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Why he’s our freak—not anyone else’s
Steve Kettmann |Photos: Ryan Schude | June 18, 2010
* Because he's a poet and doesn't know it
There is an intoxicating, stripped-down intensity that comes over Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum when he starts talking about something he loves. Maybe 10 minutes into our half-hour interview in the Giants’ clubhouse during spring training, we are talking about the fact that he’s seen a therapist. Then I ask him—prefacing the question with “I don’t want to sound too San Francisco,” knowing that I do—whether he feels like he’s still “growing.”
“Oh, yeah!” he responds. Then he begins to riff, cocking his head and fixing his gaze in the middle distance, as though he’s searching. “Everyone’s like, ‘Someone is going to get up to the major leagues and his head is going to change.’ But I’m like, ‘If he was working a regular job, he’d change.’ People change through time, regardless. Who is to say what those changes are from? We change because we have to. It’s the way of humanity.”
Lincecum’s words, at first slow and easy, pick up speed as his completely ad hoc hunt for his truth gains momentum. At 26, an age when most of us still have plenty of years left for bouncing off the walls, Lincecum already seems to know himself and, for the most part, to accept himself. He’s not afraid to delve into his inner workings right in front of you. I think he has the soul of a creative person, someone living day to day with quirky fire and honesty—he’s open to wherever his mind decides to take him. As we talk, he has a plate of food in front of him. But he’s not thinking about that while he’s charging through this tangent about growing and changing. “I guess I think you either get in the canoe with your oar and control your boat,” he says, “or get into it and let the current take you. I’m kind of in between. I want to be able to enjoy the ride but don’t want to be swept away by it. I don’t want to be overwhelmed; I want to see what’s going on.”
Here he has to stop himself, flashing his great grin and observing, neither apologetically nor abashedly, “I use a lot of metaphors.”
* Because he is fascinated by the way the mind works
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that, as someone who played 11 years of basketball (point guard) and 9 of football (looking scrawnier and way younger than everyone else), as well as all the baseball, Lincecum has not been known as a guy who blazes an intellectual trail. He has such extraordinary physical abilities that we call him “the freak” and assume he will keep pulling down Cy Young Awards like grapes (he’s earned two in his two full years). Out of his uniform, he has a rippling, sleek-muscled Bruce Lee quality; there’s nothing skinny about this guy. But what truly gives him a shot at being one of the best Giants pitchers of all time—even ahead of Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry—is that he’s figured out that nothing matters in baseball and in life as much as mental strength.
But there’s no need to rush to make the point. In fact, let’s chill out a little at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, cofounded by teacher and author Jack Kornfield on a 400-acre complex just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, in Marin. Lincecum mentions it out of the blue, fascinated. The center is about 15 miles from his rented house in Sausalito, with its Ping-Pong table and predictably spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline through the picture windows. Spirit Rock offers mostly silent residential retreats, plus regular classes and workshops in Buddhist Insight Meditation. A place like this could help anybody focus, just as Buddhist meditation helped Kerouac and his chums. Lincecum admits he needs that sort of help.
“I have bad days,” he says, almost visibly scolding himself for his emotions on the mound. “Maybe it looks like I’m physically controlling myself well, but mentally it doesn’t feel healthy.” So, to help himself, he has toyed with meditation. “I’m just starting to get more into it,” he says. “It’s becoming more aware of yourself, and I want that.”
On other days on the mound—days when he is impossibly dominant—Lincecum looks like a young man who has found the one place where he feels anchored and centered and utterly at ease. “Pitching gives me something that I can be extremely focused on,” he says simply, ”that I care about extremely.” That’s the purity of mind he covets so much that he’s open to anything that may help him grasp it. When I tell him about a spot in the central highlands of Bali where people believe you can rinse yourself in holy water and cleanse yourself of all the bad thoughts that built up the year before, he goes with the idea of belief. “It’s like, you really don’t know how good meditation can be if you don’t try it,” he says. “Before you try it, you’re like, ‘What the heck is this? Sit here and think about my problems and it’s going to help?’ Then you try it and, no, it’s about looking at it objectively, from an outside perspective, not becoming emotional—looking at it as opposed to getting involved in it. Just, it is what it is.”
* Because he can play Wii Frisbee Golf for days
Dave Righetti and the others charged with protecting Lincecum’s future really mean it when they talk about the importance of letting him enjoy himself. “This is not a death march,” says Righetti, who did his own turn as a young phenom and made his mark in the big leagues. Now he has a leathery solemnity as the longtime Giants pitching coach. “This is baseball. It’s fun. There is a time to pay attention to detail—you need good habits. The arm will gradually go backward. Every guy in the history of the game has lost his stuff, and you have to have those other things built up—and I know that’s my job. But other than that, I want Tim to have fun and be himself.” What that means for Lincecum is this: Focus, let mind wander, repeat.
“I do everything like on a binge,” the pitcher tells me. “I get stuck on a video-game console just forever. I’ll listen to a song over and over again.” He’ll listen to Robin Thicke’s fourth album, Sex Therapy: The Experience, or Lil Wayne, or Outkast, “like, 15 times” in a row, he says. “It’s just kind of the way I’ve been.” So pitching is perfect for him, obviously. “You’re only out there half an inning at a time, you get your break, you take that extreme focus off and then turn it back on, take it off, turn it back on.”
