Monday, July 22, 2013

What Was Once Is Now Again: Tim Lincecum and the Well of Persistent Memory

Nine days ago, most of the world outside of San Francisco had forgotten about Tim Lincecum. The twice-anointed best pitcher in the National League had fallen on hard times of late. In the last year and change, the power-pitching Lincecum had gone the way of a champion racehorse. He had been sent out to pasture young, with more lively years ahead than behind. Maybe that was our mistake. He had aged faster than anyone saw possible. Often times when pitchers are forced to change their ways, the alterations either bring more problems into focus or they evolve and become assets. Before July thirteenth, the consensus would be to lump Tim Lincecum into the first column. On that night, a man once lovingly referred to as "the Freak" would summon a few innings from his younger days, and do something he hadn't done before.

When Tim Lincecum began his first full season in 2008, I was in college, most likely switching majors for the third time. There was a common room with televisions, their stations scattered between ESPN, MTV, and UPN in predictable fashion. I would be found half-studying in front of a screen running the third consecutive showing of SportsCenter, but alas I would watch anyway. My fervent procrastination was always fueled by my love for redundant highlights from the previous day's games. In the last few months of the 2008 season, I would make a conscious effort to not miss Lincecum's starts. His pitching motion was what I imagined Da Vinci's elbow dreamed about at night. So flawlessly fluid, Tim was trained by his father to follow through on a pitch all the way down to the ground. Chris Lincecum would lay a dollar bill on the edge of the pitching mound to ensure his son's form, post release. I remember that story, as it was a segment I recall watching a number of times as I labored through the tedium of study.

July 13th, 2013, began for Tim as most nights had, by re-lacing his cleats and straightening the cuff of his pants before taking the mound for warm-ups. The television crew noted his paltry season statistics- four wins, nine losses, and ten home runs allowed. Baseball is always inclined to do one of two things- give you several chances to make amends, or hang your failures like a yoke upon your shoulders. Come the summer months, it appeared as though the game had turned on Tim Lincecum. Yet as the innings swept by, it was clear that his teammates hadn't. Following a sixth consecutive strikeout, the San Diego Padres finally had a chance to hit safely. Carlos Quentin two-hopped a ball toward third base. Pablo Sandoval was drawn into foul territory. Never an easy play, he gathered and whipped to first, beating the batter by a step. Quentin was out. No hits through four.

By the sixth inning, his teammates had given him an eight run cushion. There would be no high-drama finish in terms of scoring. The game was already out of hand for the Padres. Tim settled into a groove. There was the fire again. He was no longer the flamethrower that had won two Cy Young awards, instead this was a Tim Lincecum built on control and craft. Each pitch beamed from his right hand as they had years past, but now his motive was to outsmart the batter, not just overpower him. Every game Tim had pitched before, the opposing team found themselves on base safely at least once with a hit. Again, Sandoval would be drawn into foul ground. Again he would compose his feet, and with pinpoint accuracy, dial up a strike across the diamond to get the out. Lincecum, breathing again after a brief wrench in his stomach, pointed to the hero at third. The rival San Diego crowd had given way to an increasingly louder band of Giants fans. Everyone knew something special was in the air. No hits through seven.

It was late fall 2010, and I was resenting my decision to take a weekly night class. Living a thirty minute drive from campus, there was little I could do when a game was on. Tim Lincecum was pitching that night. It was game five of the World Series, and the Giants were about to wrap up their first title since 1954, three years before moving to San Francisco from New York. Class had ended well into the game, but with plenty of baseball yet to be played. Opposite Tim that night, for the Texas Rangers, was the 2008 American League Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee. Both men, two years removed from their equally lauded seasons, had pitched through six scoreless innings. As I pulled out of the parking garage at school, the seventh inning had ended. Lincecum had given up a solo home run to Nelson Cruz. Lee had been bested for a three-run blast off the bat of Edgar Renteria, the series' eventual most valuable player. Tim pitched a scoreless eighth inning. Surely I was obliterating the speed limit as my Buick hit the 80/94-I65 interchange going southbound. There would be no chance I could miss watching the final out. Radio coverage pacified me until I had landed in the driveway. I burst through my front door as closer Brian Wilson closed out the ninth inning, the game, and the World Series. The Giants had won four games. Tim Lincecum was on record for two.

There was a moment that defined the game last Saturday night, and little had to do with Lincecum. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, Alexei Amarista chopped a breaking ball out into shallow right field. In every instance, the result is a hit. Tim gets the win, but the game ends most likely as a one-hitter at best. Yet in this moment, the will of outfielder Hunter Pence would not allow the moment to be swept away by a marginal breath of a misstep. He swooped in, sacrificing his body to protect the history that was taking place. Showing the ball safely in his glove, Pence bounced to his feet and sprinted toward the visiting dugout. Lincecum simply raised a clenched fist in recognition of his teammate's unwavering loyalty.

Bottom of the ninth, two outs. Every ounce of nerves must be quelled. Each thought unsympathetic to the cause of history must be chased from the mind. To this point, Tim Lincecum had thrown one hundred forty-seven pitches, a personal record. The hard throwing, violently swift delivery of a younger Tim might not have lasted that long. But this new man who arose from a lackluster 2012 had pieced his new form into a science. On the one hundred forty-eighth pitch, Yonder Alonso rocketed a two-ball, two-strike pitch into the San Diego sky. It would fall well within the bounds of Petco Park. As the ball came to rest in the glove of Gregor Blanco, Lincecum was embraced by his catcher, Buster Posey. He was mobbed atop the mound and given a champion's salute by nearly all in attendance. The San Francisco bench cleared. With the help of those now gathered around him, Tim Lincecum had no-hit the San Diego Padres and reminded us what was so great about "the Freak" those few, yet conceivably distant years ago.

For me, watching Tim Lincecum dominate again conjured up memories the way hearing an old favorite song might do as well. It takes me back to moments that made me remember why I love this game. Though Tim is only a few years my senior, he has always been one of  my favorite players. Even so, I had let him slip from the forefront of the game's greats. Anyone who watched baseball in those first few years of his career knows just how unavoidable he was in terms of television coverage when he pitched. But despite being a cornerstone to a championship team as recent as 2010, the baseball world had somehow briefly let go of that foundation we had with him. Maybe that was our mistake. He hadn't necessarily lost the mystique and passion that was evident in that time, he had merely transformed. The growing pains of evolution had clearly taken their toll on Tim Lincecum. Perhaps he won't ever be a great pitcher again. As all things are with this game, patience will render us an answer one way or the other. No matter, because for one night in mid-July, he was un-hittable for the first time in his life.

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