Throwing sinkerballs with his right-handed, three-quarters delivery, John Flinn pitched a dozen seasons of professional baseball, but only 42 games in the majors. As a big-leaguer, Flinn won five, lost two, posted a respectable 4.17 ERA and held Hall of Fame members to only two hits in 23 at-bats (Carlton Fisk notched both). But it was in Double-A ball that Flinn found love, started his family, and built a home 2,400 miles away from his native California.
John Richard Flinn was born on September 2, 1954, in Merced, California, located in the central San Joaquin Valley. His father, Richard M. “Dick” Flinn, a contractor, and mother, the former Shirley E. Johnson, were of Danish and Irish descent. Before John learned to walk, the family moved a few hours south to Sepulveda in the North Hills section of Los Angeles. At the time, the closest big-league team was the Cardinals, more than 1,800 miles away in St. Louis.
By the time John was 7, the Los Angeles area was home to both the relocated Dodgers and the expansion Angels; Dodger Stadium opened about a half-hour drive from his family home. Flinn played Little League, Babe Ruth, and American Legion baseball as a boy. By 1971, he was the number-three starting pitcher on a Monroe High School Vikings team that won its fourth straight Middle Valley League title against tough area competition, including future major-leaguers like All-Star outfielder Chet Lemon and pitchers Jim Umbarger and Pete Redfern.1 The Vikings completed a perfect 19-0 season by winning the city championship on the same diamond where heroes like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale had starred in the World Series. “I was 17 and getting to go to Dodger Stadium, a place where you watched the Dodgers play, and suddenly you’re standing on the field. It’s something you never forget,” remarked Flinn.2
Professional scouts watched lots of Monroe High’s games, mainly to get a look at senior shortstop Kim Andrew, who played briefly for the Boston Red Sox. “I don’t think they were looking at Flinn at all,” recalled Craig Cacek, another teammate who played for the 1977 Houston Astros. “We were both juniors, and John just didn’t throw hard enough.”3
That winter, Monroe coach Denny Holt set up a special class just for Flinn and Cacek. They raked the infield, or did whatever Holt needed, and Cacek noticed something about Flinn after suggesting he try throwing three-quarters while they were playing catch. “I discovered that he had a nasty sinker from that arm position rather than overhand, which had less movement,” Cacek recalled, adding. “It was the first time I thought of John as being an effective pitcher.”4
Flinn had relied on control and craftiness beforehand, but his sinker caught the attention of the Baltimore Orioles, who drafted him in the 28th round of the June 1972 draft after his senior season. Flinn opted to pitch for the Los Angeles Valley Junior College Monarchs instead, where his velocity ticked up another notch while he pursued a degree in fire science. The Orioles drafted him again in January, this time in the second round, and scout Ray Poitevint convinced Flinn to sign his first professional contract on May 15, 1973.
The Orioles sent Flinn to Bluefield, West Virginia, where he was the top right-handed relief pitcher for their rookie-level Appalachian League affiliate. He was 4-2 with 5 saves in 23 appearances, posting a 2.14 ERA and holding opponents to a club-best 6.2 hits-per-nine-innings. Flinn didn’t allow a single home run and struck out 51 batters in just 42 innings.
Flinn spent most of 1974 in the starting rotation when he moved up to Single-A Miami. Though he was the youngest pitcher on the club, the 6’0”, 175-pounder led the Florida State League with six shutouts and a 1.74 ERA while finishing 12-10. He got into four games for Double-A Asheville at the end of the summer, where a young Cal Ripken, Jr. served as the batboy for the team his father managed. Flinn roomed with high school teammate Kim Andrew in the Florida Instructional League after the season, and his future looked very bright.
He expected to get a full year of Southern League seasoning when he returned to Asheville in 1975 to play for a new manager, former major-league catcher Jimmie Schaffer. Flinn suffered his first serious setback as a pro, however, losing all nine decisions with an unsightly 6.14 ERA and getting sent to the bullpen. He continued to pitch poorly when he was demoted to Miami and finished the year 1-11 overall.