Another good break comes between games: four days off to screw around with the guys in the clubhouse and hang out with friends playing FIFA, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and, yes, the only hippie video game, Wii Frisbee Golf. Though Lincecum is not the goofball that potheads might like to imagine—in their fantasies, he’s the athletic genius who, when he’s not on the mound, hides out in his pad channeling Tommy Chong—he does work hard to keep things as light as possible. Otherwise, he says, “you start getting down on yourself. After every start that I’ve had, I say, ‘Try to take out something positive,’ whether it’s a bad game or a good game. Because when I take it too serious, something messes up my mental approach.” I think of Buddha’s saying: “When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
* Because anywhere else, he'd just look wrong
The idea of Lincecum in, for example, Cardinal red, with a Tony La Russa–imposed crew cut, seems truly offensive. It would be like putting a pair of khakis on Michelangelo’s David or telling Jackson Pollock to paint something recognizable.
* Because he doesn't do pablum
When Lincecum appeared in court after his pot bust during the off-season in Vancouver, Washington, everyone expected the star to drone on dutifully about how he’d never look at a joint again. But he showed up with no statement for the judge. “I think his lawyer was a bit aghast,” says journalist Pete Danko, because Lincecum wouldn’t deliver something canned. (Plus, Danko says, Lincecum likely thought the whole thing was ridiculous. The crime involved a baggy of pot.)
In our interview, I cheerfully ask Lincecum, “Do you read much?” “No,” he drops without an instant of hesitation, as if he were sitting on a changeup and could line it back up the middle with an effortless snap of the wrist. “I don’t really like reading.” There’s not a shred of self-reproach in his voice. The ballplayers I’ve talked to over the years would never dream of answering this way; they’d fend me off by saying “Sure, the comics” or “Do dirty magazines count?” Or they’d just grunt and wave me away. But Lincecum takes the question seriously and answers truthfully, completely free of airs. I love that: a poetic soul who doesn’t read.
* Because he is our kind of rockstar
As recently as a decade ago, any self-respecting young player on the road might have felt like it was his mission to close down the bars every night. Times have changed. It’s different being a celebrity in an era when people everywhere have phones with cameras. “It’s like they have way too easy access, just to get something of you,” Lincecum says. “The way the media is, everybody knows everything about anybody. You can find out anything.” He’s describing the way he used to stop off in spots that had the right sort of feel—the Ambassador on Geary, or Bar None on Union—where he’d go with friends and enjoy himself the way anyone would and could. He’d “play beer pong or sit up at the bar and bullshit with somebody,” he says. And now, not so much. “You’re used to walking out into public and you don’t get seen. Then the next day you get seen, and you’re like, ‘What the heck?! This totally changes everything!’ Because it’s like, do I want to deal with that? I just want to be able to go to In-N-Out Burger and get my three cheeseburgers and my fries with a shake and just go in and get out. It’s called In-N-Out. But I’ve had times where I walk in there and I can’t get out. The second you do get noticed, it’s like: Here we go.” He hides out on the road, too, starting movies (he can’t make it through most), talking to his good friends on the phone, or playing video games. “I’m valuing my time away from the field more,” he says. “I try to slow it down as much as I can. Though it still does get overwhelming.”
Mind you, Lincecum isn’t whining about drawing such big mobs that he needs a police escort to sign autographs. He’s just talking honestly about the head trip someone in his position goes through, as he tries to stay himself and not turn into the kind of asshole none of us wants him to become. I know this because, after saying all of the above, he catches himself with a wan, wry grin, then says, “I’ll say it this way: It’s a position I’d rather be in than not.”
* Because if he gets down on himself, he can always call his therapist
I don’t ask Lincecum too many questions about this, partly because I can just imagine the eye-rolling that sort of thing would inspire in certain quarters. Then there’s the fact that it’s personal. I don’t want to know what he talks about with his therapist. I know that his parents split up and his mother left the house when he was a junior in high school, and that must have been very hard. But I wouldn’t ask a great painter or a great guitarist that question, so I don’t ask Lincecum, either.
But I am interested in how he knows more about who he is and what’s required to play in the big leagues than players who’ve spent a dozen years in the bigs. He seems to sense things: for example, that this whole amazing ride of being a superstar—that’s just one possible future. A baseball career, like a baseball season, like a life, can veer all over the place. That’s true even if you’re as talented—and as focused—as this kid with a face like the buddy in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Tim Lincecum is a work in progress. Just how brilliant a pitcher he’s going to be on a given day—there is some ebb and flow to that. But that’s sports. What makes me sure he’s a force of nature, one to savor and enjoy like other great Bay Area landmarks, is this restless itch he has to keep exploring himself. At the end of our interview, he tells me he wants to study psychology someday when he goes back to school. “Because it’s so crazy—the powers of the mind, everything you’re capable of that we don’t even know of. It’s stupid!”
Steve Kettmann, a former San Francisco Chronicle Oakland A’s beat writer, conceived and edited Game Time, a collection of Roger Angell’s baseball writing, and authored One Day at Fenway, all about a single game between the Red Sox and the Yankees. He lives in Berlin.