Not to be smirky or flip, but if Tim Lincecum made no secret of his desire to get high, then watching him pitch in San Francisco also was analogous to smoking weed. Maybe 5 feet 11, maybe 170 pounds — and definitely The Freak in every context — he came at hitters like an uncoiled helix, limbs flying from one foul line to the other, a big kick and enormous stride accompanied by floppy hair and a pivot foot finishing way up by his ear.
The delivery was artful, if oddballish. The man-child was beautiful, if kooky. No other athlete has come close to matching the quirks and eccentricities of a city that doesn’t treat sports as psychosis as much as romance and poetry.
And now, as all things must pass, it’s time to let go. Because that Tim Lincecum — that Big Time Timmy Jim, that two-time Cy Young Award winner, that adorable dynamo who helped turn the Giants into a waterfront love-in after the polarizing angst of the Barry Bonds era — isn’t coming through that clubhouse door.
What Major League Baseball will see next is a reimagined, surgically repaired Lincecum, one who doesn’t fit the locked-and-loaded Giants and their six-deep starting rotation. This much was obvious when management invested $130 million in Johnny Cueto and $90 million in Jeff Samardzija while naming 12-game winner Chris Heston, who merely threw a no-hitter last year, as their No. 6 guy and long-reliever. While there are performance questions about every starter but Madison Bumgarner — I’m just wondering when the bosses will re-do a MadBum contract as woefully obsolete (his $35.5-million deal runs through 2017) as Stephen Curry’s — the concept of re-signing Lincecum and his rebuilt left hip would be a forced embrace of bygone nostalgia more than a wisely calculated staff improvement.
Everyone hopes Lincecum will have new life in the sport he once ruled. Any day now, he’s expected to conduct a showcase workout in Arizona for big-league teams, and the Giants will be among the many with representatives on hand. I would prefer they not attend the session and let a low-end franchise with few expectations and no buzz — remember the Oakland A’s? — take on The Freak 2.0 experiment. Not having scouts at his public workout would make the detachment process so much easier for all involved, including Lincecum.
Instead, the Giants are raising undue hopes among his legions of fans that they might bring him back as a reliever, a spot starter, even as a closer (a thought dropped by broadcaster Mike Krukow). Last weekend at FanFest, manager Bruce Bochy went so far to leave the possibility wide open.
“Who knows? … It’s not a done deal,” he said of Lincecum’s departure. “We’re going to take a look at him.”
Please, move on. This isn’t a soap opera the Giants need, not when they’re talking smack about winning a fourth World Series this decade. “Here’s my question: Is it time to get even?” CEO Larry Baer greeted the fans last weekend, introducing a double-edged slogan about an even year in 2016 coupled with a playoff-less 2015. Remember, Lincecum is coming off a degenerative hip condition, meaning there’s no certainty how he’ll perform in the future and for how long. And remember, much of the chatter about Lincecum’s health progress has been generated by his agent, Rick Thurman, which is why agents are paid their 3-to-5 percent. And remember, the Giants are tip-toeing through a potential minefield of backlash among casual fans who are more absorbed in Timmy Love than three championship banners.
“It’s tough not to get caught up in the emotion that Timmy might not get back,” baseball chief Brian Sabean said.
Here’s why the sentimental tug shouldn’t be too difficult to ignore: The Giants already have been down this route with Lincecum, having paid him $57 million — $22 million more than Bumgarner will make for the entirety of his six-year deal — for three seasons in which he won just 29 games and constantly was injured or ineffective. The bosses have gone beyond the call of duty … and then some. Last season, their loyalty and money commitments to Lincecum and injured Matt Cain contributed to the demise of a rotation that, in turn, cost the Giants a playoff berth. You almost could hear the pain in the voices of Bochy and Buster Posey last weekend when they spoke of Lincecum, but they are advised to keep speaking in the past tense.
“He’s like one of my kids,” Bochy said.
And the first time he saw Lincecum, as a No. 1 pick out of the University of Washington? “I said, ‘This kid? He weighs 150.’ Then I saw him throw a ball and I was amazed,” he said.
Posey always will point to Lincecum’s selflessness when he shifted to relief, despite his pedigree, and excelled in the 2012 postseason: 13 innings, one earned run, 16 strikeouts, two walks. “He could have refused. He didn’t,” Posey said. “I’m hoping he’s on the road to recovery and doing well. He’s a huge part of this organization and the city. If he’s not back, he’ll be sorely missed in the clubhouse. He has become a good friend.”
The A’s would make sense as a landing spot. Since crashing hard in the 2014 American League play-in game — since trading Yoenis Cespedes and failing in his Jon Lester/Samardzija arm gambit — genius Billy Beane has returned to his sandbox to revisit those spinning-in-circles “Moneyball” strategies that only losers play these days. All we know is, Josh Donaldson won a Most Valuable Player award in Toronto last autumn while Sonny Gray — one of the few reasons to visit the O.co ballpit — is available for the right price, sadly enough.
So why not at least create some interest, a blip on the screen, with a Lincecum experiment in Oakland?
The San Diego Padres, familiar with his no-hit stuff as recently as two seasons ago, are interested. So are the Miami Marlins, for whom Bonds is coaching hitters, and the Baltimore Orioles. If Lincecum has anything left, someone will sign him and count the ticket money. He’s still an attraction, a conversation piece.
But looking around AT&T Park’s club level during a media gathering the other day, the Giants have starpower in waves: Posey, the perennial MVP candidate and all-time handler of pitchers; Bochy, still the sport’s best manager and a future Hall of Famer; Bumgarner, with his new round of truck commercials; Cueto and Samardzija, trying to justify their considerable expense; Cain and Jake Peavy, trying to hang on with guts and savvy; Hunter Pence, clump-haired renaissance man; Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford, an All-Star combo inside a homegrown infield; Matt Duffy, he of the fat cat and phat rookie stats.
I could go on. Instead, I’ll cite my favorite Lincecum moment. The Giants had just won the 2010 Series in Texas, and a vanilla ESPN interviewer, Karl Ravech, asked what might be happening about that hour in San Francisco.
“A lot of craziness, I’m hoping,” Lincecum said. “A lot of beer flowing, smoke in the air, I’m hoping.”
Smoke on the mound, smoke in the air, smoke on the water.
Such was Timmy Love.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.