The San Francisco Giants begin the month that houses the most implication-heavy baseball of the season with a four and a half game lead in the NL West. They lost their star outfielder, Melky Cabrera, to suspension. Their division rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have gotten serious, taking on hundreds of millions of dollars in payroll to acquire Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto from the Boston Red Sox. During these trying and important times, the Giants turn, once in every five days, to Tim Lincecum. They do so with equal doses of hope and melancholy, remembering the past glories of the twine-built right-hander and wishing for something close to a return to form. Lincecum has been downright bad this year, but this former symbol of a city, the man who said in a celebratory interview following the 2010 World Series that he hoped there was “smoke in the air” in the Giants’ municipality, remains attached, in the fan’s imagination, to his former self. Now, in 2012, Lincecum is a case study in the ballplayer’s descent, evidence of both baseball’s callous thievery of its heroes’ gifts and its lasting ability to lure belief from what should inspire resignation.
Even at his Cy Young-winning best, Lincecum was a pitcher to be loved, not admired. He cut a skinny, runtish figure, with a dopey smile and his famous stoner-long hair. His delivery – during which he seemed to stretch every bone and ligament as far as they would go and then, upon release, snap them compact, slinging his whole self over his planted left foot – was a refuge from the armies of pitching coaches marched out at the game’s every level to eradicate oddball motions and whittle away at unnecessary variables. He possessed excellent pitches, a sharp rising fastball balanced by his personal specialty, a cruel changeup most effective when posing for left-handed batters at the low-and-away corner before, as the bat dropped, skipping easily away towards the dirt. But where the majority of the game’s late-2000s aces – Santana, Sabathia, Lee – called fresh patterns of pitches into existence with each batter, working with care and consideration, Lincecum seemed to subsist on the fool’s fortune, that cyclonic delivery and the potency of his tools allowing him space for strategic imperfections. One imagines the game’s other great pitchers feeling like would-be valedictorians reprimanded for the slightest behavioral breach while the infamous ne’er-do-well, loose and lucky, managed to skirt repercussions at every turn.
His poorest pre-2012 season even came with the ultimate fortunate ending, as Lincecum and the Giants, far from the best team in baseball in a year that saw the Phillies, Rays, Twins, and Yankees finish with superior records, rode excellent pitching, Buster Posey, and Cody Ross’ suddenly preposterous ability to homer on pitches down and in to a 2010 World Series victory. Fate once again smiling upon this San Francisco icon, Lincecum pitched the Series’ deciding fifth game, puzzling the Texas Rangers’ mighty bats over eight innings and outdueling the Rangers’ rented ace, Cliff Lee. Though Lincecum, by this time, could no longer push his fastball into the high-90s, he worked the plate’s edges with a taunting confidence, staying just out of the batters’ reach. The image that sticks: Lincecum, in the fourth inning, shuffling fastballs under Josh Hamilton’s hands and past his knees, Hamilton flicking strikes foul until Lincecum chose his changeup, setting it where he wanted and, when Hamilton swung, tugging it like a dollar on novelty store invisible string. Perhaps no pitch has ever been so well suited to exploit one particular swing, Hamilton’s looping motion flummoxed by the change’s last-second dart. A few more innings of easy trickery, and the Giants claimed the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Despite a still-eroding fastball, Lincecum pitched almost as well in 2011 as he had during his Cy Young years, posting a 2.74 ERA and suggesting that the Giants had happened upon organically what the Philadelphia Phillies, in recent years, had tried to buy and build: a rotation with four aces, Lincecum and Matt Cain buttressed by the emerging duo of Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong. 2012, with the return of Posey from injury poised to ignite the sometimes anemic San Francisco offense, was to bring another pennant and then another October opportunity to follow master with master and frustrate the juggernauts.
Instead, Lincecum has pitched horribly, compiling his 5.21 ERA not with occasional disastrous turns but with consistent badness. Cain, Bumgarner, and Vogelson have rolled along, combining with a surprising offense to hold the NL West lead as September arrives, but Lincecum seems to weigh on the collective San Franciscan psyche, cameras finding him in the dugout when he’s not pitching hooded and in uneasy repose, giving viewers a gloomy glimpse of their worn hero. When he pitches, one realizes that there’s no mystery to his descent; he is just worse in about every capacity. The fastball catches more of the plate than it should, or it misses by more than it should, too wide a margin to coax any swings. The changeup hangs and gets belted. The delivery that had been a brave stand against regulation in a time of millisecond-splitting video analysis is now, to armchair analyst and pitching coach alike, frustratingly undiagnosable, the faulty cog impossible to find among the once-charming peculiarities.
That San Francisco has subsisted without Big Time Timmy Jim’s cartoon triumphs somehow adds to the sadness. If the team had fallen with Lincecum, his myth may have had a more pleasing arc, that of the small, weird battler who lifted his club to the ultimate success and, exhausted by the effort, faded as quickly as he arrived, the team’s triumphs diminishing along with his fastball. But two years removed from playing the iconoclasts on the game’s biggest stage, the Giants have moved towards a more common brand of good baseball in recent years. They have shored up the formerly weak-link offense. They traded, before this season’s deadline, for Philadelphia’s Hunter Pence, an attainable but useful outfielder who the Phillies themselves had acquired in just last season’s deadline as they dreamed of perpetual and seamless growth and who they presently pass to the Giants as a sort of baton of organizational fortitude. Cain rolls along at the front of the rotation, steady and sure. It seems, at times, as if this shift towards convention has pushed Lincecum to the periphery, as if he cannot be himself in a situation too well-set. He joins another former West Coast icon, rusty curveball wizard Barry Zito, at the bottom of the rotation, the Giants carrying with them a sort of museum of goofy pitching artifacts, token reminders, on a team fast becoming indistinguishable from its competitors across the National League, of the old San Francisco weirdness.
Still, something in Lincecum inspires hope. He does not seem obsolete, just miscalibrated. The changeup, when well located, retains its effectiveness, the delivery its capacity to disorient. He is 28 years old, an age when most pitchers reach their primes, not fall out of them. The years to come will tell whether 2012 is the first in a string of disasters or a 200-inning hiccup.
But most importantly, for the believer, he remains Tim Lincecum. He carries himself as he ever did, traipsing purposefully around the mound as if to counteract both his scrawny build and his laid-back reputation in one fell swoop, a cram session in batter intimidation. The same number 55 adorns his back; the same long black hair spills from his cap. And though discovery has its place in baseball lore – Mike Trout, in combining excellence with novelty, has electrified the season – no desire is more potent in a game so tied to memory than the desire for the return of something lost. So as evidence mounts against us, warning us of an end that may already have come, we wait for Lincecum to be a great goofball again.