Marcos Bretón

Opinion: San Francisco Giants fans leave their hearts high on a hill with Tim Lincecum

Tim Lincecum is perhaps the most beloved member of the Giants, despite three straight years of ineffectiveness and a demotion to the bullpen. But when he’s on, as he was in shutting down the Dodgers in June 2012, above, he can still be devastating to opposing offenses.
Tim Lincecum is perhaps the most beloved member of the Giants, despite three straight years of ineffectiveness and a demotion to the bullpen. But when he’s on, as he was in shutting down the Dodgers in June 2012, above, he can still be devastating to opposing offenses.

Imagine you are a parent and your boy is pitching in a huge baseball game while your heart sinks or soars with his every move. Or maybe the boy on the mound is your brother, your dear cousin, your buddy from school, that sweet kid from your neighborhood or the guy you have a massive crush on.

It’s rare when varied cross sections of people – young and old, male and female – project such feelings onto one athlete.

Yet these are bonds that link San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum with a fan base that is coursing with emotion.

With World Series games set at AT&T Park on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Giants are aiming to do something they’ve never done in the 56 years they’ve played in the bay: Win a World Series in front of the fans at home.

Three victories over the Kansas City Royals this weekend would set off celebrations from Fresno to Oregon, with the Giants’ China Basin neighborhood in San Francisco as the epicenter.

Though he’s been on the periphery of the team’s quest for a third World Series title in five years – Lincecum essentially has been benched because his once-magical pitching skills have deserted him for a time – “Timmy” remains at the heart of it all.

Even on a franchise that brilliantly markets its big names, no other player embodies the fans’ emotional attachment to the Giants better than Lincecum.

When Lincecum appeared in Wednesday’s World Series game, social media went wild as it had the night before, when he didn’t participate in pregame introductions and fans clamored to know where he was. He was in the clubhouse, ill and vomiting on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he was one strike away from pitching two spotless innings when he suddenly seized up with back spasms.

“With Timmy, it goes beyond all normal connections,” said Brian Murphy, a longtime Bay Area sports writer who is now a hugely popular radio host. “The city hasn’t loved an athlete this viscerally since Joe Montana.”

Murphy’s assessment is dead on, except for one point. Montana, the legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback of the 1980s, and other Northern California icons had their moments of egotism and rarely ever were vulnerable in public.

Lincecum’s appeal is enhanced by a vulnerability so endearing to fans that spectators in the Giants sell-out crowds have resembled Little League moms and dads when he is on the mound and struggling. On many occasions in recent years, AT&T Park has rumbled with groans as Lincecum failed to find his target or gave up crushing blows to the opposition.

“A big appeal for me is that I was that geeky kid that played sports and tried hard,” said Nancy Bui-Thompson, a passionate Giants fan and a member of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District board. “He looks like that kid who looks like all of us and he made it big. It gives all of us hope.”

Lincecum’s success mirrors that of the Giants in that, because of his small size and unorthodox pitching delivery, he is an unlikely figure to have reached the pinnacle of his sport.

Likewise, the Giants are a team that few could have predicted to be challenging for a World Series title this year, given their perceived limitations in overall talent. Meanwhile, the fans’ love affair with Lincecum has only grown in recent years as the otherworldly mastery of pitching that he once possessed has waned.

Lincecum, 30, became the only Giants pitcher to twice win the Cy Young Award – the prize given for seasonlong pitching excellence.

Will he pitch tonight or this weekend? Is he injured? And if he does pitch, will he again become “The Freak” of nature whose slight stature mows down fearsome hitters? Or will he be a jumbled mess of lost confidence?

His is a story of exceeded expectations – just like his team.

When Lincecum first broke into the major leagues in 2007, he looked about 12 years old in a baggy big league uniform.

He was one of the smallest pitchers in baseball at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds – if that.

His appearance was ordinary, but his pitching was extraordinary. He looked childlike, but he decimated much larger men – his fluttering array of pitches made their knees buckle or made them back away from pitches that curled in trajectories that defied the laws of physics.

Umpires would yell “Strike three!” and hitters would stand agape as Lincecum strode off the mound to delirious cheering in the galleries at AT&T Park.

His appeal transcended baseball. Fans zeroed in on his boy-band look and long hair. “My cousin is in her 20s and she’s got the biggest crush on him,” said Beth Diebels, a Sacramento resident and longtime Giants fan.

In 2010, when the Giants broke a half century of futility by winning the World Series in Texas, Lincecum won the decisive game. The signature image of that moment was Lincecum on the shoulders of his teammates, his wild hair flowing in the wind.

When the Giants won a second World Series two years ago in Detroit, Lincecum had lost control of his pitching mechanics – and lost his spot in the Giants rotation. But he emerged as a reliever – a secret weapon who snuffed out opponents and played a key role.

This time around, Lincecum has truly fallen. Despite pitching two no-hit games within a year, his skills abandoned him. He lost his spot. The Giants included him on the roster this postseason, but he didn’t pitch from Sept. 28 until Wednesday.

With a fan base yearning for Lincecum to play a key role in another championship, his unknown physical status adds an air of mystery to the weekend.

“I’m such a believer in the cult of Lincecum, I believe he will be back,” Murphy said. “In front of the home crowd, it’s set up for another Tim Lincecum triumph … . It’s set up to be great theater.”

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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