When Flinn returned to the Southern League in 1976, Baltimore’s Double-A farm team had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where they played their games in the city’s historic Dilworth section in a ballpark built in 1941. The former Calvin Griffith Park was renamed Crockett Park by the team’s new owners, professional wrestling promoters Jim Crockett Promotions, Inc. “The Crocketts owned the wrestling market around here, so we were around the Crocketts and the wrestlers because we were all employed by them,” Flinn explained. “It was a neat arrangement.”5
“Klondike Bill” Soloweyk –a 365-pounder who subdued opponents with his signature bear hug– worked at the stadium as a groundskeeper, sometimes assisted by Frances Crockett, the team’s general manager, who’d take the field in her bare feet to help drag the tarpaulin when it rained. Flinn helped with Mid-Atlantic Wrestling promotions when he was in Charlotte during the offseason, which soon became most of the time. “When I played in Charlotte in 1976, I met a cute little Southern belle named Tina Black, who’s now Tina Black Flinn, and we made Charlotte home,” he explained.6 John and Tina have been married since October 1, 1977, and they’re the parents of son Jarrett and daughter Kacey.
On the field, Flinn threw the first pitch in Charlotte Orioles history. After losing his first two decisions, he turned things around with three straight complete-game victories and beat Columbus, 2-1, when Charlotte clinched the East Division’s first-half championship. Flinn’s teammates included future Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray. “He’s an amazing guy,” said Flinn. “The year he played here in 1976 was the first time Eddie tried to switch-hit. And what’s really amazing with him is that in 1977 –and only one year after learning to switch-hit—he was American League rookie of the year.”7
Flinn went 9-8 with a 2.86 ERA in 21 starts and three relief appearances in 1976, hurling 10 complete games, allowing only four long balls in 148 innings and permitting a stingy 1.7 walks per nine innings.
When Flinn moved up to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings in 1977, he shifted into the bullpen and ranked third on the team in victories with a 10-7 mark despite starting only twice in 48 appearances. He added four saves, posted a 3.55 ERA in 119 innings and led the International League with a dozen hit batsmen. Rochester manager Ken Boyer remarked that Flinn’s sinker was so impressive, “If he were an older player, I’d say he was throwing a spitter.”8 That winter, in Puerto Rico with the Criollos de Caguas, Flinn enjoyed his best stretch of pitching as a pro, going 4-0 with eight saves and a 1.70 ERA while allowing only 22 hits in 37 innings.
The Orioles added Flinn — now listed at 6’1”, 180 pounds — to their winter roster, issued him uniform number 37 in his first big league spring training, and gave him a look as a sleeper candidate for bullpen duty. He began the 1978 season back at Rochester by hurling 13 1/3 scoreless innings in his first eight appearances. Before April was over, the Red Wings switched skippers. Boyer left to take over the Cardinals, while Frank Robinson left Baltimore’s coaching staff to manage Rochester. “It’s neat when you can call home and tell people you’re playing for Ken Boyer, and now Frank Robinson,” Flinn said. “That’s a thrill in itself.”9
Another thrill came on May 6 when the Orioles called Flinn up to replace struggling reliever Tim Stoddard. Flinn joined the club in Baltimore and debuted at Memorial Stadium that night in the ninth inning. The Orioles had already let a four-run lead slip away by allowing the visiting Twins to score seven times before Flinn entered with one on, one out, and “Disco Dan” Ford coming to the plate. “I threw one pitch and got a groundball double play. Inning over,” Flinn recalled.10
Flinn got another twin killing his next time out and — eight nights later in Texas — earned his first big league win when Lee May ripped a game-winning, ninth-inning, two-run homer off Dock Ellis. The following evening in Minnesota, however, Flinn suffered his first loss when the Twins’ Willie Norwood blasted a three-run, walk-off long ball in the bottom of the 10th. Flinn stayed with the Orioles for nearly seven weeks but logged only eight innings in eight appearances. Following a stretch of more than two weeks of complete inactivity, the 23-year-old was back in Rochester. “It was obvious that we just couldn’t get the kid enough work,” Baltimore manager Earl Weaver explained. “And it was pointless to keep him sitting around when he could be out pitching and gaining more experience.”11
Flinn spent only 10 days at Rochester before the Orioles called him back up. “The Orioles were so strong in pitching that it was real challenging to just get yourself kind of entrenched in a spot,” he said. “You’d get called up, and you’d go back to Rochester. Someone else would get hurt, and you’d get called up.”12 Flinn’s return to action came in the second game of a doubleheader on July 5, when Nelson Briles pulled a calf muscle and had to exit after facing only one batter. After Weaver helped his veteran starter off the field, he came back to talk with Flinn and got ejected for arguing when umpire Marty Springstead told him it would count as a trip to the mound. Flinn worked through the fifth inning — his longest big-league outing of the season, beginning a stretch of five appearances in nine games. In mid-July, he went back to the Red Wings for the rest of the season; his AL rookie record was 1-1 with an 8.04 ERA in 13 appearances. Flinn made his only start of the season shortly after returning to Rochester, followed it with a three-week stint on the disabled list, and got clobbered when he came back. His once stellar International League ERA soared to 5.21 by season’s end; he’d worked only 53 2/3 innings for the year..
