Baseball is a funny game.
More than any American sport, it can be distilled into statistics and utterly divorced from flesh, blood, chin music, white home uniforms, road grays, grass, dirt, or clandestine beers smuggled into the ballpark in knee-high socks.
On the other hand, baseball, more than any American sport, can be wholly overtaken by rank sentimentality and ignorant traditionalism as grown men retreat into the womb of nostalgia.
Life is best lived somewhere in-between. Life is complicated. And, it turns out, so is Tim Lincecum. As he has grown less and less dominant, as he has aged out of prodigy status, as his statistics have declined, registering not only as subpar but among the league's worst — he has grown unhittable.
Last Wednesday, the San Francisco Giants starter no-hit the San Diego Padres, his second no-no against that squad in 11 months. Lincecum didn't throw particularly hard. He only whiffed six batters. He didn't require superlative defense behind him. He didn't need any lucky breaks.
In both 2008 and 2009, Lincecum won the Cy Young Award as the league's outstanding pitcher. Over that time, he was 33-12 — but wins never told the complete story for Lincecum. He struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings pitched, his fastball reached the high 90s, and he was overpowering in a way no one had been since the heyday of Pedro Martinez. He did all this with the physique of a bendy straw. His nickname was fitting: The Freak.
The Freak had unhittable stuff in every start. But, somehow, he was never unhittable.
Lincecum showed his imperfections throughout the Giants' 2010 championship year, but was, once again, masterful by the time the postseason rolled around. He pitched eight scoreless frames in the final World Series game, and was hoisted aloft by his teammates after the last out — an image seared into the retinas of millions of Giants fans who never thought they'd live to see the day. That was, in a sense, Lincecum's high-water mark. He would never be so consistently dominant again.
But baseball is a funny game.
In 2012, Lincecum lost more games than any other pitcher in the league, surrendered more runs than any other pitcher in the league, found himself relegated to the bullpen in the postseason — and thrived there. The team won another World Series, and a fan base steeped in the agony of cumulative failure reveled in cumulative success.
Last year, Lincecum trimmed his trademark flowing locks and showed up to spring training a dead ringer for Rachel Maddow. This failed to alter his poor form from 2012. And yet, on a balmy July night in San Diego, Lincecum no-hit the Padres in an electric, 148-pitch performance.
Last week, he entered Wednesday's game with an earned run average near 5. He was a break-even pitcher. And he not only tossed a no-no but made it look effortless. It was an outcome as unforeseen as Lincecum's chosen post-game attire of a centurion's helmet and a personalized U.S. soccer jersey.
In an era when so much is scripted, sports are delightfully unscripted. And little is less scripted than Lincecum. Following his moment of triumph, he told reporters, "I'm going to go to my house and drink a little bit. Can I say that? I guess I can."
He can. He did. And that's why we watch the games. That's why we watch Tim Lincecum. JE