Sports

Where have you gone, Tim Lincecum? In search of beloved Giants ace

Tim Lincecum puts on a show against the Fresno Grizzlies

Up Next

Tim Lincecum’s last known address is tucked behind a partial fence, just off a sloped dead-end street near the shores of Lake Washington.

Getting to the front door of the barn-red building requires crossing a short bridge. It feels like walking the plank.

This is where I rang the doorbell over the course of a few days last week. It’s been said that nearly a third of Bigfoot sightings come from the Pacific Northwest, so this was my best bet at finding the elusive, mythical, shaggy creature known as The Freak.

No such luck. Lincecum, the Giants’ two-time Cy Young Award winner, never answered the door, and neither did anyone else. Whenever I pressed the doorbell, the lone stirring came from annoyed dogs.

My editor dispatched me to Seattle because people miss the living daylights out of Timothy LeRoy Lincecum. This has been the first Major League season without him since 2007, when the tiny kid with the big fastball first set AT&T Park ablaze.

“It was a little guy taking on the world,” recalled broadcaster Duane Kuiper. “Everybody likes that.”

Over the course of nine Giants seasons and three World Series victories, The Freak entranced, enthralled, delighted and sometimes maddened.

Lincecum was the best pitcher in the league for a stretch and then, almost inexplicably, one of the worst. Either way, he put on a show that made him one of the most popular and fascinating players in San Francisco history.

lincecum fans
Fans line up in hopes of getting an autograph from Tim Lincecum during warmups before a June 12, 2016 game at Chukchansi Park. Lincecum was making a start for the Salt Lake Bees as he tried to make his way back to the major leagues. SILVIA FLORES Fresno Bee file

His absence feels particularly acute this season, with a team devoid of both wins and personality.

Where have you gone, Tim Lincecum? The Giants turn their last-place eyes to you.

“The vibe around the Giants was different because of Timmy,” pitching coach Dave Righetti told me shortly before my trip. “You’re talking about every walk of life – kids, women, little girls, little boys, grown men. They just wanted to watch this guy.”

It wasn’t just that Lincecum threw in the upper-90s or that that he led the National League in strikeouts three consecutive times. It was that he did so with a bat boy’s physique and a skateboarder’s cool.

Lincecum’s starts were holidays. He could turn a Tuesday night in August into a happening. People wished each other a happy Timmy Day.

“It was a happy fit because he was San Francisco. He is San Francisco. Quirky. Eccentric. Marches to his own beat,” Giants CEO Larry Baer said. “When it was Timmy Day, it wasn’t just that he was good. It was like a lot of the fans felt their son was pitching. ‘Here’s our kid going out there.’ He was embraced in that way – your son’s Little League game. You really felt invested, emotionally, in his performance.”

Disappearing Tim

Now, the pitcher you couldn’t take your eyes off is nowhere to be seen. Lincecum last appeared in a game on Aug 5, 2016, for the Los Angeles Angels. Pitching in his hometown of Seattle that day, Lincecum’s fading fastball got knocked around for six runs in 3.1 innings, sending his final ERA to 9.16.

lincecum salt lake
Tim Lincecum laughs with teammates in the dugout during a June 12, 2016 game at Chukchansi Park. Lincecum started for the visiting Salt Lake Bees in a game against the Fresno Grizzlies. Soon, he was back in the major leagues with the Los Angeles Angels. It was a short stint; Lincecum last appeared in a game on Aug 5, 2016. SILVIA FLORES Fresno Bee file

He hasn’t retired yet, but when he does Baer is poised to bring him to San Francisco in some kind of official capacity. “There’s definitely a place in the Giants world for Linecum,” he said. “I mean, that goes without saying.”

Until then? Lincecum is believed to be back here inhabiting the shores of Lake Washington, although no one with the Giants could say for sure. Someone thought maybe he was in Arizona. When the team tried to invite him to throw out the first pitch before a playoff game against the Chicago Cubs last year, Lincecum was in Hawaii.

Wherever he is now, he’s keeping a low profile. The Freak is now The Ghost.

Lincecum’s agent, Rick Thurman, told the Bay Area News Group in August that Lincecum is keeping in shape and hopes to pitch again. But Thurman did not respond to voicemails, texts or e-mails in search of additional details for this story. Lincecum’s father, Chris, who was once a frequent and chatty radio guest, did not respond to texts.

Lincecum is not on social media. The last missive from his confirmed (but never verified) Twitter account came in 2012, when the four-time All-Star tweeted about a “food coma” after a trip to Benihana’s.

The vibe around the Giants was different because of Timmy. You’re talking about every walk of life – kids, women, little girls, little boys, grown men. They just wanted to watch this guy.

Dave Righetti

A handful of Giants employees who specialize in media relations or alumni events say Lincecum is the rare ex-player they can’t keep tabs on. A current Giants player said he sent The Freak a text on his 33rd birthday on June 15. Weeks later, he still hadn’t heard back.

Even Lincecum’s last public sighting came with an air of myth. Fans spotted him among the San Francisco crowd protesting for women’s rights in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration in January – and they posted photos on social media to back it up.

