SURPRISE, Ariz. – When Tim Lincecum shows up to spring training Wednesday morning, his contract finally official, the jersey in his locker will look different, and not just because of the Texas Rangers insignia it bears. Across the back, under his last name, will not be the No. 55 he has worn for a decade.
“I plan on wearing 44 this year in honor of my brother,” Lincecum said Tuesday. “That was his number.”
Sean Lincecum, 37 – “an idol of mine,” Tim said – died Feb. 22 after years of personal struggles. The sadness remains fresh for Lincecum, who will join the Rangers and once again try to reinvent himself, this time as a relief pitcher. And at 33, years removed from his last effective season, nearly a decade since his back-to-back Cy Young Awards, Lincecum worked himself into the sort of shape that allowed him to defy convention, subvert dogma about undersized pitchers and carve a unique place in baseball history.
All of it started with his father, Chris, an iconoclast who believed better pitchers could be built. He first tried with Sean, whose body type never could do what Tim’s lithe, flexible frame eventually would.
“If I was 2.0,” Lincecum said, “he was the 1.0.”
Now, following intensive training with Driveline Baseball, the pitching think tank near Lincecum’s Seattle home, he is ready to unleash Version 3.0 – or perhaps 4.0 or 5.0. There was the San Francisco Giants edition of Lincecum minus the glorious high-90s fastball with which he regularly blew away hitters, and then the Los Angeles Angels rendering that lasted nine miserable starts before being designated for assignment.
This Lincecum showed up to Driveline sporting a dad bod and unsure he would play baseball again after sitting out the 2017 season. Eight months of work melted the fat away, and when Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino Instagrammed a photo of Lincecum, it wasn’t just the contours of his muscles that resonated.
It felt like a Bigfoot sighting. All these years later, the notion of Lincecum connotes good times. The fastball, the strikeouts, the World Series rings, the hair, the weed – they cut against the uniformity of baseball to create a character unlike any before or since. Lincecum was the star in cult-hero clothing.
At Driveline, he found pieces of that old self, particularly the part that craves greatness. He’s a different person at a different point in his life. He nonetheless believes some of the same things that made him so good remain.
“I feel like it would be tough to give up the game,” Lincecum said, “when I’ve still got the ability to play it.”
After a showcase at Driveline in which his fastball hit 93 mph, its highest mark in years, two teams showed the most interest: the Rangers and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lincecum was extremely close to committing to sign with the Dodgers around the time of Sean’s death. He reconsidered, wondering, he said, if “I was betraying my heart.” His love for San Francisco remains palpable, and signing with their rival, even as the Giants weren’t prepared to offer him a major league contract, gave Lincecum pause.
In stepped the Rangers, impressed with Lincecum’s movement patterns – his surgically repaired hip, a mess when he arrived at Driveline, has regained flexibility and allowed him to realign his delivery – as well as his desire to pitch in a relief role. He did so with great success in the 2012 World Series, two years after he clinched a Giants championship against Texas as a starter.
“When I talked to him on the phone before we signed him, he actually apologized for it,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “It wasn’t a very sincere apology.”
He laughed, appreciative that Lincecum had chosen the Rangers, the million-dollar salary they offered and the opportunity, should he replicate the bona fides from his showcase, to close games for Texas. The Rangers, Lincecum said, “made me feel a little bit more warm and fuzzy inside,” and these days, that matters.
Recently, Lincecum has spent time thinking about what’s important, and though his career was well on track when his family was informed of Sean’s accidental death, it only reinforced the game’s place in his life.
“As a baseball family, I’m around my dad a lot, and even with my brother up until the point he passed, we were always talking about baseball,” Lincecum said. “It’s one of those things that it’s an itch in you. When you see everybody going down for spring training, you’ve got to migrate. I’ve got to head down. I don’t feel like it’s right if I’m not doing the same thing.”
So there he was on a back field at Surprise Stadium on Tuesday, wearing Rangers gear, getting loose with plyo balls from Driveline, eventually playing catch with Sam Briend, his trainer there. The hair wasn’t as long as it once was and the whiskers on his chin new, but so much looked familiar. Tim Lincecum was back, for himself and his brother, completely different, forever the same.
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