Lincecum’s Giant motivation: Bigger than most
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – No one doubts him now. For the last decade, Tim Lincecum(notes) has listened to people question his height, his weight, his pitching motion, his durability and his future. He gorged on any disbelief, lived to prove people wrong and today parries any uncertainty with a Cy Young Award in each hand. He is baseball’s best pitcher.
So, yes, no one doubts him now. And this is a problem. Every great athlete needs a go-to groundswell of motivation. It may be money. Or family. Or the know-nothing high school coach. It may be real, it may be perceived, but it always acts like a positively charged atom, drawing on a negative for balance.
Lincecum’s is gone, and his greatest struggle this season will not be finding the zip that escaped his fastball late in the San Francisco Giants’ 2009 season or locking in the perfect break on his curveball. He needs to discover something new to drive his immense talent, because following his second start of the spring Thursday, he sounded nothing like the Lincecum who won the 2008 Cy Young.
On the afternoon of that victory, he said: “People have been doubting me my whole life. It’s nothing new. It’s not one of those things where I’m going to hold it against them. If they’re going to doubt me, then let them watch and see what the end result is. I don’t let them bring me down any more than they used to.”
After Seattle knocked him around for four runs in 2 2/3 innings Thursday afternoon, Lincecum fielded a query about his size and offered the following reply: “Whatever. It’s getting to the point where it’s like, ‘What does it do for you, Tim?’ It used to motivate me. It still motivates me, but it gets to the point where I’m tired of dealing with it.”
Lincecum was equally dismissive of a question about his grudge against the Mariners, the team that overlooked him five years ago in the amateur draft despite his growing up in suburban Renton and spending three years at the University of Washington, six miles from Safeco Field. Nine teams passed on him, including Seattle, which this offseason traded its selection from that year, right-hander Brandon Morrow(notes).
“That draft was in 2006, and it’s 2010 now,” Lincecum said. “Morrow’s in Toronto, so it doesn’t even matter anymore, right? I don’t even think about it. It’s to the point where I’m not even thinking about it anymore. They’re just another team.”
Look, it’s understandable Lincecum doesn’t want to talk about the same subjects ad nauseam. It gets tiresome. By now, though, he ought to understand how important they are to him. Standing 5-foot-11 isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it defines him. Weighing 170 pounds after a big meal gives him the sort of Everyman character that makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable. His homemade delivery, crafted by his mad-genius dad Chris, isn’t some fanciful freak show. It’s art and science, two divergent disciplines, blended into one perfect form.
And if Lincecum still has these doubts at his disposal, nearly three years after he threw his first major-league pitch, he needs to milk every ounce of motivation he can, even if it means manufacturing their true depth. Even if the Mariners’ regime that overlooked Lincecum is long gone – due in part, yes, to that very slight. He can’t forget what his dad said years later: “They didn’t pick him because they’re idiots.” Days, weeks, months, years – such strong feelings never abate.
Just because the rest of the world is now as comfortable with Lincecum as he has always been with himself doesn’t protect him from letdown. The pursuit of perfection alone cannot sustain elite athletes. Talent carries them only so far. And however transcendent Lincecum’s, its supplement – the extra-long bird he so happily flipped to everyone who called him short stack, twiggy and breakdown-in-waiting – was the oil that lubed his engine.
Hopefully, he’s got something in reserve, because Lincecum at his best is a rare talent, the antithesis of cookie-cutter pitchers churned out by travel-baseball factories. He did things his way, he refused to compromise and he won. The haters can eat his hardware. The Mariners are left with a relief pitcher named Brandon League(notes), best known in their clubhouse for getting mercilessly crushed by Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) for having his last name tattooed on his back like a uniform, and an outfielder named Yohermyn Chavez who makes sashimi look cooked.
Something pushed Lincecum this offseason to put even more muscle on his frame than in previous years. He was always lithe and strong, not some string bean whose pitches leapt mystically from his arm. The added mass has helped put a couple extra mph on his fastball this spring, and at 25, Lincecum believes he’s finally used to the 225-inning grinds the Giants demand.
“My body’s still adapting to playing professional seasons,” he said. “That’s still what I’m trying to learn to do.”
Lincecum, like all secure pitchers, treats spring training like a test kitchen. Winning a major award puts a crimp in any player’s offseason, and the publicity from his misdemeanor marijuana bust only lengthened it, so he’s working double time to find his rhythm. It’s why Lincecum doesn’t sweat the four runs. His curveball was tight, his fastball moving, his changeup great. Two of the runs he allowed were due to a Giants defense that could well be the major leagues’ worst.
He walked off the mound, head down and threw his glove in the dugout, then flipped his cap, and an hour later, it was all gone. Lincecum’s motivation was the season ahead, and that, plus the $23 million contract he just signed for the next two years, sufficed – for now.
“It’s me making pressure as opposed to being out there and saying hey, what I did in the past is in the past,” Lincecum said. “This is a new season. It’s what I want to focus on now.”
At least he’s consistent.
And if Lincecum sticks with that – that the past really is the past, forgiven and forgotten – then something must replace it, and soon.
So in the interest of seeing Lincecum at his finest, since neither C.C. nor Greinke nor King Felix can match him there, how about this to chew on: Cut that hair, dirty hippie.