Tim Lincecum, Man and Myth

Tim Lincecum: Fan favorite, and depreciating asset.

Frank Victores/Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes in sports, the most fascinating stories are the ones below the surface.  As we get ready for Tuesday night’s Game One, there is no shortage of analysis of the Royals, the Giants, how they got this far, what we’ve learned, and who has the advantage.  (For all varieties of World Series breakdown, I can’t recommend all of the talented voices at Fox Sports’ microsite Just A Bit Outside highly enough.)  It’s easy, and fun, to immerse yourself in Madison Bumgarner’s dominance, Wade Davis’ emergence, the Royals contagious speed, and the Giants uncanny ability to just find a way.  But of course, you probably knew all that already. So let’s do something different.  Let’s talk about a player who may very well have no impact at all on how this World Series unfolds.

Let’s talk about Tim Lincecum.

Sure, the man they once called "The Freak" could be called upon in a critical situation, and pitch brilliantly.  Or, Bruce Bochy could look to Lincecum in a desperate moment, and be let down by his former ace.  But the reality is that the San Francisco Giants have made it past Pittsburgh, Washington, and St. Louis without calling on the 2-time Cy Young winner even once, and so it seems quite likely that Lincecum’s impact will be marginal at best. 

It’s truly remarkable that we’ve reached this point.  Just three seasons ago, Lincecum reportedly turned down a contract offer from the Giants worth more than $100 million.  Since then, Lincecum has slowly but steadily declined, reaching something you might call "journeyman equilibrium": Talented enough to remain in the rotation, but a mere shadow of the eye-popping, whirling dervish of a pitcher he once was.  Then the post-season comes along, and San Francisco can no longer afford to be average.  Which, if we’re being honest, is exactly what Lincecum has been for the last few seasons.  His wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference, for the last three seasons?  -1.7 in 2012, -0.6 in 2013, -0.7 in 2014.

That’s Tim Lincecum, struggling starter.  The numbers are undeniable, and they are not pretty.  And yet, that’s not how San Francisco sees him.  If you want proof, just check out this video, from July of last year, as the Giants’ crowd was treated to video of his no-hitter against the Pirates.

Yes, that crowd is reliving a no-hitter, a moment that any fan-base would revel in, but it’s undeniable that there’s something special, something powerful, about the ovation that Lincecum receives.  This is not a crowd going through the motions and saluting a struggling starter who somehow put together a magical nine innings.  No, this is a stadium paying a passionate and prolonged tribute to a man who was once the best pitcher in the game.  It’s a truly riveting mix of wistfulness for a player who’s just not the same anymore, and hope that maybe, just maybe, that one fine day will be the first step to turning back the clock, recapturing what he once was.

The 2013 no-hitter didn’t "restore" Tim Lincecum.  Neither did the second one he threw in June of this year, which required a lot less strain on the arm.  The reality is, there is no returning to the once-in-a-lifetime talent that Lincecum was when he first broke onto the scene.  And yet, the San Francisco faithful doesn’t seem to care.  They’ve kept rooting for him.  Through the inconsistency, through the frustration, through the fact that this year, he is making $17 million that could have been spent elsewhere, that could have paid a player, or players, who might have had a much more positive impact on this team.  But the Giants gave him that money, and Bruce Bochy continued to put him on that mound, and the fans continued to cheer him every step of the way.  It seems clear that no matter how he performs, Lincecum will be a local legend and crowd favorite, now and forever.

A return to the glory days seems unlikely for Lincecum, but that hasn’t cost him San Francisco’s support.

There are two ways of looking at athletes.  One is a cold, calculating, businesslike approach.  On some level, every man and woman who plays a team sport must be judged as an item on a spreadsheet.  What did they give us this year?  What can we expect the next?  How much will they cost us?  Can we do better?  If an owner, a general manager, or anyone who evaluates talent for a living, truly wants to do the best job possible, they must take history, and sentiment, and emotion out of the equation, and treat the people who play the game as cogs in a machine.  That sounds cruel, because on some level it is, but cruelty is part of the equation when it comes to the unforgiving world of professional sports.

But then there’s the other side of every sports fan.  The side that can’t help but remember just how much excitement, and passion, and joy Tim Lincecum brought to the team for so many years.  Sure, plenty of pitchers could have outperformed him this season, but those guys wouldn’t have the same investment in the city, they wouldn’t have conjured so many memories, they wouldn’t have been the Tim Lincecum that belongs to San Francisco.  It’s impossible to put a dollar value on that, but it’s clearly worth something, or else Tim would have ended up elsewhere a few years ago.

In a way, that’s the eternal struggle of the sports fan.  The player versus the person.  The cost versus the connection.  The numbers versus the nostalgia.  We see it play out all the time, across all sports.  When it comes to fielding a competitive team, handing a max contract to an aging player with a torn Achilles is sheer lunacy.  But when the player is Kobe Bryant, a star who helped raise banners and restore "Showtime", you begin to understand.  Getting thirteen years younger at the quarterback position is a pretty logical decision, but when the guy you’re pushing out the door is Peyton Manning, things get emotional, and complicated.  Heck, even one of the most beloved athletes of this era, Derek Jeter, wasn’t immune.  His 2010 contract negotiations got tense, and nasty, because there was no easy way to reconcile Derek Jeter the declining shortstop, with Derek Jeter the icon.

Tim Lincecum is simply the latest example of a dilemma that we’ll all grapple with as long as we build billion dollar industries out of mere games.  He’s currently pitching on a two-year contract, and at the end of 2015, the Giants brass will once again have to sit down and figure out how to put a dollar sign on a once in a generation phenom who has become just another pitcher.  There may not be a right or wrong answer, because some questions aren’t so black and white.  Like it or not, when those negotiations come, Lincecum will be just an arm, and a faded one at that.

That’s why I hope we do see Tim warming in the bullpen at some point in this series.  I hope it happens in San Francisco, so he can soak up the sound of a city that still worships him.  I hope he’s got enough left to help his team, even for just an inning, because that’s all it will take to stir up the memories once more.  I hope for all of this, because I’m objective, mawkish, grounded, and sentimental, all at the same time.

I’m a sports fan, which means a lifetime of contradictions.