Playing from scratch.
It’s not about his place in San Francisco lore, which is set in stone regardless of where his career takes him – statistically or geographically.
It’s not about his status as one of the few counter-culture icons in popular sports. For those of us who understand the place occupied by Tim Lincecum out in the fringes of unlikelihood that surround the seemingly ironclad core of baseball statistical certainty, the current slump of the Ace can’t help but feel like it’s calling into question the continued place in baseball of the unlikely itself. In a sport so dictated by the statistical certainty of repeatable results, the unprecedented methods of success live always in the shadow of an expected early expiration date.
Success that defies conventional wisdom may exist, but it is expected simply not to be able to last.
This is therefore, in so many ways, is the fear of losing what makes baseball so special in the realm of professional sports; because while it will likely always take a certain kind of body to provide pass blocking in the NFL, there has always seemed possible a greater degree of variation from the conventional wisdom of what it takes to be a professional baseball player. Baseball’s history has shown us that there are many more creative ways to succeed than to simply be built for it. Sure, there are people born with great ability – athletes that come into a set of conditions and are perfectly suited to thrive. After all, highlight videos and stats leaderboards are populated most prominently by broadshouldered powerhitters Kemp-ing and Ortiz-ing balls over the walls with classic strokes and stances too big for the box. These larger-than-life Hamiltons and Pujolses are built from the ground up to play the game as it’s been played for over a century. They look like a hundred years of sluggers, built to fit, comfortable in succeeding just as countless others have before them.
But in baseball, unlike other sports, this is not the whole story. Beyond and between the classic base-stealers, hard hurlers and classic bombers that the league can see coming a mile away, outside the semi-rigid laws of baseball in practice, there are rogue methods of play employed sometimes by single individuals. There are your Ichiros, who’s approach was created not to best fit the game at large, but was created to best fit one player; players who’s approaches are so unorthodox they could literally only work for the person who created them, and who’s ability is doubted as long as it possibly can be until enough success inspires even the most reluctant critics to throw up their hands and admit: it works.
When Kemp hurls a homerun over the wall in center field, the ball looks like a flicked-away fly. He makes it seem as though little to no effort goes into his swing. It looks as though it is only impatience that drives his stroke; like most power hitters, he seems almost bored with his feats, as though baseball was simply something he was born to do. In less biased (or resentful?) terms: he simply makes it look easy.
Conversely, when manic and comparatively minuscule Dustin Pedroia coaxes one out of the park, it is with what seems to be an almost desperate effort. His body contorts, his center of gravity veers in a wild sling around his bat, his entire upper body is utilized in a bizarre torque mechanic which wrenches just enough necessary power to shove the ball far enough to earn the fourth base. He has written, from scratch, a way to hit a home run. If anyone else tried to imitate him, they would look foolish and fail. His method was created to coax power out of one specific body, one specific pair of hands.
These are players who’s innate ability does not appear fit anywhere in the general model of baseball. Seeing that they are without a niche within the game, they are compelled to create a method of play that allows them to not just to participate, but to compete at the highest level. There is something powerfully appealing about this, the idea that any player can find a way to coax out their potential regardless of how unsuited they seem to be to the venue at hand.
To observers of the game, these players stand as a reminder that no understanding of the sport is anywhere near complete, and that the realm of possibility in baseball is far wider than we tend to realize.
Probably the most famous contemporary example of this is Tim Lincecum. Lincecum is an athlete with an approach so unlike any other within his sport, he instantly earned his famous nickname that drew attention to his place apart. Placed next to all the other success stories in baseball, he is a freak: a player who forced a place for himself in major league baseball, creating from scratch the opportunity some seem born with. Lacking the ability to pitch in the way that has proven successful, he built a new one. It is important for us to feel that this continues to be possible.
With Lincecum, also, the story of his rise endears itself moreso to the fan than that of any other player, in that his ingenuity was a product of a shared effort with an unlikely architect. Unable to become a great fastball thrower (or even major league starter), Lincecum now famously set about working with his father to find a way to produce the force and movement necessary to compensate for the limitations of his unlikely pitcher’s frame – to find a method somewhere in his little body that would allow him unexpectedly circumvent the stoneset laws of how to play baseball.
And this is precisely why his slump is more painful for fans of the game than say, that of Albert Pujols. Pujols is playing an old game. We know there is a place in baseball for him. We know he won’t continue to fail to live up to the expectation surrounding him. For Lincecum, his stumbles have inevitably caused the greater baseball community to worry whether his invented place in baseball has existed on borrowed time from the beginning; enjoying a truncated life before being chased down by inevitable value of conventional wisdom. Essentially, the irresistible question is this: What if there simply is no longer room for him in the moving parts of major league baseball?
Well okay, that’s one heck of an alarmist point of view. And no, this is likely not the end. And yes, most of his important numbers suggest that this is in fact nothing more than a slump. But that’s not how it feels. We feel there is more at stake when a (for lack of a less cliche term) a self-made player finds himself in the weeds. Beyond a failure of execution, there is a fear that it may be that always dreaded eventuality – a final failure of effectiveness.
In the monumental sample size afforded by baseball, all we can ever do is wait and see. Most of us have our money on this year’s worry fading eventually into memory in between the past and future years of success on the mound for Tim Lincecum. Regardless of last year or next, however, we watch his stumbles closer than we do our more conventional players, and hope for the turn back to success. Baseball continues to stand apart from the other professional sports as a podium for ingenuity and invention - where amateur physicists like Lincecum, Pedroia and Ichiro are able compete alongside goliaths like Fielder and Kemp.
More even than fans of his are afraid of how many games their man may lose, they are afraid of what major league baseball could stand to lose if this remarkable run is over. This nothing less than our hope that there will continue to be a place for unconventionality in the baseball universe.