At their best, sports are unscripted movies. Society can experience rich, complex, interwoven plots that reward their investment of emotion, time and money. There are clear protagonists and antagonists, although the roles are never concrete, and there are subplots of every shape and sort that can grab you, in case your team falls from contention and the main story of the year meets an unhappy ending.
My favorite stories are careers. I like to watch the arcs important players trace across the starscape of baseball history. In particular, I like stories that accord with familiar story structures. A career worth savoring has exposition, rising action, climax and anticlimax. It builds upon itself, and it rings true from beginning to end. It doesn’t forsake subtlety, but it leaves certain hints so that those watching closely don’t miss the crucial moments.
Saturday night was Tim Lincecum’s climax. It was his moment of consummation, although not coronation. It was a perfect microcosm of what Lincecum’s legacy will be, and it really swept me up.
It’s true that Lincecum already has two World Series rings at home, one of which the Giants won largely because Lincecum dominated at the front of the rotation. But neither of those championships felt like the climax for Lincecum. He wasn’t really about the team.
That isn’t to say he’s selfish; he isn’t. In fact, he seems outgoing enough, and his teammates universally like him. It’s just to say this: Lincecum is a self-made pitcher, or as much a self-made pitcher as a big-leaguer can be. He overcame biases against short right-handed starting pitchers and wacky mechanics to get to where he got to. He’s also stubbornly bet on himself, never taking the big-money, long-term extension even when the team put it on the table for him–twice. His insistence on independence borders on stupidity, and it may yet cost him money, but it’s very much a part of him, and no team accomplishment can capture that mentality.
Lincecum has also won two Cy Young awards, and was by general acclaim the best pitcher in baseball for a prolonged period. These plaudits also fail to define him, though. That was early. That was easy. Lincecum is more interesting, more complex, and worse than that. He has not been quite the same guy since 2010, and each year since then has been not a small, but a marked step toward mediocrity. He survives in the Giants’ starting rotation right now primarily because the team is thin there, has few alternatives, and knows how popular Lincecum is.
His peak was immediate, and it was brief. It has basically been as long since Lincecum was Lincecum as it was that Lincecum was Lincecum, if you see what I mean. While those awards and those statistics will make up his legacy, they are not the defining moments, and they are not the climax of the story.
No, this contest was the climax. This game carried the full color and texture of Lincecum. It began a slog, an uphill battle. Lincecum threw a ton of pitches in the first inning, nine to the first batter alone. From there, no one would have predicted the white-hot, sudden heat with which Lincecum’s talent torched the Padres through the middle innings. He fanned five straight batters at one point, and nine of 12. (He’d go on to fan 13 total Padres.) Then, at the end of the game, he looked mortal again, but he held on to deliver the moment, thanks in no small part to great defensive plays (Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval) and prudent positioning (Gregor Blanco).
Lincecum threw a total of 148 pitches, a wild and dangerous number, a rule-breaking figure. That’s Lincecum. His arm obeys no known principles. He never ices it; he never complains of soreness. Some pitchers break after firing a certain number of bullets. Other arms, though, stretch and soften, and just lose a bit of the zing that once made them so electric. It’s that, or some guys are just incurably stubborn about admitting when they’re hurt. Or that these hurlers’ slight tears and strains scar over more (or less) and remain usable, just suboptimal. Whatever the case may be, Lincecum has an apparent rubber arm. Part of the joy of that night was watching him exercise the greatest separator between him and other dominant starting pitchers.
The anticlimax comes next. That this sudden, ephemeral reenactment of Lincecum, Act I came in a season otherwise marking the end of many things for him–the end, as likely as not, of his career in San Francisco, the end, perhaps, of his career as a starter–helps us see clearly what this is, and what it isn’t. It’s not the end, not the valedictory moment that Randy Johnson had in his second stint with the Diamondbacks when he no-hit the Braves. It’s also not a true renaissance.
It’s just a reminder, a neat encapsulation, of the good and bad things Lincecum has been, and an illustration of a few inescapable truths about pitching.
Every pitcher pitches past the point at which pitching ceases to be easy, ceases to be painless, ceases to be possible, even, at the level to which they’d become accustomed. (Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.) Pitchers are supposed to be wrung for every ounce of value they can offer, and often, that means using them up by some age far short of the one at which prideful men feel comfortable retiring. The reason guys do that–the reason, basically, that Lincecum didn’t retire after a 2012 season in which his ERA was over 5.00–is that, every now and then, the game repays what you give it, even repays it many times over. (Another reason is money. But that’s illustrative, too.)
That Lincecum walked four batters illuminates a discussion that has come into the mainstream recently, over whether no-hitters are worth the attention and praise they receive. It’s true that, by value, Lincecum’s performance was not even the best of the night. But that ignores the excitement of the egg race that is a pitcher pursuing a no-hitter. The fragility of the endeavor makes it engrossing. The sense of something building makes it thrilling.
Watching no-hitters unfold on TV is especially great, because the necessary cut from the center-field camera to the one that tracks any batted ball creates a protracted moment of tension, even terror. No haunted house on Earth can match the palpitations per minute one can get from watching a pitcher about whom one cares chase a no-hitter.
Now, for just that reason, no-hitters can be counterproductive. Everyone starts playing a bit tight. The game takes on unneeded complexity, and a false sense of cataclysm can creep into every missed strike call and every caught cleat in the infield dirt. Just so, while Lincecum has always been among the most exciting pitchers in baseball, the things that make him so–his leaping, lunging mechanics, how hard he once threw, his reliance on getting swings and misses–also make him vulnerable, and probably led him down the path to inexorable decline sooner than a more normal pitcher would have gotten there. That Lincecum would, after his aesthetics had come to far outstrip his objective value, throw a no-hitter is fitting and satisfying.
Lincecum might or might not move on after this season, but he won’t disappear, and he won’t return to the front of a contending rotation. The Tim Lincecum Era of Giants history ended, in a sense, on Saturday night, no matter what he adds to the team (or doesn’t), no matter what they do from here.
(It’s worth noting that although the game shouldn’t be viewed as a hairpin turn in the course of Lincecum’s career, it might be one in the course of the Giants’ season. They’re still within striking distance in a weak division as we hit the All-Star break.)
Although he will not be a free agent until season’s end, this performance, in one way, set Lincecum apart, made him an individual merely imposing on the larger team game. Thirteen strikeouts. One hundred forty-eight pitches. And when the final out nestled in the left fielder’s mitt, Lincecum’s back was to Buster Posey, who hoisted him joyously in the air. It was right on the money. Not the perfect ending, but the perfect climax for the story of Tim Lincecum.Next post: What is Matt Garza Worth? A Close Look
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