game between the Orioles and Yankees was the very first one since Flanagan’s death had been ruled a suicide; tributes to Flanagan, including a moment of silence and a retrospective of Flanagan’s service to baseball and the Orioles franchise in particular, abounded during Friday night’s game as Cowherd’s article, referenced above, clearly shows.
Lest you think that it’s only the Brewers radio broadcast team that seemingly would rather avoid the whole subject of Mike Flanagan, the Brewers television broadcast team of Brian Anderson and Bill Schroeder also hasn’t said anything at all regarding Flanagan to the best of my knowledge. The only possibly reasoning that I’ve come up with as to why Anderson and Schroeder would be silent is that due to the Brewers impressive record and season (in the last 32 games, the Brewers are 27-5, one of the best stretches in their history, and are currently 10.5 games ahead of their nearest National League Central Division rival, the St. Louis Cardinals) that talking about Flanagan would be “a downer” or perhaps even irrelevant despite the fact that Schroeder was a catcher for the Brewers years ago and had to bat, several times, against Flanagan.
The lack of discussion regarding Flanagan is disturbing, because depression is a part of life. Many of us have light bouts with it from time to time, and we pull out of it; some have heavier bouts, get medication, and are eventually able to pull out of it. But some, sadly, cannot pull out of it no matter how hard they try, with Flanagan obviously belonging to this last list along with 49 other baseball players known to have taken their own lives.
How I wish baseball weren’t so close-mouthed regarding those who suffer with depression. How I wish that baseball would do what Leavy suggested:
Flanagan’s suicide and that of former Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu after the spotlight passed them by, that of Denver Bronco’s receiver Kenny McKinley and LPGA golfer Erica Blasberg after suffering debilitating injuries, and that of former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied for evidence of trauma-induced disease — which was found to be ample — cry out for the availability of on-going psychological services for professional athletes and for a reexamination of the fallacious assumptions we make as a result of their sturdy professional lives.
I agree with Ms. Leavy, and wish that baseball along with all professional sports would come out of the “dark ages” and realize that depression is not a dirty word, nor one to be shunned. Those with the courage to admit they have a problem and get help for it should be appreciated, rather than being pushed to the side or ignored.
Considering that major league baseball has known since 1957, if not before, that some of its players have struggled with mental illness, anxiety, depression, and now sleep disorders (which often have a depressive component mixed in), it’s long past time that baseball did something to attempt to head future tragedies like Flanagan’s off at the pass. And if they decide to actually do something about all this, that would be the best memorial to Flanagan’s life that this baseball fan could possibly imagine.