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Nightengale: Why Tim Lincecum Can’t Give Up Baseball

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Tim Lincecum last pitched in the majors for the Angels in 2016. Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Tim Lincecum climbs into his black Porsche Turbo 911 this early afternoon, pulls out of the Texas Rangers’ parking lot, drives past the security checkpoint, and there they are, waiting for him.

It’s a small group, maybe 11 people in all, some around Lincecum’s age and some old enough to be his parents, standing on the side of the road, frantically waving their arms.

They want autographs, some on the back of the vintage Lincecum jerseys they’re wearing, others on jerseys or T-shirts they’re clutching in their hands, and a few holding baseballs or magazine covers.

They are San Francisco Giants fans, whose team is playing this day 45 minutes away against their rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Scottsdale.

Lincecum hasn’t worn a Giants uniform in three years, and won his last big-league game 20 months ago, but remains an iconic figure in Giants folklore, an integral part of their three World Series championship reign.

“I’ve been really lucky to have fans of the person,’’ Lincecum says, “as opposed to just the player on a team. It’s always been that way.’’

It’s during this moment, signing the autographs, chatting and laughing with a group of strangers as if he has known them his whole life, that reminds Lincecum why he signed with the Rangers.

He signed a one-year, $1 million deal with Texas simply because he had only one other team wanting his services.

The Dodgers.

It made so much more sense to pitch for the Dodgers. It would have put him back in the National League West where he once won back-to-back Cy Young awards. Put him in a pitcher’s paradise at Dodger Stadium. Put him in a league with no DH. It even put him closer to his Seattle-area home.

He just could not do it.

“The Dodgers made a lot of sense,’’ Lincecum tells USA TODAY Sports. “But I felt if I went there, I was betraying myself in a way. It’s one of those things where my loyalty is with my heart there. I had to pick what was right with me and what I could live with.

“What do they say, once a Giant, always a Giant, right?’’

Lincecum, 33, knows it’s silly to have these feelings when this can be such a cruel business. The Giants twice could have signed him since he left in 2015. The Los Angeles Angels took the first shot at him a year later when the Giants had no interest, and once again the Giants passed on him, leaving him with the Rangers.

Besides, San Francisco isn’t even his home. He only visits to see his girlfriend of the past eight years, an assistant principal at a Bay Area school.

Still, it’s the Dodgers.

“I just think he didn’t want to tarnish his reputation that he earned in San Francisco,’’ says former Giants third base coach Tim Flannery, “in any way.

“Even if he wasn’t a San Francisco native, he sure acted like one. They accepted him with open arms because of his style, his greatness on the field, and who he was off the field.’’

Now, deep in the heart of Texas, a decade since winning his first of back-to-back Cy Young awards, Lincecum is trying to re-create himself.

Lincecum, who weighed as much as 205 pounds last year, is now at his college weight, a skinny but chiseled 160 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.

The days of him throwing 96-mph are gone forever, and so perhaps are his days as a starter. He told the Rangers before they signed him that he wanted to pitch out of the bullpen in a role he has never tried before. So, they constructed the contract where he can earn an extra $1 million by pitching 55 games this season, $2 million more by being the closer, and $500,000 if he wins the Comeback Player of the Year.

This is hardly about money, not after he earned $101 million in his nine-year career. Really, life was good, living comfortably in his home in Bellevue, Wash., near the shores of Lake Washington, contemplating what to do with the rest of his life.

Just when it looked like he was done with baseball forever, flaming out in a nine-start stint two years ago with the Los Angeles Angels (2-6 with a 9.16 ERA), the sport kept tugging at him. He found himself mesmerized watching games on TV, captivated by the World Series. Even if he had the desire to return, he wondered if anyone would want him.

 “I was battling with that process, constantly wrestling with it,’’ he says, “Do I need to stay in the game? Have I done everything I felt I needed to do?

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I care about (baseball) so much. It’s part of my identity.”

So here he is, in a foreign place, in a strange role, trying to prove he still can be a successful major-league pitcher. His slider, he says, is better than ever. His change-up has been overpowering, dropping straight down before it crosses the plate. Even his fastball is clocked at 90-92 mph.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get back to the body style I had before, or the flexibility,’’ he says, “I’m just trying to get as close to that as possible and work with what I got.’’

Lincecum, who has yet to appear in a spring-training game, says it’s too early to envision closing out a Rangers game. Yet, he’s convinced he can do it. He trained the entire past year as a reliever, feeling much more comfortable pitching on consecutive days. For now, he’ll aim to emulate John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley, Hall of Famers who were All-Stars as starters and closers.

Lincecum, talking about the transition, suddenly looked up in the lobby of the Rangers’ spring-training complex. It was special assistant Mike Anderson. They hadn’t seen one another since Lincecum’s showcase Feb. 15 at Driveline Baseball in Kent, Wash., when they first met. Now, here was Anderson re-living the surprise when Lincecum told him he wanted to be a reliever, and asking whether he wanted to set up a phone conversation with Smoltz.

Lincecum, introverted by nature, politely declined. Sorry, it’s just not his nature, he says. He can be a virtual recluse out of uniform. Last September, the San Jose Mercury News dispatched a reporter to search for him. The reporter stopped by his house twice, but Lincecum says he was at the gym each time, disturbed his privacy wasn’t respected.

“It was pretty awkward,’’ Lincecum says. “I knew he was looking for me, but I didn’t respond. I can’t stop from people doing what they a want to do, but I like my private time.

“You got your baseball life, and you kind of detach that and be a regular person. That’s the way I always approached it.’’

Even when Lincecum was the biggest sports celebrity in San Francisco, winning Cy Young awards, throwing no-hitters and celebrating World Series titles, he was rarely seen in the city. The only time he ever made news off the field was when he was pulled over in November 2009, and cited for possession of marijuana. The next thing anyone knew, the biggest craze in San Francisco were the $21.95 T-shirts: “Let Timmy Smoke.’’

“He would never go out in public,’’ Flannery said, “he just never liked any attention. He had never even gone to a concert. I told him, “Hey, let me take you to The Fillmore. We’ll sneak in the back, and no one will bother you. He just shied away from it.

“He was a recluse, in a sense, and that’s what created the mystique.’’

It was only a few weeks ago that Lincecum even bothered to have his Cy Young award trophies shipped to him, stored all of these years at his agent’s safe deposit box. They’re now on his floor, leaning up against a mirror, next to his bar. His three World Series rings remain stashed in a safe.

He’s still the same person he was in San Francisco, but feels different now, he says, after the recent passing of his brother, 37-year-old Sean. Sean had drifted away from the family, living a hard life style, Lincecum says, but their love never faded. It was the night of Feb. 22 when they received the phone call he and his family always feared.

Lincecum, who wore No. 55 with the Giants, now will switch to 44, his brother’s uniform growing up. He hopes to honor him on the field, too.

“Granted, I’ve gone through all of the questions asking myself whether this is worth it,’’ Lincecum says. “I’ve accomplished a lot, and the accolades are great. It helps you remember parts of the game, how you got there, and who was involved.

“But it’s hard when you feel like you’re on your way out. You start to have battles with thoughts you never did before. I tried to detach myself to gain perspective.

“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.

“Really, I just want to go out on my own terms.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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