But Lincecum did not return a text message seeking confirmation and Thurman, his agent, said he wasn’t sure it was actually him.

That Lincecum has gone Greta Garbo (or is it Bernie Carbo?) offends nobody who knows him well. Several Giants players were unfazed about the long lapses in communication. No one interprets it as a snub. Even at his peak, Lincecum preferred to lay low.

Most likely, Lincecum is simply avoiding being fussed over. Elliott Cribby, a former Huskies teammate, said he dines with Lincecum about once a year and it’s always a covert operation.

“When we go out, he’s got a hoodie on top of his head,” said Cribby, now the associate head coach at Seattle University. “He doesn’t want to create a buzz about himself. People recognize him, but at the same time people don’t recognize him because he looks like a normal guy on the streets.

“He’s extremely humble. He comes from that middle-class background where work ethic was instilled in his life. And when he’s off the field, he wants to just relax and keep a low profile.”

Electrifying Tim

Lincecum created a stir from the day he arrived at AT&T Park. Baer remembers going down to the clubhouse in 2007 to introduce himself to the Giants’ hot shot rookie.

“I walked right by him. I thought he was one of the bat boys,” Baer said with a laugh. “Where’s Lincecum? Oh, that’s him? It wasn’t just the size. It was the whole look: I think that was part of his endearing quality. He was just so kid-like.”

The 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft appeared just 13 times in the minors (five appearances for the Fresno Grizzlies) before the Giants called him up to face the Philadelphia Phillies on May 7, 2007.

Righetti took Lincecum out to the bullpen to warm up, but it was barely worth the trouble. Most starting pitchers throw between 40 and 60 pitches to get loose. “Timmy got to 13, flipped me the ball and was gone,” Righetti said. “He was ready to go.”

Over the course of the next five seasons, Lincecum delivered the most dominant pitching stretch in these parts since Juan Marichal was kicking the clouds in the 1960s. Lincecum became the first player in major league history to win Cy Young Awards in each of his first two full seasons.

He set a San Francisco record with 265 strikeouts in 2008, then nearly matched it with 261 more in 2009.

lincecum trophy
Tim Lincecum carries the 2010 World Series trophy. He helped the San Francisco Giants win three titles in five years. David J. Phillip Associated Press file

More than that, he was mesmerizing.

“What I remember most is that when he started a game, you definitely thought the Giants were going to win that day no matter what,” Kuiper recalled. “There are other pitchers that you feel like that about. But in my mind it was an automatic: Unless something really weird happened, we were going to win. If the Giants didn’t win in his start, it was almost like they lost a doubleheader.”

He was must-see Timmy. For sheer fervor, his starts rivaled the atmosphere generated by bygone theatrical hurlers like Mark Fidrych or Fernando Valenzuela.

“Because he was so different than everybody else,” said Omar Vizquel, the former Giants shortstop and now a coach with the Detroit Tigers. “Everything he did, everything that he said, the way he acted and the way he pitched was so different than anybody else. You couldn’t teach the stuff that he was doing.”

Aching Tim

Of all things, the hippest player in sports may have been undone by a bad hip.

He sustained a labral tear (in this case, the connective tissue between the upper leg and the hip socket). The injury was announced in June 2015, but there were signs of wear and tear before then.

Lincecum – whom skeptical scouts once deemed too small to be a starter – posted four consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings. He also had six consecutive seasons with at least 32 starts.

Cribby, the former college teammate turned pitching coach, had long marveled over Lincecum’s ability to maximize his small frame. But he also watched the power ebb over time.

“I noticed that his stride length was shortening a little bit. And I think that’s some of the reason he had some hip issues,” he said. “It’s because he was really, really pushing that lower half in the extremities to go to points that they’ve never been or points they weren’t supposed to go.”

When Lincecum broke in during the 2007 season, his average fastball traveled 94.60 mph, according to comprehensive data available at BrooksBaseball.net. It was at 94.65 mph for his first Cy Young in ’08 and 93.20 for his second Cy Young in ’09.

By his last season with the Giants, in 2015, The Freak’s average fastball was only 88.74.

lincecum hurt
Giants trainer Dave Groeschner escorts Tim Lincecum off the field at the end of a relief outing in Game 2 of the 2014 World Series. Groeschner acknowledged Lincecum’s hip injury, revealed the following season, ultimately affected the pitcher’s drive off the mound because “you have to use your lower half to generate power and throw. When you have an injury like that, it’s hard to do.” Matt Slocum ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dave Groeschner, the Giants trainer, acknowledged Lincecum’s hip injury ultimately affected the pitcher’s drive off the mound because “you have to use your lower half to generate power and throw. When you have an injury like that, it’s hard to do.”

But he is also loathe to pinpoint one specific cause for the rapid decline. I asked Groeschner if the innings simply caught up with Lincecum.

“Yeah, probably. They do on every starting pitcher,” he said. “Ultimately, I don’t know if anybody has the right answer about why he didn’t last longer. … There are a whole bunch of things that nobody will ever have a definitive word on. They’ll be able to say, ‘I think it was this. I think it was that.’ But nobody really knows.”

  Comments