In 1979, Flinn appeared on an “Orioles Prospects” Topps baseball card, but his season started in Rochester for the third straight year. His effectiveness returned, and the Red Wings moved him back into their rotation in late May following a scoreless outing against Tidewater in which he struck out 11 in 8 2/3 innings. When he retired 17 straight hitters during one stretch, a dozen of them failed to even get the ball out of the infield.13 Flinn’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than ever, and he kept pitching well as a starter. Nevertheless, he said, “My best chance of reaching the Orioles is as a reliever.”14
That’s exactly what happened in mid-July when Baltimore put both Jim Palmer and Tim Stoddard on the DL and summoned Flinn as a reinforcement. When Flinn got the last three outs of a win over the Mariners on July 24, the first-place Birds had a five-game AL East lead in a season that gave birth to “Orioles Magic.” One of Baltimore’s stars was Doug DeCinces, another Monroe High School product. DeCinces played third base in all but two of Flinn’s first 17 big-league appearances and homered in five of those games.
Flinn spent a month on the roster but faced only three more batters before getting sent back to Rochester in the last week of August. Baltimore recalled him again in September, but he pitched only one inning. Overall, in Triple-A, Flinn was 6-6, (2.70 ERA) in 100 innings, allowing only 92 hits, 22 walks, and four home runs while striking out 71. While Flinn didn’t allow any runs in the majors in 1979, he made only four appearances totaling less than three innings as Baltimore led the league in ERA by a wide margin largely without him. “The Orioles had a very talented farm system. It was kind of sometimes difficult to move up because there was so much talent at every level,” Flinn said. “Sometimes you’d have the type of year that you’d say, ‘Well, I’m doing well enough. I’ll move up the ladder,’ and there just really wasn’t anywhere to go.”15 After the season, while Flinn was working on his curveball with Caguas in the Puerto Rican League, Baltimore dealt him to the Milwaukee Brewers for infielder Lenn Sakata at the winter meetings. “Any time you get traded, you have to make it your break,” Flinn said. “I’m going to make it that way.”16
Flinn hoped to receive more chances from Milwaukee manager George Bamberger in 1980, but the former Orioles pitching coach suffered a minor heart attack during spring training and didn’t return to the team until June. Flinn, meanwhile, began his fourth straight season in Triple A, this time with the Vancouver Canadians of the Pacific Coast League. The Brewers called him up on May 14 and he made his only start three days later in Minnesota. Milwaukee scored seven times in the first two innings, and Flinn retired the first four Twins, but interim skipper Buck Rodgers removed him after an eight-batter bottom of the second in which he surrendered three runs.
Over the next seven weeks, Flinn relieved in nine games and allowed only one earned run. He had a 1-0 record and two saves and a 1.93 ERA at the end of play on July 5, when he caught pinch-hitter Rod Carew looking at a called third strike for the final out of a one-run Milwaukee victory. “Flinn has been doing a good job,” remarked Cecil Cooper, the Brewers’ All-Star first-baseman. “Every time he goes out, he gets better.”17 Flinn’s lower back had been sore since early June, however, and his ERA climbed to 4.50 by August 1 as he surrendered runs in five of six appearances. He went back to Vancouver, where he finished 2-3 with five saves and a 4.40 ERA in a handful of starts and a dozen relief outings. Following a September call up, he pitched four more times for the Brewers and finished 1980 with a 3.89 ERA in 37 major league innings over 20 games.
The 1981 Topps set included a “Brewers Future Stars” card featuring Flinn, but he never pitched for Milwaukee. He spent the entire season at Vancouver, making seven starts, relieving 24 times and going 7-6 with a 4.02 ERA and one save in 85 innings. That winter, Flinn pitched in the Dominican Republic, where he was the Aguilas Cibaenas’ busiest relief pitcher under manager Winston Llenas. In 34 1/3 innings, Flinn won four, lost two, saved one and posted a 2.36 ERA while walking only eight batters.18
When Flinn was hurting shortly after reporting to spring training, however, the Brewers released him on February 26, 1982. “My 10th year in pro ball and nothing to show for it,” he said. “My wife and I talked a long time and I decided to give it one last year.”19 The Orioles signed Flinn less than a week later and sent him to Rochester when he was able to pitch again. Despite missing all of April, Flinn went 9-3 with a 3.61 ERA for the Red Wings. His 10 saves were the club’s most by a right-handed pitcher, and he hurled 87 1/3 innings in 41 appearances that included two starts.
