It isn’t coincidental that the end of Tim Lincecum, the most beloved of freaks in a city full of them, also marks the end of the Giants as we’ve known them — as champions. Just as he ushered in the happy years, the champagne years, by reminding us that baseball needn’t be about steroids-swollen bums aiming for McCovey Cove, he fades away at 31 as a wild-haired character in a beanie whose twisting, limbs-flying delivery doomed him physically.
And this IS The End, I must report. The lights have gone down in The City, Steve Perry. Unless there is a focused commitment from on high — the big-money people and CEO Larry Baer down through baseball men Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans — to revamp a deteriorating starting rotation with a major free agent or two, the Giants won’t be contending for championships anytime soon. One of the reasons this team bumped along all season was an overly nostalgic plan that Lincecum, along with Matt Cain, could rediscover their pitching magic from title years past.
Nor was there ever any legitimate reason to think they would, beyond simple and elusive hope, which gets you nowhere during a killer Dodger Stadium sweep where a five-hour, 29-minute heartbreaker is compounded by Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw haymakers.
Now the Giants must figure out how to say goodbye to Big Time Timmy Jim. This will be a painful exercise, not only because of the Cy Young hardware, the no-hitters and the three rings, but because of his massive popularity. As much as the fans adore Lincecum, that love is exceeded in the clubhouse and offices at AT&T Park, where they’ll never forget, among other fond memories, his selfless sacrifice as a reliever in the 2012 postseason after his best stuff abandoned him. When Baer raves about Lincecum’s boundless contributions, he’s referring to how this dynamo changed the entirety of the team’s culture after Barry Bonds’ departure. The kid was a magnificent pitcher and captivating entertainer, but he also was a good dude and great teammate, so vital to the franchise’s transition from a Bonds era that was all about Barry, Barry, Barry.
Timmy was about winning, winning, winning. And bonding, bonding, bonding. And not hesitating to reveal his vulnerablity when the pitching business, so easy when few batters could touch him and he led the National League in strikeouts three straight years, suddenly because psychological hell for him. Whereas no one could relate to the Bonds blob beyond the doors of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, every man, woman and kid could relate to the human, huggable Lincecum. And when he got busted for weed? Or his apartment was trashed? Or had a few too many in a bar? That only reinforced the Timmy love-in in a town that encourages freaks to wave free flags.
The bosses have gone beyond the call of duty with financial rewards, paying Lincecum $35 million these last two seasons when the 2013 market for him was limited. So their conscience is clear as he faces an uncertain future, complicated by surgery to repair a torn hip labrum Thursday in Colorado. From performing surgeon Marc Philippon to the Giants’ medical staff to manager Bruce Bochy, there is hope again — the same unrealistic emotion — that Lincecum can return next season without pain and tightness. But honestly, long before the hip issues, he hasn’t been the same pitcher since his velocity began to wane in 2012, when his earned-run average nearly doubled. I know that. You probably know that. The Giants keep fighting that familiar feeling.
“Timmy was battling to try and get back to pitch this year. He was working really hard,” trainer Dave Groeschner said. “He took a couple cortisone shots six weeks ago. As he continued along to try and throw off the mound and get back and get out there, it just wasn’t working. He did everything he could to try and avoid [surgery]. He wants to get back to being Tim Lincecum. He wanted to get this done now, so he can do that.”
We’re supposed to believe that? Five months of rehab, and he’s suddenly Tim Lincecum again?
“I love Timmy,” Bochy said. “A great teammate, we all know what Timmy has done for the Giants. My door will always be open for Tim Lincecum. That’s how much I think of him. That’s a decision that’s made on the baseball side obviously with everybody. I appreciate what he’s done in my time that I’ve had to this point with him. It doesn’t mean that won’t continue. I can’t answer that right now.”
I can: The Giants need to move on from what they’ve achieved, and the loved ones who helped, and figure out how to continue competing against a Dodgers monster that spends as it wishes, has Kershaw under control for at least three more years and is reloading with future studs such as shortstop Corey Seager and lefty pitcher Julio Urias. Were Lincecum to return, it would be on a minor-league deal with hopes he could help as a spot-starter. “Trust me, Timmy still wants to pitch — he still has that fire in the belly,” Bochy said. “That’s probably the biggest reason why he had this surgery, so he could get this behind him, get his rehab done and get back on the mound and hopefully get back to where he was and comfortable on the pitching side of it.”
But to prolong the tease would be cruel, to his fans and to Lincecum. It’s OK if he tries to come back elsewhere. Joe Montana played in Kansas City, you’ll recall. Timmy will be fine. He’s made almost $100 million throwing a baseball in San Francisco. If he succeeds elsewhere and he returns to the waterfront, he’ll receive the same long, warm standing ovation he’ll receive in the season’s final homestand, if the Giants choose to honor him that way.
Arms and bodies wear down in this racket, especially when a pitcher is 5-11, 170 pounds and throws with violent torque via unconventional, semi-corkscrew mechanics. Due to his slight build, Lincecum relies on the stability and flexibility of his hips and base more than most. Maybe he finds success for a while. Maybe he won’t. Whatever happens, he’ll never be forgotten.
The biggest pitching name in free agency is David Price, 29, who would be the perfect Giant in dignity and team-first approach. If Kershaw signed for seven years and $215 million, and Max Scherzer signed for seven at $210 million, Price will want more — and he has the leverage with rousing performance in Toronto after the Blue Jays acquired him in late July.
Here’s another thought: Raiding the Dodgers for Greinke, who likely will opt out of the remaining three years and $71 million on his deal. Johnny Cueto has been having mechanical issues in Kansas City, Scott Kazmir may re-sign in Houston, and Jordan Zimmermann has been inconsistent in Washington, but the Giants must try something. Because after Madison Bumgarner, who is in the 2016 rotation? Mike Leake, if he re-signs as a free agent. Jake Peavy, probably. Chris Heston, maybe. Cain, who knows? Prospect Tyler Beede, who knows?