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Observations From Cooperstown: The Comeback, Carlos Pena, and Mike Flanagan

Posted By Bruce Markusen On August 26, 2011 @ 11:21 am In 1: Featured,Bronx Banter,Observations From Cooperstown,Yankees | Comments Disabled

It’s funny how the fortunes of just one game can completely change the complexion and tenor of a column. With the Yankees trailing the A’s, 7-1, on Thursday and seemingly on the verge of being swept by a second-division club, I was ready to lay the hammer down on the team for an inexcusable letdown after a productive road trip. Six innings later, the Yankees had outscored Oakland by a 21-2 margin, set a record by hitting three grand slams in one game, and put the finishing touches on a 22-9 thrashing of the supposedly pitching-rich A’s. So much for a column ripping the Yankees’ effort or performance.

Instead, it’s nothing but praise for a Yankee team that showed some grit this week by trying to stage three consecutive comebacks against the A’s. Two of the comebacks fell short, but the third represented one of the greatest in-game turnarounds in franchise history. A game like the Thursday matinee can do wonders for a team’s confidence–not to mention some individual batting lines. With three hits, Derek Jeter lifted his season average to .299 and his on-base percentage to .360, as he continues to quiet his critics. Curtis Granderson’s grand slam pushed his RBI total over the century mark, giving him 100-plus RBIs and 100 runs scored, and strengthening his argument for the MVP. With a 5-for-5 performance, Russell Martin raised his average to .243, the first time that he has touched the .240s since the spring. And even Eduardo Nunez joined the party with three hits, lifting his batting average to .280 while also turning in an errorless performance at shortstop.

The Yankees won’t score 22 runs in any of their games with Baltimore this weekend, but they should be relaxed and ready to do more damage against one of the American League’s weaker pitching staffs. I have a feeling they may need to score more than a few runs in support of A.J. Burnett, who is scheduled to pitch the Friday night opener. It could be Burnett’s final start of the season, especially if he blows up the way he did against the Twins last weekend…

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The Yankees put in a waiver claim for Carlos Pena this week, yet another indication that they are not satisfied with either Jorge Posada or Eric Chavez as the left-handed hitting DH. But don’t expect Pena to be fitted for pinstripes any time soon; the Cubs pulled back the 33-year-old Pena because they’re not willing to give him up for merely the waiver price. The Cubs would want something tangible in a trade, but the Yankees have little interest in giving up even one legitimate prospect for the former Tiger and Ray. In fact, the Cubs and Yankees did not even discuss a trade involving Pena after the waiver claim, an indication that the teams felt there was no middle ground from which to work.

Could Pena have helped the Yankees? With his 23 home runs and 74 walks, Pena would have added to the Yankees’ game plan of power and patience, and certainly would have been an upgrade over Posada. On the downside, Pena’s average is in the .220s, he strikes out a ton, and he would have offered no long-term help, given his age and his current one-year contract. He’s clearly not the player he was during his peak with Tampa Bay from 2007 to 2009. If the Yankees could have added him on a waiver claim, I would have been all for it, but the notion of giving up even a single prospect for an aging Pena does not strike me as the best of ideas.

In the meantime, the Yankees will continue to scan the waiver wires, and will put in claims for any left-handed hitting DH’s (Hideki Matsui?) or legitimate starting pitchers that might become available. The August 31st deadline is less than a week away. Stay tuned…

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[1]Growing up as a Yankee fan in the late 1970s, I can remember dreading games in which they had to face Mike Flanagan, the ace of the Orioles. With a lineup that leaned so heavily to the left (Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, Oscar Gamble, and Jim Spencer, just to name a few), the Yankees seemed especially vulnerable to Flanagan’s repertoire of deception. He also seemed so unflappable on the mound, showing little emotion as he teased hitters with his great overhand curveball and his sinking fastball.

Flanagan was not overpowering, in the sense that he didn’t throw much higher than the low 90s. But his curveball, changeup, his heavy sinker, and his ability to alter arm angles made him one of the toughest matchups in his hey day. He was a legitimate No. 1 starter who reached his peak during the Orioles’ pennant winning season of 1979. Flanagan was the American League’s best that summer, earning the league’s Cy Young Award on the strength of 23 wins, a 3.08 ERA, five shutouts, and 265 innings of general mastery.

At one time, I thought Flanagan might have been on pace for a Hall of Fame career, but a major leg injury–and not a problem with his elbow or his shoulder–played havoc with that possibility. Flanagan hurt his knee in the midst of Baltimore’s 1983 world championship season; not only was he limited to 20 starts that season, but except for a brief resurgence in 1984, he wasn’t the same pitcher. Given that he was only 31 at the time of the knee injury, it’s certainly fair to speculate how his career might have been different.

Flanagan, who was found dead on his property Wednesday afternoon, was only 59 years old. He was still a force on the Baltimore sports scene, as an active broadcaster for the Orioles on their MASN broadcasts. We still don’t know all of the details of what happened to Flanagan in his final hours–or even in his final days–but the initial determination is that he took his life by putting a gun to his face. According to early reports that came out Wednesday night, he was despondent over the perception that he had failed as one of the team’s top executives from 2002 to 2008 and had contributed to the Orioles’ long run of disappointment in the American League East. Later reports suggest that he may have had financial problems that only added to his feelings of distress.

I don’t know about the financial problems, but Flanagan should not have felt anywhere close to solely responsible for the Oriole decline. Most reasonable observers place the majority of the blame on owner Peter Angelos, who has a tendency to meddle far too often. I would hazard a guess that most Oriole fans consider Flanagan a hero in the history of the franchise, and not as the architect of a franchise decline over the past 15 years.

As a Yankee fan, I would have liked to have seen Mike Flanagan pitching for my team in the late seventies and early eighties, specifically from 1979 to 1983. He would have been a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium–and would have helped the team win a lot more games during those tumultuous seasons. Mike Flanagan would have been great as a Yankee, and that’s as good a complement as I can give to any player. Rest in peace, Mr. Flanagan.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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