When Baltimore called Flinn up in September, shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. was wrapping up a Rookie-of-the-Year season, so Flinn joked with him about how far he’d come from his days as Asheville’s batboy. The Orioles were frantically trying to catch Milwaukee in the AL East, after trailing by 7 1/2 games in late August. “The Brewers treated me well. I just didn’t fit into their plans,” Flinn said. “But it would be nice to help beat them.”20
On September 14, the Orioles swept a doubleheader from the Yankees to pull within a game-and-a-half of the division lead with Flinn getting the win in the first game. In blanking New York over a career-high six innings, he allowed Baltimore to come back from a four-run deficit. Flinn’s personal-best seven strikeouts included four straight Yankees and striking out the side in the top of the sixth as 28,094 fans cheered him on. “Heck, Milwaukee doesn’t need pitching anyway,” quipped Baltimore’s ace Jim Palmer as he passed Flinn in the post-game locker room.21 Flinn hurled five strong innings to earn another crucial victory on September 30 in Detroit, allowing only a solo homer to his former Middle Valley League opponent, Chet Lemon. The 28-year-old Flinn’s 2-0, 1.32 performance in a handful of September outings totaling 13 2/3 innings helped set up a final weekend showdown between the Orioles and Brewers in Baltimore. The Birds tied Milwaukee for the division lead before losing on the final day.
Back at Rochester in 1983, Flinn was plagued by gopher balls and went just 5-7 with a 4.89 ERA in 47 games. He was out of baseball altogether in 1984 but returned in 1985 with a 2.04 ERA in 11 appearances with the Class-A Hagerstown Suns in the Carolina League. At Double-A Charlotte, however, Flinn was hit hard in 13 outings, going 1-5 with a 4.45 ERA. Opposing hitters were telling him something he didn’t want to hear. “I was 30 years old and I had played a lot of years and I was at the point that I think I probably knew I wasn’t going to get back to the major leagues,” he explained. “You still love to play. I was doing everything I could to play as long as I could.”22
Fortunately for Flinn, he made a smooth transition into his post-playing career. “By being part of that team in 1985, I was offered the pitching coach position here in Charlotte. That was kind of the best of both worlds,” he said. “I was with my family and Charlotte’s home for us.”23 Flinn coached for two seasons before concentrating on his work as a carpenter, and later as a construction superintendent with Archadeck of Charlotte. Earlier in his career, he’d assisted his father as a contractor during off seasons. Flinn and his wife Tina raised their son Jarrett and daughter Kasey in Charlotte and attended two or three ballgames per year.
On his 61st birthday — September 2, 2015 — Flinn admitted feeling “very nervous” when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Charlotte Knights game. When the team had a 40th reunion of Charlotte’s inaugural Southern League entry a year later, 11 players attended, including Eddie Murray and Flinn.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
1 Eric Sondheimer, “Monroe’s Perfect Season Withstands Test of Time,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2001.
3 Craig Cacek, e-mail to author, April 26, 2010.
5 Richard Walker, “1976 Charlotte Orioles Share Memories of Their Shared Past,” Gaston Gazette, September 5, 2016.
8 “Int. Items,” The Sporting News, June 25, 1977: 36.
9 Jim Mandelero and Scott Pitoniak, Silver Seasons: The Story of the Rochester Red Wings (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996,72)
11 Jim Henneman, “Idleness Spurs O’s Kerrigan to Sound Off”, The Sporting News, July 8, 1978, p.8.
12 Viola. (see 10)
13 “Upshaw Ends Marathon,” The Sporting News, June 9, 197: 39.
14 “Flinn Wins First Start,” The Sporting News, June 23, 1979: 39.
15 Viola, (see 10)
16 “Expos Trade Irks LeFlore,” Milwaukee Sentinel, December 8, 1979: 7.
17 Tom Flaherty, “Power Boost No. 1 Goal of Brewers’ Cooper,” The Sporting News, July 26, 1980: 38.
19 Tom Boswell, “Orioles’ Kiddie Corp Sweeps Doubleheader, Pulls to Within 1 ½,” Washington Post, September 15, 1982.
20 Murray Chass, “Surging Orioles Sweep 2 Games,” New York Times, September 15, 1982.
21 Boswell. “Orioles . . .”
22 Viola, (see 10)