Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2018

A Familiar Wish, An Even More Familiar Outcome

Maybe it was the timing. After all, in the depths of the offseason, fans hungry for news will quickly turn the smallest grain of information into a full-blown story, one complete with a happy ending. Or maybe it was the content of that first photograph that popped up on Instagram last December. Posted by Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino with the one-word caption “timmy,” it immediately went viral. That wasn’t just because the snapshot showed two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum wearing a baseball glove and obviously throwing again, but also because the pitcher dubbed “The Freak” due to his ability to generate so much heat from such a wispy frame was clad in a sleeveless workout shirt and looked to be in the best shape of his life, with bulging biceps and a ripped physique. With only the photograph to go on it was easy to imagine an odds-defying comeback by a beloved hero.

It was easy, in short, to ignore the fact that Lincecum had last been a top of the rotation starter in 2011. Easy to forget that after going 10-15 with an ERA over 5.00 and an ERA+ of just 68 in 2012 he was relegated to the Giants’ bullpen for the postseason. Two months after Ottavino’s post, Lincecum threw for scouts from fifteen teams in Arizona. His fastball was clocked in the low 90s, a significant improvement over his short-lived comeback attempt in 2016, when it averaged less than 88 mph in nine starts with the Angels. That uptick allowed one to gloss over his 2-6 record in a Los Angeles uniform, with an ERA of 9.16 and a meager ERA+ of only 44.

Two teams offered Lincecum contracts after his February showcase. But one of those franchises was the Dodgers, and after spending the first nine years of his career and winning three rings with San Francisco, Lincecum couldn’t bring himself to sign with his old team’s archrival. So he inked a one-year deal for $1 million and reported to the Texas Rangers training camp in Surprise, Arizona. There he said all the right things, telling a reporter from USA Today that he was attempting another comeback because “the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I care about the game so much. It’s part of my identity.” Lincecum’s intention was to transition to a relief role, and he was working on pitching on back-to-back days. “I had a lot of options what to do with the rest of my life, but baseball is all that I’ve known. I want to do whatever I can to keep my career going, no matter how much time I have left in the game,” he said in the same interview, adding “really, I just want to go out on my own terms.’’

Such is the wish of every athlete in all our games, but the sentiment is understandably most fervent among the handful of players who breathe the rarefied air at the very top of their sport, at Tim Lincecum has. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs while still in high school, but elected to go to college rather than turn pro. Two years later Cleveland tabbed Lincecum in one of the drafts later rounds, but he again declined the offered contract. Finally San Francisco made Lincecum the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft, and gave him a signing bonus of more than $2 million, at the time the largest the franchise had ever paid to an amateur player. Less than twelve months later he made his major league debut, fanning all three Phillies who stepped to the plate in his first inning as a big league pitcher. In July of that 2007 rookie campaign Lincecum went 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA.

The following season he won the first of back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards, collecting 23 of 32 first place votes and easily outdistancing runner-up Brandon Webb. He led the league in traditional statistics like winning percentage (.783, a record of 18-5), complete games (4) and strikeouts (265), as well as advanced metrics such as ERA+ (168) and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.62). He continued to mow down batters as his career progressed, recording 261 strikeouts in 2009, 231 in 2010, and 220 in 2011. The first two totals again were the best in the senior circuit. In 2011 he matched up against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw four times, evoking memories of the days of Juan Marichal versus Sandy Koufax. Los Angeles came out on top in all four meetings, but the scores told the real story – 2-1, 1-0, 2-1 and 2-1. In the last of those meetings the two combined for twenty strikeouts.

Along the way he became a fan favorite. The San Francisco faithful loved his flowing locks and his willingness to interact with fans. They marveled at his unorthodox delivery which features an especially long stride into the pitch. Most of all, they watched in awe as a pitcher generously listed as 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds flung 99 mile per hour fastballs past opposing batters.

But in 2011 he complained of soreness in his knees. He purposely lost thirty pounds during the offseason, which seemed to affect his mechanics. His fastball speed declined and his control suffered. Over the remainder of his time with the Giants there would be flashes of the familiar greatness, including a pair of no-hitters, both against the San Diego Padres. But there were also steadily declining statistics and a diagnosis of a degenerative hip injury and surgery that cut short his 2015 season.

In a reminder that baseball remains a business, the only team Lincecum had ever played for showed no interest in resigning him after his contract expired at the end of 2015. Instead he signed with the Angels, and after rehabbing from the hip surgery made his 2016 debut in mid-June. He threw six strong innings against the Oakland A’s, and hopes rose. But each successive outing in a Los Angeles uniform got worse, and in August he was designated for assignment.

Then, after Lincecum spent more than a year out of the public eye, came Ottavino’s Instagram post, the subsequent pitching showcase, and the contract with the Rangers. Had Lincecum been granted his wish of going out on his own terms, that would have led to a successful few years as a mainstay of the Texas bullpen.  Perhaps someone will write a screenplay in which that takes place.

In real life, Lincecum’s spring training preparations were cut short by a serious blister on his right middle finger. After starting the season on the disabled list, he had been rehabbing in the minors. This week his 30-day rehab period was up, and Texas had to either add Lincecum to its 25-man roster or let him go. In ten relief appearances for the AAA Round Rock Express he had posted a 5.68 ERA and struck out just one more batter than he walked. That was not a resume that warranted a spot on the big league roster, so on Tuesday the Rangers released the 33-year-old. Tim Lincecum is heading back to the West Coast, at least publicly intent on continuing his throwing program in hopes of attracting interest from some other franchise. But in stark contrast to Lincecum’s, and every athlete’s wish, the final stanza of the old T. S. Eliot poem inevitably comes to mind:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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